(Originally posted at www.tkatthemovies.com)
Three hours and (at least) six different stories – a slave will be whipped, an old man will be stuck in a nursing home against his will, and clones will be terminated. A man’s religious faith is undermined, a woman’s determination is rewarded, and couples are torn apart. And in 172 minutes, Hugo Weaving will appear as an Asian, a woman and the Devil. Cloud Atlas has all of this and more, but what’s remarkable about this film is the singular power of its sweep despite its refusal to neatly tie everything together. More than just an exhilarating articulation of reincarnation, the movie asks how past, present and future might be related while still treasuring the value of the individual moments – as one character puts it, the droplets that fill the ocean.
What is the movie about? Any attempt at comprehensive plot synopsis would take too long. Directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), the film moves among past, present and future freely, with each actor playing a different character in each time period to illustrate how souls persist through time. In an unknown time conflating past and future, Zachry (Tom Hanks) faces a crisis of faith. In the 1970s, journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigates a story that could put her life in danger. There’s also Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. There are a lot of faces and characters, but the film manages to stay incredibly focused, propelled by fascinating stories interwoven for maximum effect.
Some might be quick to compare Cloud Atlas to The Tree of Life or 2001: A Space Odyssey, films that similarly investigate the journeys of souls through time and space. But this new film is more accessible and formally less rigorous, relying on thoughtfully juxtaposed narratives that would mostly work as standalone vignettes. In fact, Cloud Atlas most resembles D.W. Griffith’s 1916 silent epic Intolerance, which intercuts four stories about injustice from different moments in history. And like Griffith’s film, Cloud Atlas relies largely on the way it cuts among the different stories to build dramatic tension and also draw thematic connections.
And yet, Cloud Atlas does not strain to ensure everything is explicitly connected and clearly explained. Contemporary ensemble films such as Crash work so hard to bring everything together, resulting in exhausting tests of our willingness to suspend disbelief. Cloud Atlas is poetic and musical in the way the cutting underlines similarities in the human experience from story to story. A clone in the future (Bae) making love with a pureblood human (Sturgess) might not be exactly the same as a young composer (Whishaw) writing affectionate letters to his closeted lover (D’Arcy), yet they are both stories of forbidden love in their respective times. In a sense, Cloud Atlas finds notes or lines that harmonize and rhyme without sacrificing the sanctity of those individual melodies and phrases.
Cloud Atlas’ ability to simultaneously embrace the messiness of human existence and also articulate how moments and faces echo through time makes it substantially richer than recent “thought-provoking” Hollywood fare. In particular, Prometheus comes to mind. So often, big studio releases mistake sprawl for depth and empty existentialism as insight. Prometheus bothers me not because it dares to ask questions about where we come from but because the characters literally ask each other these questions. The “insight” comes from inorganic dialogue, slapped on to an otherwise rote science fiction tentpole. Yes, there’s overt philosophizing in Cloud Atlas, but most of it is cleverly and organically integrated into the fabric of the film. Whether it is a clone speaking with renewed consciousness or a thoughtful love letter doubling as narration, the attempts at explicit discussions of theme are mercifully modest and true to the characters. Furthermore, the film works through these issues with the authority of its editing, form and content firmly hand in hand.
The makeup is also key to the film’s exploration of a fundamental humanity that transcends time. Some have criticized the film’s use of “yellowface,” white actors made up to play Asian characters. As an Asian American, I typically find uses of this historically demeaning technique to be deplorable, but dismissing this film as racist is a lazy, shallow assessment. The film’s transformations cross several race and gender boundaries. Actors go from black to white, white to Asian, Asian to white, Asian to Latino and male to female. The film as a whole recognizes these differences but also intentionally plays with them to consider the role of these identifiers when it comes to reincarnation.
I also cannot help but consider that Lana Wachowski, one of the authors of the film, is a male-to-female transsexual. It seems no coincidence that, as Lana challenged conservative (and in my opinion naïve) understanding of sexuality to embrace who she is, Cloud Atlas seeks to question boundaries to get at the questions of how our souls move from body to body through eternity. It suggests that while we are different, there are larger forces that bind us together. Perhaps the race-bending makeup was poorly done, but dismissing it out of context misses the point entirely.
Much of what I’ve written has suggested Cloud Atlas as a philosophical work of genius. It’s not. While the film works through these fascinating issues, it is not necessarily high art. It is high-concept fun. The film willingly embraces its own absurdity throughout, and the action set pieces are stunning. It is that rare moment when Hollywood gives us a movie that is different from nearly everything else and yet still effective as popcorn fun (even if studios refused to back the independently financed production). I feel confident that this movie will not do very well, perhaps too silly for some high-minded cinephiles or too much for a blockbuster-seeking consumer at first look. But this a trip worth taking. It might be a hot mess, but hot messes like Cloud Atlas are sometimes the most passionate, personal and engaging experiences the cinema has to offer.