I admit it: I love ambitious movies — big, complicated, literary juggernauts with myriad moving parts all arranged just so in perfect harmony. I like feeling like I’m doing some real work, uncovering a deeper structure that makes everything on the surface tick. Cloud Atlas is just the sort of film that, if done well, is made for me to love. And, as far as I’m concerned, Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski have succeeded. This is a grand, breathtaking spectacle of filmmaking and a tribute to the skills of all three as adapters and directors. The fatal flaw is that they may well have made their film abstruse beyond the reach or interest of much of their audience, and confounding to those seeking a proper blockbuster.
The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to movies, but this is one case where it applies almost literally. The film consists of six stories, spread across centuries of time, all involving the same cast and returning to similar themes. Chronologically, the first, fifth, and sixth were directed by the Wachowskis, while Tykwer takes the second, third, and fourth. They don’t play out chronologically, though, nor in the nested fashion of the book, but are interwoven tightly, as the natural translation from page to screen of such an ambitious project.
Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is a notary in 1849, sailing from the South Pacific, where he has witnessed the signing of a contract between the Reverend and Madame Horrox (Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon) and his own father-in-law (Hugo Weaving) back home in San Francisco. He travels with, among others, a moderately creepy doctor (Tom Hanks) and a stowaway slave (David Gyasi).
Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is a poor English music student in 1931 who takes a position as amanuensis to a great Belgian composer (Jim Broadbent), living in a Scottish manor house with the composer and his wife (Halle Berry) as he composes his own magnum opus. To pass the time, he writes letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) and becomes fascinated by a fragment of a journal he finds in the house, written in the mid-19th century man by a man on a transpacific voyage.
Luisa Rey (Berry) is a journalist working in San Francisco for Spyglass magazine in 1975, digging into the new nuclear power plant whose manager (Grant) seems to have some shady dealings on the side. She receives help from a concerned scientist on the inside (Hanks) while avoiding the plant’s security (Keith David) and an assassin on her trail (Weaving). She got the tipoff in the first place from an aging scientist who left her with a pack of letters he once received from his lover from Cambridge.
Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is a book publisher in 2012 who gets in trouble with the criminal partners of one of his authors (Hanks). He imposes on his brother and sister-in-law (Grant and Whishaw) for help, only to end up trapped in a retirement home where discipline is enforced by the Ratchet-like Nurse Noakes (Weaving). With the aid of some of his fellow inmates he must attempt a lightly comedic escape. Among his papers is a manuscript submission for Half-Lives, a detective novel about a journalist investigating a nuclear power plant.
Sonmi~451 (Doona Bae) is a fabricant who works for a creep of a boss/owner (Grant) in a café in the near-future dystopia of Neo-Seoul. She is freed by Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), who operates as part of a resistance movement under the direction of general An-kor Apis (David), and who wishes to trigger her self-awareness in order to start a revolution. Among other approaches, he tries exposing her to various 20th- and 21st-century cultural artifacts, from Solzhenitsyn’s philosophy to a comedy about a man trying to escape from a retirement community where he has been mistakenly taken as a resident.
In the distant, post-apocalyptic future Meronym (Berry), a woman from an advanced culture, comes to an isolated island to find a way to communicate with colonies of humans who left the Earth before most of it became a scorched, irradiated wasteland. She enlists the aid of Zachry (Hanks), a local herdsman who normally spends his time tending his flock and defending his family from rampaging cannibals (led by Grant). Zachry and his tribe are a superstitious lot; he fears the influence of a recurring devilish vision (Weaving), but draws strength from their holy book, The Revelation of Sonmi~451.
As is certainly clear, there is a lot going on here, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of most of these stories. It’s almost surprising that the film comes in at a mere 164 minutes in the American cut, allowing only 25 minutes or so for each section. Each one manages to expand beyond its bounds, though, by spilling over into the others. The directors rhyme one scene in one story with another scene in another, sometimes in great stacks.
The cast — and thus on some level the characters — aren’t the only things that continue from one story to another. All sorts of references, places, and objects great and small cross-link the narratives. A blue-green button here; rings there. San Francisco, California; King’s College, Cambridge; the Pacific Ocean. A sliced throat; a gunshot; a gout of blood. Slavery; love; transcendence. And threaded through it all is the hauntingly beautiful and bittersweet Cloud Atlas Sextet, which shows up in pieces in the phenomenal score by Tykwer and his collaborators Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil.
Visually, the film is an impressive spectacle. The Wachowskis are as comfortable in grandeur as Tykwer is in intimacy. Each section is an exemplar of a particular cinematic style of storytelling, sometimes stereotypically so. Superficially, some scenes can even seem lazy, falling back on old tropes and common clichés.
But the artistry is as much in how the cards in the deck shuffle together. We must ask, as two scenes rhyme, how it is that the function one plays in its narrative is the same as the other plays in its own. Sometimes this is made easy and explicit, and sometimes it’s much, much harder. It’s not merely a crossword puzzle, it’s one without a printed grid, where the audience isn’t even warned that there’s a puzzle to be solved.
For those ready to work, though, it’s a marvelous and fascinating puzzle indeed. In watching and studying the stories told by these shifting, nebulous images across one, unchanging background, we can start to tease out underlying patterns that reveal to us the secrets of the weather that shapes our human existence. Will this Cloud Atlas reveal its secrets to all who watch? is it even possible to achieve such a lofty goal? of course not. But as I said, I love it just for trying. It may be impossible to touch the sky, but those who aim for it fly higher than those who do not dare to dream.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.