I was very thrilled by the adventure, but I also found myself raising my eyebrows a lot…
Clocking in at 171 minutes, the 2012 film Cloud Atlas advertised itself as “an exploration of how the actions of 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.” It was based on a 2004 novel of the same name written by David Mitchell, and the film was directed by not one, but THREE directors—Lilly and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix), and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). The ridiculously long movie proceeds to follow six different narratives in six different times that are all, in tenuous ways whether it be a repeated phrase or lingering melody, connected.
In Colonial times, an American lawyer joins the abolition movement after befriending a stow away slave on a ship returning to the United States. In another time period, a young composer becomes an amanuensis for an aging legend to find inspiration in composing his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Simultaneously, in San Francisco during the 1970s, a journalist gets caught up in a story involving corruption and plans for a nuclear accident. A washed up publisher gets tricked into a nursing home and is trying to escape. A highly futuristic South Korea hosts a dark secret involving human clones, fast food companies, and slave labor. While in the distant future, a post-apocalyptic earth returns to primitive life and a rueful old man recounts his dealings with betrayal.
Each of these six narratives feature either the same face (soul, or life, reincarnated…? In the movie is played by wildly hilarious variations of the same actor), or lingering narrative, song, even a simple phrase and birth mark.
In short, this movie was a bit of a messy mindfuck, and it was fortunate that the directors/adapters tried very hard.
The movie aspired to be a perception-altering head-trip echoing styles of The Matrix and Pulp Fiction, however what it set out to do wound up being too big, and the finished product fell a bit short of expectations. The film took on colossal themes such as heaven and the afterlife, karma and the transmigration of souls, Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal recurrence,” Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and déjà vu. However, because there were too many narratives going on at once, each plowing ahead with their individual messages with only small threads here and there connecting the collection as a whole, the themes wound up scattered and superficial, the impact less strong.
With the three directors, you can also obviously tell which parts were The Wachowskis and which parts were solely Tykwer. Whereas The Wachowskis tended to boast grandeur, big ideas with matching visuals, Tykwer tended to cast a more emotional atmosphere, a more inclusive and close-knit storytelling, as if you’re another character in the room. These parts worked individually for their narratives, but as a whole, the jumps were not smooth enough, even with the focus on repeating faces playing different characters.
I’m not saying this was a bad movie, however. It’s just, while visuals were great, the flow of the movie and the way the narratives were woven together didn’t feel as strong as it could have been. It is, still, strong enough that I understood the connection. I enjoyed the overall uplifting message: that all souls are connected in a sort of butterfly-effect style, and the movie succeeded in presenting a sort of celebration for that connection. It made me feel good.
To my surprise, as big a fan as I was of The Wachowskis, I enjoyed the parts directed by Tykwer a lot more, finding that it flowed more closely with the emotional dream that was Cloud Atlas. Certain narratives in particular, the one involving investigative reporter Luisa Rey, played by Halley Berry, and Ben Wishaw’s shining story as Robert Frobisher, the composer of “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” were my particular favorite, primarily because of the emotional undertones conveyed within them.
As I continued re-watching the movie, I found myself coming to enjoy each narratives in its own way, and each time I finished the movie I left it with something different in my heart, depending on my mood.
Other narratives, like the unfortunate plight of Timothy Cavendish, which involved Jim Broadbent and unexpectedly comedic nursing home gloom, caused me to laugh and at certain times leave the movie with a refreshed humorous outlook. There was a little bit of everything in this movie, intertwined within these six narratives that are simultaneously about freedom, identity, and a multitude of other fun thought experiments.
I suppose that, because there was so much to be done, that the six narratives didn’t have enough time to really flow and link together in the nearly-three-hours of its runtime. There was just too much attempted with this movie, too many big ideas, and while it didn’t entirely hit its marks on everything, the adaptation did a great enough job that it was still an entertaining movie to watch.
Featuring an ensemble cast of award-winning actors and actresses–i.e., Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Bae Doona, Ben Wishaw, and many more–the world of this movie is very engaging as well, sucking you right in.
The eyebrow-raising moment I mentioned earlier were found within the movie’s strange quirk of having the same actor/actress play multiple characters, spanning across different lives, and…different ethnicities. Meaning, they had a white man play a Korean. They had Halle Berry dressed as a regal white temptress, and they had Hugo Weaving play a particularly sadistic female nurse. It was Jim Sturgess, in full-on make-up to look like Korean rebellion commander Hae-Joo Chang, that had me laughing, and removed me from the world of the movie. As an Asian, I just couldn’t look at Sturgess playing a Korean man and not laugh.
Aside from the hilarious conundrum with casting and racial representation, as well as the jerky flow of the six intertwining narratives this ambitious movie sought to harmonize, I’d recommend this movie to anyone unsure of what to watch and could settle with a little bit of everything.
☁️ ☁️ ☁️ ☁️
“Our lives are not our own.”