I can’t help but think this story of reincarnation, understanding beyond prejudice and convention, appealed to Lana Wachowski in a particular way. I doubt any of our contemporary filmmakers could approach her and her brother’s unique direction for this adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel. In 2004, after all, Lana Wachowski was still Larry Wachowski, and the directing duo were known as the Wachowski brothers.
Cloud Atlas was always going to be a difficult project to adapt. Works like this are called “unfilmable” for various reasons that usually have to do with money or patience. Cloud Atlas is a stickier wicket than usual in that it takes place in the years 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and 2321 with principally the same cast playing completely different characters (or variations on a theme of a character, if you’re hip to that jive, man). There are multiple plots, one for each time period, but a single narrative, one of rejection of the status quo, of love conquering submission. In opposition to this narrative is the oft repeated phrase, “The weak are meat and the strong do eat.” We have bad guys fighting good guys in all time periods, but not always with simple brawn. Often it is a system or a tradition that backs the conflict, and thus through history our reincarnated cast struggle to speak truth to power.
So, as there are six movies inside this movie, without an overarching throughline to tie them together beyond theme and a comet birthmark, does it work? The Wachowskis – as well as their co-director of photography Tom Twyker – should be commended for organizing this puzzle box of a feature so deftly. Each of the six stories has its own rises and falls, its own atmosphere and tone, and they are stacked in such a way that they play off of, interlock with, and support each other, much like Robert Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas symphony. (It is a long film, but one must expect this going in.)
Here is a rough idea of how these timelines intersect: a young slaveowner in 1849 is writing home to his wife while crossing the ocean; his letters are read by a young composer in 1936 who is writing his lover; his letters are read by a journalist in 1973 after the aged lover dies trying to expose a faulty nuclear power plant; how exactly this ties in with the story of a publisher wrongfully committed to a retirement home in 2012 I wasn’t clear on; but that story, written by the publisher, becomes a film watched by a commercially manufactured woman in fascist Neo-Seoul in 2144; the woman then becomes a god-like figure revered by the primitive inhabitants of The Valley, 104 years after the fall of civilization. Each of these stories is told simultaneously with the main cast playing different roles in each of the six timelines. Still with me? It’s not too complicated, though I imagine the narrative is somewhat smoother in the original novel. What does confuse me is which characters are supposed to be reincarnations of each other, as the comet birthmark shared by some of them hops from actor to actor.
As you may imagine, such distances of time and space mean actors sometimes don makeup to make them fit in with their environment. Doona Bae is meant to look like a 19th century housewife or a 20th century Mexican-American, Halle Berry is meant to look white in 1936, and a bunch of people, including Hugo Weaving, are supposed to look Korean in Neo-Seoul. They don’t, ever, and the attempt is usually more distracting than Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s makeuped mug in Looper, sometimes even on the order of a Cronenberg creature feature. I understand what the Wachowskis were going for but I doubt this tale of reincarnation required this sort of “movie magic.” That said, it does ensure that we get to see a few recurring actors doing great work. Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, and Hugh Grant all commit whole-heartedly to their numerous faces and all have loads of fun doing it.
Do some stories work better than others? Unquestionably. The story of the libertine composer (played by Ben Whishaw) in 1936 is a great period piece, as is the thrilling art direction of the Neo-Seoul of 2144. The Tom Hanks-centric 2321 piece is slow to start but picks up towards the end. The oddest duck of the lot is the 2012 story starring a loveably daffy Jim Broadbent. The first half had me laughing out loud but I was terribly confused by its latter half as I began to question what the hell this story was doing amongst the others, its tone so wildly out of sync with the rest. Not faring as well is the the friendship between a man and a runaway slave in 1849 and the Halle Berry-centric nuclear story in 1973. The 1849 chapter only really hits at the end when all of the action begins to converge, and while Berry is a serviceable protagonist, I kept wondering how long it would be till we transitioned to a more compelling timeline.
But, and this is the beauty of Cloud Atlas, that is my personal taste. I can easily see how all of these, none of these, and some of these tales may enthrall another audience. And what is truly marvelous about the film is that not only was it attempted by fine filmmakers but that its universal story, the one of recurring love and struggle, is not submerged in the frenetic nature of times past and to come. There is, under the makeup, a genuine heart beating here. I can feel it in my chakras.
“What is an ocean but a multitude of single drops?”
Based on Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Directed by The Wachowskis
Warner Brothers Pictures
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