Cloud Atlas written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer (Cloud Atlas Productions, X-Filme Creative Pool, Anarchos Production, Warner Bros. Pictures, R, 172 min)
Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, and James D’Arcy.
All Circles Begin Where They End
While the validity of reincarnation is not a topic within the scope of my expertise, or a principle for which I have any reason to contend its cogency, the ways in which our current actions influence future generations offers genuine intrigue.
Consider an obvious example, the resources used by society take time to replenish, if at all. Logging a tree to construct a house means the tree, as a living organism, exists no more. Certainly, one might replace a tree with a sapling. But this young arbor requires years to gain the strength and quality of its predecessor.
Less palpable, the ways we parent influence our children deeply. Who we are and how we relate to the world proceeds, in part, from the people our parents were, our grandparents before that, and our great-grandparents before that.
This theme emerges undoubtedly in Cloud Atlas, and adaptation of David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel of the same name.
Six Stories in One
If you are interested in a detailed review of the plot, I recommend circling back to my review of the novel. Despite some minor narrative details removed to keep the story within the scope of film length, most of the plot translates from novel to silver screen.
As a reminder, Cloud Atlas functions through six separate-but-connected stories set in intervals throughout time (and space) and starring different characters. Briefly, these stories include: 1. An American lawyer, Adem Ewing (Jim Sturgess), returning from the South Pacific on a merchant ship in 1849, 2. An English musician and amanuensis, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), working with a great composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), but desperately desiring to compose his own music in Scotland in 1936, 3. A journalist, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), looking to expose a massive cover-up surrounding nuclear energy in 1973 San Francisco, 4. An English publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) who is running from some London thugs and seeking peace in the countryside during 2012. 5. A clone, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) hoping to uncover the harsh treatment of clones in a future-focused Neo Seoul of 2144, and 6. A tribesman, Zachry (Tom Hanks) working closely with a technologically advanced citizen, Meronym (Halle Berry), to make contact with off-Earth human colonies in the post-apocalyptic Hawaii of 2321.
Even though the stories closely resemble each other, between book and film, the delivery of the narrative differs greatly. The book unfolds like a Matryoshka doll where the readers receives half of a story, then half of the next story, until finally the stories re-nest as the second half of each story is told in the back portion of the book.
The film, on the other hand, jumps between stories at an alarmingly fast rate, making multiple connections between characters and storylines.
Telegraphing the Motif
Of course, the deficiency of film as a medium means telling the story to the exact specifications of the book would be nearly impossible and frustrating for the viewer. For this reason, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer seek to present the underlying motif of Cloud Atlas the book in consumable visuals.
Even though David Mitchell would offer occasional hints in the text that his characters were the same people reincarnated throughout history, the film version illustrates this idea continuously. First off, the producers cast the same actors to play roles of varying lengths and involvement in each mini-story. Tom Hanks, for example, plays Dr. Henry Goose, a Hotel Manager, Isaac Sachs, Dermot Hoggins, a Cavendish Look-a-like Actor, and Zachry.
Secondly, both the characters reference and the cinematographers picture a unique birthmark gracing the skin of each principal character. This birthmark resembles a comet streaking through the sky. Implied is that these characters are one-in-the-same.
Even though Cloud Atlas is an entertaining and worthwhile film, the heavy handed portrayal of its motifs makes for certain difficulties. Likewise, even though I applaud the ambitious attempt to translate such a difficult novel into visual form, had I not read the book first, I’m afraid I wouldn’t know much about what I was watching in this farrago, a position confirmed by my wife.
A Ripple for Generations
Despite my criticisms, Cloud Atlas asks some worthy questions and causes its viewers to think deeply. The choices we make today influence what occurs in the future, a rippling over many generations
Does reincarnation exist? I would offer a different question: does it matter? We are who we are because of the people around us, and those people found influence from people before them. These connections span generations. Cloud Atlas assists the viewer through directing them toward this idea, and for that reason, it’s a film worth watching.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5