Everything is connected: an 1849 diary of an ocean voyage across the Pacific; letters from a composer to his friend; a thriller about a murder at a nuclear power plant; a farce about a publisher in a nursing home; a rebellious clone in futuristic Korea; and the tale of a tribe living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, far in the future.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Most of Cloud Atlas, the time-traveling omnibus collaboration between the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, moves like a racing heartbeat. For almost three hours, six storylines—each one set in eras spanning from 1849 to a time referred to only as 'After the Fall’, some two-plus centuries into the future—pulse together as inextricably as the chambers and valves of a central organ. How is it, then, that a movie so rich with animal rhythms and spiritual aspirations ultimately lacks the lifeblood of human feeling?
You keep waiting for the dazzle to let up a bit, give you some room to settle and figure things out.
In its opening hour especially, when the mix-and-match onslaught has yet to even begin to cohere, Cloud Atlas’ churning montage style leaves room for little more than registering the various disguises worn by members of the exceptional cast (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, and Jim Sturgess) before we make another leap in time. The actors’ faces are thatched variously with latex noses, scars and wrinkles, and Asian eyes; caked with tribal paint and black-, yellow-, and whiteface; and either smoothed down or bulked up in reverse-gender drag.
You keep waiting for the dazzle to let up a bit, give you some room to settle and figure things out. But what feels like an opening salvo soon becomes a frantic first hour; our predisposition to traditional story structure is so ingrained that it takes that long to accept that there will be no acts or arcs in Cloud Atlas. And why should there be? The source material, David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, is famously abstruse in design. The trio dispatched with that design in their script adaptation, but their solution is no less ambitious.
I would probably have better luck describing last night’s half-disappeared dream fragments (something about an aquatic wreck in an amphibious vehicle and an old high school buddy, as I recall) than piece together the stories told in Cloud Atlas. What I can say is that the movie’s prodigious exercise in intertwining and time-wrinkling is bound by the same philosophy that animates the great social realist novels (like Middlemarch) of the late nineteenth century and the less-great hysterical realist films of the late twentieth century (like Magnolia): we are all connected, and the least acts of courage or goodness (or cowardice or malice) can reverberate down the ages, along a continuum of human becoming.
The ruin and remaking of the human race inflects each storyline, whether it details the plight of a young gay composer (Whishaw) in pre-World War II Europe or that of a Blade Runner-esque replicant (Bae) in 2144 'Neo-Seoul’. In each story the themes of freedom, imprisonment, and persecution take different but related forms; slavery and the repressive impulse recur, as does the established order’s tendency toward corruption and self-destructive inertia.
'There is an order to this world," one character tells us. That order would seem to require the measure of evil depicted in each Cloud Atlas story, but the film’s handling of human nature’s dark side is inconsistent, or at least unsubtle. There are unambiguous heroes and villains in each story, and for the most part the casting bears out the idea that the good are good and the bad are bad; even reincarnation can’t help shitty energy change its form. Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving, for instance, play some version of the devil in each of their respective stories; with one exception, Hanks is decency personified, as are Berry and Sturgess. Humanity’s moral continuum, it seems, does not extend to human individuals.
It’s tempting to talk about what’s missing from Cloud Atlas, if only because it’s so determined in its attempt to say and show everything. By that I don’t mean to be churlish—just surprised, I guess. Laughter and sensuality, for instance, are not part of this big book of life. Cloud Atlas evokes so many details so beautifully—from the way letters and books sustain and contextualise us to the striking period imagery—arranging them with a texture and agility that would make Vertov—and maybe even Hitchcock—swoon. And yet it’s the basics that are wanting; it contains too little of the essence it is designed to cherish. Instead of human warmth what pumps through this breathtaking animal is some cool and cooler stuff.