by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Directors: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 66%
PLOT: An exploration of how individual lives impact one another in the past, present, and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.
Okay, faithful readers, I hope you’re comfortable.
Cloud Atlas is one of those movies like Baraka that leaves me with the urgent need to tell people how amazing it is. It’s visually spectacular, thought-provoking, and hopelessly optimistic about love and the good side of human nature, even in the face of the worst humanity has to offer.
Based on a critically acclaimed novel by David Mitchell, the movie tells six separate stories, linked by the fact that a core group of actors plays all the principal roles in each story, and by the fact that at least one actor in each story carries a curious birthmark shaped a bit like a comet or a shooting star. Each story is separated from the others by decades or centuries, taking place in the years 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and an apparently post-apocalyptic 2321.
I cannot imagine the lengths to which the filmmakers, and the film editor in particular, went to make this movie work. The film jumps freely from one story to another, forward, back, forward, and back again, somehow maintaining a clean flow and keeping each storyline absolutely clear. Although the stories are unique, the editing keeps the idea of connection alive for nearly three hours. Just based on the editing alone, that makes Cloud Atlas kind of exhilarating to watch, especially when things heat up in the 2144 segment.
Let me see if I can quickly summarize each story, without giving too much away:
- 1849 – An American lawyer visits property holdings overseas and witnesses the brutal whipping of a slave, who stows away on the lawyer’s ship returning to San Francisco; meanwhile, an unscrupulous doctor has plans to steal the lawyer’s gold en route.
- 1936 – A struggling composer, Robert Frobisher, is hired as an amanuensis (a fancy word for a music stenographer) to another aging composer, which allows Frobisher to compose his own masterpiece, The Cloud Atlas Sextet. The aging composer demands credit for the piece and threatens to expose Frobisher’s bisexuality, including his deep, unconditional love for a gentleman named Rufus Sixsmith.
- 1973 – An investigative reporter stumbles onto a conspiracy at a nuclear power plant, thanks to a whistle-blowing report written by none other than Rufus Sixsmith, now in his sixties.
- 2012 – An author on the run from hooligan creditors takes refuge in what he thinks is a hotel, but is in fact a nursing home, to which he has inadvertently committed himself. He and three other residents plan a daring jailbreak.
- 2144 – Set in a vastly futuristic New Seoul, a renegade “fabricant” is brought in for questioning by the ruling government known as Unanimity. The fabricant, known only as Sonmi-451, spins a tale of oppression, liberation, and horrific realization as she becomes the voice of a revolution that will ripple across centuries.
- 2321 – In a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, peaceful Valleysmen live in constant fear of attacks from vicious cannibals, the Kona tribe. They also receive periodic visits from Prescients, a highly advanced society that apparently lives offshore. One day, a Prescient, Meronym, asks a Valleysmen leader to guide her to a remote mountain peak where she hopes to send an SOS signal to off-world colonies.
Confused yet? Don’t be. The editing keeps everything crystal clear.
But that’s just the clinical description of the movie. What catapults Cloud Atlas into the stratosphere is how the fancy editing and visual effects occasionally take a back seat to a really deep philosophical question that leaves me with a sense of awe. It’s really a what-if question, one of the greatest what-if questions of human existence.
What if…death isn’t the end?
I know that countless other movies have asked this question. We all have our own answers and beliefs. I am not suggesting that Cloud Atlas has somehow figured out THE answer to this question, or that the answer it provides somehow trumps your own beliefs. But of all the movies I’ve seen on this topic, Cloud Atlas is the only one that really, genuinely, truly left me in awe of the possibilities it proposes.
I mentioned earlier that key roles are played by the same actors over and over again in each of the stories. While that was initially distracting, I realized that the filmmakers were actually making a genius move. It was nothing more than a simple way of illustrating the concept that a life in one era is echoed in another, decades or centuries later. Heavy makeup is used to indicate how one person’s life as an Asian woman could, in theory, be echoed in the life of a Mexican woman in another era. Or perhaps the life of a British man might be echoed later as a British woman.
And then there’s the question of that recurring birthmark. One key character from each storyline bears a birthmark that resembles a shooting star. So many people (including me the first time around) wanted to attach some kind of conventional story-based meaning to that birthmark. Did it mean these characters were all somehow blood-related? Was it a prophecy of some kind? Something mentioned in the book, perhaps, that had to be left out of the film for pacing reasons, or some such thing? No. It’s just another visual reinforcement of the idea of recurrence, or reincarnation.
And that’s where I get awestruck by the movie. Reincarnation is not a new concept in films, but Cloud Atlas really got under my skin. Imagine. What if…the person you love, your soulmate, the one you’ll love until the day of your death…what if, centuries hence, you’ll meet each other again? Maybe you’ve walked down the street, or been eating in a restaurant, and for a fleeting second you lock eyes with a total stranger across the room, and you think, “I KNOW that person,” but the moment passes and life goes on. What if that happened because you have met in some past life?
Or maybe you go on a date, and it goes phenomenally well, as if you’ve known each other for ages? Well…maybe you have. It’s your destiny to meet and love this person because you’ve already done it before.
I know I’m getting a little woo-woo/touchy-feely here. It’s not a new idea. It’s just that Cloud Atlas presents the idea so well that my breath gets taken away when I think about its implications.
I just have to bring up the stunning visuals again. There’s a scene where the composer, Frobisher, is writing to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, and there’s a passage where, in his mind, he meets Sixsmith in a china shop. In a wonderfully poetic moment, they start smashing the china in slow motion as Frobisher’s composition plays in the background. Then, just as the music reaches a crescendo, the two of them stop in place, and hundreds of china vases and plates rain down from the ceiling in slow motion, hanging in space, descending slowly to the ground like gigantic snowflakes.
I’m at a loss. I’ve come to the end of whatever I can discuss about this movie without repeating myself endlessly. I want to reiterate that I don’t believe this movie has THE answer to what lies beyond death. But it has a truly lovely hypothesis, one that leaves me awestruck with its implications.
So let me just end with a line from the movie that makes my heart swell every time I hear it.
“I believe there is another world waiting for us, Sixsmith. A better world…and I’ll be waiting for you there. I believe we do not stay dead long. Find me beneath the Corsican stars, where we first kissed.”