Cloud Atlas is tough to grasp. I don’t just mean in terms of its scope, its ambition or its lofty sense of grandeur. I mean it’s tough to grasp, because everything about it forces you to think in terms of the universe. To zero in to any one particular element or any particular story seems equivalent to marveling at the banquet laid out in front of you, only to fill up on bread. Maybe if you assembled every singular review of Cloud Atlas, and put them into a single experience, you’d get something similar, a mirror response of the film’s structure. In fact even the production of the film takes this into account, having not one but three directors, the Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame) and Tom Tykwer ( A Hologram For The King, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer).
Cloud Atlas (2012) follows a recent trend of ever-present but increasingly noticed genre films I can only describe as “philosophical epics”. Cloud Atlas can hang its hat next to such films as, Interstellar, The Tree of Life, and The Fountainhead. Epic, sweeping narratives which transcend space and time to help illustrate and universalise their themes. Rich, densely textured pieces which press on the higher faculties of your mind, zone out and you might miss important thematic illusions, dialogue packed with ideas and subtext, or visuals bursting with splendour. Usually all three at once. And if that doesn’t whet your appetite, a film which contains a period piece, a seventies political thriller, a bohemian composer, a neo-Seoul almost directly birthed from Blade Runner, and a post apocalyptic future/past fusion surely will.
But the real core at the heart of Cloud Atlas, like the core of the other films referenced, is that they all focus intensely on the endeavour of the human spirit. Especially Cloud Atlas, on the transcendence of our acts outside of their specific space/time context by the ways we can speak to each other through the generations, through the same thoughts and ideas, but transmitted from handwritten journals, to letters and music, to film scripts and holovids and through that ancient but tried and true technique, oral storytelling, round the metaphorical (and literal in the case of this film) campfire. As a species, we’re constantly rediscovering the truths that keep appearing to us, that are dredged up only to be submerged again in the streams of human day-to-day, year-to-year living.
Truths like the irrepressible will for freedom. In four of the six stories, the desire for freedom, from entrapment, imprisonment, enslavement is omnipresent. It manifests in different forms, in the story of the stowaway slave in 1849, in the story of the composer who is blackmailed into losing credit for his work in 1936, in the story of an aging publisher imprisoned by his brother in a nursing home as cruel penitence for having an affair with his brother’s wife. In 2144, as a Fabricant, a human cloned for slave labour discovers the true nature of her existence and fights to let the world know the truth.
This truth, the same desire to be free, manifests itself inside the story inside the context of the location and the time period, but the essence of the character is the same. Besides David Mitchell, author of the book confirming that each character is the same soul reborn throughout time, it’s visually conveyed through the possession of the birthmark each main character shares, a small comet. The whole film works as a testament to that eternal journey, that eternal cycle of the human spirit which struggles against forces that are not its own, as they encounter worlds they had no part in shaping, but are inexorably at the same time forced to create their own futures.
If that sounds heady and impenetrable, that’s because it is. If that sounds preachy, it’s that too. But it’s unbearably honest in its aims, and as a result, everything that springs from that well will either taste like honey or poison. Because the dialogue is very straight, there are no ulterior motives, no hidden machinations to any of the characters. They all speak honestly and truthfully, which can easily come off as one-dimensional and creaky and more importantly, unbelievable to many. Because human beings often don’t talk like this, we shroud our intentions behind language, often trusting our subtext to communicate what we’re really saying, only saying what we really feel in times of great emotion, when the barriers unfold inside of us, and the torrent of the truth comes out.
And this can very easily come off as grating. It’s uncomfortable to listen to people talk so plainly about what they think; people often describe it as stilted and awkward. But Cloud Atlas occupies the same space that our myths occupy, that it’s not what they say, but what they mean when they say it.
It can be difficult to get accustomed to people talking so frankly, that we are so used to the subtle unconscious social navigations that surround us, as we constantly do our best to perform the version of ourselves that is appropriate for the context; the way we act at work is not the way we act in front of our family is not the way we act in front of strangers etc. But the way our characters act, think and talk is a representation of their ideals, and their ability and integrity to follow them. Time and time again, the same soul of Cloud Atlas sacrifices itself for higher causes. In 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) sacrifices her safety to expose the story of the unstable nuclear reactor. In 2321, in a post apocalyptic Hawaii, Zachry (Tom Hanks) battles dangerous tribesmen and his own mental state to help Meronym (Halle Berry) send a message to the off-world colonies for help. The young composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) sacrifices himself for his music.
Of course the film is far from perfect. Any film that wants to tackle this kind of subject matter will ultimately throw of the shackles of a rigid, consistent formula which satisfies us, for something ultimately more baggy, where characters flit in and out, loose end are never really tied up, nebulous thematic links are put in place of concrete, ‘real’ ones. And if it is not your cup of tea, then the film makes no concessions to its opposite. It is ambitious, or it is pretentious depending on side of the coin you fall on. But then, if human beings are constantly locked in a battle to find meaning in their lives, do they not occupy the same space? It’s heavy-handedness is a by-product of its earnestness, you can’t have one without the other.
There are more examples, but the consistency of the actions of the same soul is what’s paramount here. Not that this is not important in works outside of this, but here its precedence is built on a spiritual level, not just a logical level, because the actions of the soul of all of the characters are consistent across the whole spectrum, even if each character might react differently if they were placed in the experiences of their other time placed counterparts. Even more importantly, is the consistency of the forces the soul faces. In each world there is always good, and always evil, locked in a never-ending struggle of infinite instances. The cast of thousands in the film is populated by the same returning faces, most of the main cast appearing in at least three out of the six of the stories, often more. They all play different parts on the spectrum, different sexes, different genders, and different paths of morality. Their faces are transfigured by facial morphing, by their period costumes, by the very different worlds they inhabit. But still they recur, to help illustrate the universality of it all.
That ultimately, the spirit will endure. The victory of the spirit’s endurance is one often ignored in the face of the overwhelming odds of the world we live in, whenever we live in it. But the spirit never stops. How much you take that to heart, or how much you reject it, ultimately depends on how much faith you have in humanity. And love it or condemn it, Cloud Atlas is a very hard film to ignore, simply because it has so much faith.
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