Written and Directed By: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Wishaw, Jim Sturges, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy, Keith David, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, and Zhou Xun.
Directors of Photography: Frank Griebe and John Toll, Editor: Alexander Berner, Production Designers: Hugh Bateup and Uli Hanisch, Original Music: Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil.
A symphony begins with a note from a single instrument. Alone, it is meaningless. If that instrument plays through a series of notes, it begins to take shape, and become a progression of sounds through time. They may move us in their simplicity or their complexity. But another instrument joins in, followed by dozens and dozens more, and soon we may begin to truly feel overwhelmed. Remember that great scene in Amadeus as Mozart and Salieri slowly place the pieces of the Requiem Mass in D Minor. We hear the individual instruments, but it is when we finally hear their culmination that we may realize its masterstroke.
A common mistake in film criticism is an old adage that the portmanteau film lives and dies by its individual episodes. “Would I like to see that story as a whole film?” But if the filmmaker could make a whole story out of that single one, then it wouldn’t be a portmanteau film, would it?
All of this brings me to Cloud Atlas, a gargantuan philosophical epic from three directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski, as well as Tom Tykwer. The film has already been torn to shreds by plenty of critics, knives out, ready to tear through its individual strands, as well as heralded by others as a savior of big budget filmmaking with heart and soul. So where do I come down in this grandiose debate, one that will surely decide the future of the filmmaking as we know it? (The box office flop may have done that, but they also said movies were dead after Heaven’s Gate). Cloud Atlas is a symphony. Its individual strands when reduced to their elements are stagnant and full of platitudes, impossibly hopeless in their ability to inspire hope. But Cloud Atlas isn’t six stories—it’s one grand narrative, playing notes that form together to something that tore away at me with its vitality, its limitlessness in believing in itself.
So what are these narratives, the Wachoski siblings adapted their film from the novel of the same name by David Mitchell. Mitchell’s book has an unadaptable structure of a Russian nesting doll, cutting off each story midway to begin another, slowly closing them out as it heads back through its strands. The Wachowskis have eschewed that structure for what is the primordial text of this type of film: Griffith’s Intolerance (which had similar filmic and philosophical goals). The six locations of our films are quickly introduced in the first five minutes as a temporal space of equality; voiceover blend into the wrong space as if it is no matter, the operatic score by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil pounding along as it goes. The next fifty minutes set up the main narrative goals of each story, and then the next two hours are a cross-cutting flashes of time and space, match cuts often connecting these spaces. These graphic matches—someone going to open a door and us cutting to another story—were also used in the experimental art installation The Clock. But while Christian Marclay used that for his own self-amusement, Tykwer and the Waschowskis see these cuts as the essential element of their story: no one story can compete with the grandiose story of humanity.
So what are these six stories? On a ship on the South Pacific in 1849, a lawyer defends the humanity of a runaway slave as they travel back to America. In 1936, a closeted composer in England helps an older man with his work, while secretly composing his own masterpiece (that work, the “Cloud Atlas Sextext” forms a melodic tune that becomes the basis for the score). In 1973, a journalist uncovers a deadly secret at a nuclear power plant in San Francisco. In 2012, a publisher with debts today finds himself trapped in a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest asylum. In 2144, a Blade Runner-style replicant in “Neo” Seoul attempts to find her own humanity as she escapes her previous life. And in a post-apocalyptic island, a tribesman and a woman from an advanced civilization form an alliance to save their dying planet.
If things needed to be more complicated, the trio have done it with their casting, in which each actor (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturges, and some more faces that are familiar and quite a few unfamiliar) appears in multiple roles throughout the various timelines, switching races, ages, and genders (something which many will read into regarding Lana Wachowski’s own changes no doubt, though without considering the philosophical importance to the film’s totality). Some have argued that the casting is awkward, and perhaps racist, and yet it is essential to the narrative that these characters appear throughout history in different iterations (and yet no one has complained that South Korean actress Doona Bae plays a white person in some parts).
The major problem with Cloud Atlas’s narratives is that most of them are quite stagnant. They follow one dramatic tension without much complication, and many of them are simply stagnant since so little actually happens within them. And because the stories range from the highly inconsequential (Broadbent’s binge in the loony bin is amusing but all too forgettable) to the engrossingly expansive (no doubt the vision of a flooded South Korea and hints of a robotic rebellion are what convinced their independent financers), there is an imbalance in Cloud Atlas. But that’s never how it plays out. No narrative remains on screen for too long, and the film works best when it goes full-on Griffith, cutting between these huge gaps in temporal and spatial existence with ease and zest. There’s no need to reorient us—the Wachoskis and Tykwer trust their audience to find their way around (each narrative has a distinct look to it thanks to the mostly excellent production design, though I found the faux-Zodaic look of San Francisco to be somewhat disreputable).
Even more problematic in Cloud Atlas are the lines of dialogue that shove its themes down our throat. “All of our voices are tied into one,” “Why do we make the same mistakes over and over?” “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?” And yet, this is again essential to Cloud Atlas’s vision of the world. Yes all the characters—white, black, Asian, male, female, old, young, human, robot—all speak like one voice with the same archetypes appearing over and over, often fulfilled by the same actor in the same role (though very different make up). And yet this is part of the vision of the film, as this is not the story of indivduals, but the story of the collective. The vision of human consciousness culminates under the same banal and yet vital themes: jealously, anger, power, friendship, self-sacrifice, love. What are we in this world if not part of this greater vision?
Cloud Atlas openly wears its heart on its sleeve, begging for us to believe there is something greater than the individual in this world. It is at one point something to scoff at, but it genuinely believes it, and thus uses every element of cinema to portray its vision of dytopia becoming utopia, a triumphant symphony that crows the orchestra instead of the instrument.