Cloud Atlas is a sextet; six stories with completely different genres, tones and content come together as a single unit. There is the 1849 seafaring and runaway slave adventure narrative, the 1936 tale of artistic ambition and damning reputation, the 1973 thriller in which a journalist takes on a nuclear power company, the 2012 comedy of unpaid debts and imprisonment in a nursing home, the 2144 sci-fi rebellion of a genetically engineered restaurant worker and finally, the “106 Winters After the Big Fall” dystopian return to bloodthirsty wild tribes, haunting devils and hut-dwelling.
Given this scope, it should come as no surprise that this behemoth of a movie was directed by three different people. The Wachowski siblings, who brought us The Matrix trilogy and V for Vendetta, directed the futuristic storylines, as well as the ocean adventure. Meanwhile, Tom Tykwer, best known for the German Run Lola Run—reality-altering, though in a different way from the Wachowskis’ works—directed the three episodes closest to our own timelines.
Their seamless fusion of so much material is extremely commendable. How do they do it?
Most strikingly, the main actors reappear in each storyline with different clothes and faces, sometimes repeating the same lines or reliving similar emotions. Tom Hanks, for instance, plays a grave-robbing doctor in one and an opportunistic hotel owner in another, as well as a conscience-ridden scientist, a thuggish book author, a movie actor and a futuristic goatherd.
The main characters of each storyline all happen to have a comet-shaped birthmark. These details serve not only to establish continuity and unity between storylines, but also to bring home the main theme and slogan of the movie: Everything is connected. The birth and rebirth of the characters connect them all together in one grand cosmic scheme.
This idea is further captured, more delicately, in the extension of the sextet metaphor.
Composed by the talented Robert Forbisher in the (chronologically) second of the six interlocking storylines, the music of the Cloud Atlas Sextet sews together storyline with storyline, playing through as each of the stories move together through their exposition. Much like the movements in a sextet, the content of the stories we tell can vary unfathomably in keys and tones and notes, but the shape of them is always the same.
A lot of critics (those of The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times chief among them) have banded together in distaste for the way Cloud Atlas beats the idea of ineffable connectivity to death.
To me, however, the movie was about disconnection.
Significantly, the only obvious connection from story to story is the story itself. The diaries of the sailor end up in the lap of the musician; the musician’s letters are perused by the journalist; the journalist’s book is the reading material of the publisher on a train; the publisher’s movie is viewing pleasure for the rebel; and the rebel’s philosophies are scriptures for the goatherd.
These stories aren’t actually connected. It’s only that the characters in the stories want them to be connected. When the journalist is asked why she reads the letters of the musician, even though it has no relevance to her, she doesn’t know why, she only claims that they made the same mistakes, although those mistakes aren’t apparent to the viewer at all. Instead, it seems like she just yearns to relate.
I don’t think Cloud Atlas is about some sort of benevolent cosmic order and the unifying transcendence of human compassion. I think it is instead about our desire—perhaps childish desire, but deeply, yearningly set desire—to see the world that way. Humans like us looked up at the skies ages ago, and they felt an instinct to connect those stars, see forms and constellations where there are none. That’s why it’s fitting that the movie begins and ends with Hanks telling stories to children gathered round a campfire while looking up at those same stars.
There is a problem of race that comes up with the reappearing actors gimmick. The directors wisely sidestep blackface by having only black actors play black characters. However, they recast most of their white male actors as Koreans in the Neo-Seoul storyline, introducing a double-standard for blackface versus yellowface.
Additionally, Halle Berry and several Asian actors participate in whiteface and Doona Bae plays a Mexican woman in a brief cameo. For Claremont Colleges students, these representations are a very touchy subject that deserve more than an entire article. They make seeing the movie very intriguing for academic purposes alone.
Other attractions to the movie for the American audience are supposed to be Hanks and Berry. They definitely gave solid, enjoyable performances.
I suffer from an irrational case of anglophilia, however, so for me, the biggest attractions were the self-serving putzing about of Jim Broadbent (Slughorn in Harry Potter), the increasingly creepy villainy of Hugh Grant (he’s so much fun to watch as a villain), the too-rarely-seen expressive eyes of David Gyasi as the runaway slave and the overindulgently long voiceovers of Ben Wishaw (who has the most fantastic, literary voice). Wishaw’s musician storyline also had the most emotional resonance. I dare you to feel nothing when he has his last poetic cigarette at the top of Sir Walter Scott’s memorial in Edinburgh.
Outside of my England obsession, I quite enjoyed Bae’s gravity and girlish wonder in Neo-Seoul, and Hugo Weaving brings his Mr. Smith/VA-game as the ubiquitous and unfazed hit man, sadistic nurse and devil.
In short, this movie brings it all: controversy, mixed reviews, reality-altering transcendence (or not), visuals, acting, makeup, music, story-telling. And if you’re getting sick of how all my columns have been about heady mind-shattering movies, get ready for the clean-cut James Bond thriller coming up next.