It’s difficult to write about Cloud Atlas, the sweeping adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 nesting doll of a novel, by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, if only because it’s doing so many different things, telling stories that range from the slave trade to multiple post-apocalypses, testing the limits of how big an independent movie can be and still be viable, and exploring the power of reincarnation and liberation movements. I don’t really think that Cloud Atlas works–it’s simultaneously too much, and too little–but while its characters are reaching for better lives, there’s a lot in Cloud Atlas that suggests what a better movie-going landscape might look like.
To summarize briefly: a core group of actors and a huge band of extras act out six core stories. The movie begins with a lawyer traveling home from a slave plantation on a ship where he’s being poisoned by a venal doctor and forming a friendship with a runaway slave, continues on to a 1930s love affair between a young scientist and composer that’s conducted mostly by letter as the composer seeks to write his masterpiece, into the seventies where the young scientist, now old, will help an investigative journalist go after an oil company that plans to sabotage the movement towards nuclear energy, into the present, where a publisher deals with a difficult author and his ultimate entombment in an old age home, on to Neo-Seoul, a city more than a hundred years in the future where cloned “fabricants” serve consumers born through normal biological means, and on to an island in an indeterminate but even more distant, and even more thoroughly post-apocalytic future. The actors, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, and James D’Arcy, among others, switch races and genders, portraying souls who move from existence to existence. If the plot and tracking the characters is complicated, the ideas that animate Cloud Atlas are even more complex.
To a certain extent, Cloud Atlas is a deeply religious movie in search of a theology, and its incoherence about what the interconnectedness between its characters actually means or what their cycles of reincarnations are working towards can make the film feel more squishy than moving. One of the most interesting and effective facets of the movie, if not the main one, is how cultural fragments gain meaning and power over time and in new settings. In our present, aging publisher Timothy Cavendish’s (Broadbent) huffy declaration to a nursing home attendant that “I will not be subject to criminal abuse,” sounds petty and overblown. That same scene, recreated in a movie recounting that man’s life, gains a grandeur and patina: the nursing home isn’t an antiseptic prison but a red velvet-draped lounge, and the person speaking the words isn’t Jim Broadbent in a snit but Tom Hanks mustering all the dignity available to him.
What looked intentionally ridiculous the first time around to those of us sitting in a movie theater seems magical in its recreation to Sonmi-451 (Bae) and Yoona-939 (Xun Zhou), two cloned women for whom the movie is their first glimpse of life outside the cafe they were grown to provide labor for. And when Yoona-939 spits those same words at a customer at the cafe who is pretending to ejaculate on her body, they achieve the power Cavendish meant them to have in the fist place.
Sonmi-451 and Yoona-939, born into slave labor, limited to service, and destined for a future in which they’re recycled as meat, are genuinely oppressed in a way that and by means of technology Cavendish couldn’t possibly imagine. Asserting their humanity takes courage he never could have mustered. But this silly, selfish little man gave Yoona-939 the words she needed to demand decent treatment. Even the smallest, flimsiest artifacts can be objects of right power in the right circumstances, when they encounter the people who need them most.
But often, we’re told about these kinds of transformations rather than made to feel their power. It’s nice that Luisa Rey’s (Berry) work as a crusading investigative journalist inspires her neighbor to write mysteries based on her life, but are we meant to think they’re so resonant if they end up in Cavendish’s profit-oriented, undiscerning hands? Young composer Robert Frobisher (the excellent Whishaw), working in the 1930s, may have captured something transcendent in his Cloud Atlas Sextet, a record Luisa later searches out at a record shop and becomes convinced she’s heard before. But what does it really mean for something beautiful and ethereal to float between generations, for a gay composer and a Latina journalist to resonate to the same rhythms? If the point is that we have things in common across our differences, or that our actions have implications for our future–as Sonmi’s revelation, which is passed down into another story as a sacred text, puts it “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to each other, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”–that seems to be an awfully modest conclusion to be reached by such ambitious means.
The closest Cloud Atlas comes to an argument about the purpose of these reincarnations is a suggestion that many of us are working towards personal and social liberation, while a few remain tragically and influentially resistant to change. In the first of stories that make this theme explicit, both directed by the Wachowskis, a young lawyer, Adam Ewing (Sturgess) visits a slave plantation, and on his voyage home, finds a slave, Autua (David Gyasi) stowed away on the ship, the Prophetess. At first, he’s unsympathetic, telling the man “The Prophetess is a mercantile vessel, not an underground railroad for escaping slaves. I’m afraid your fate is entirely your own. I desire no part.” But gradually, Ewing’s humanity is awakened, and he advocates for Autua’s freedom and growing into a friendship with him. “Tell you the truth, I was worried you might eat me if we didn’t get something in that stomach,” Ewing tells Autua, clumsily, as they grow towards each other. “Don’t worry,” Autua deadpans. “I don’t like white meat.” By the time they’ve returned home and Ewing is reuinted with his wife, Tilda (Bae) his view of the world has changed and he’s abandoned the sense of a ladder of civilization that initially justified his involvement in the slave trade. “I owe my life to a self-freed slave, and I cannot in good conscience dedicated my life to this kind of business any longer,” Ewing tells his father-in-law (Hugo Weaving), his wife choosing to join him in his new commitment to abolitionism.
Centuries later, it’s Sonmi-451 whose awakening is at stake, facilitated by Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess again, with makeup that alters the shape of his eyes to make him appear Asian). A cloned servant who’s been raised with the maxim “Honor thy consumer” as the first commandment that governs her life, Sonmi-451′s world is radically expanded first by her colleague, who shows her the fragment of the movie based in Timothy Cavendish’s life, and then by Chang, who takes her away from the restaurant that’s been the center of her world, giving her clothes of the kind reserved for humans born through biological means, and even more importantly, the opportunity to learn. “Knowledge is a mirror, and for the first time in my life, I was allowed to see who I was and who I might become,” she says. When the revolution they join fails, the man who’s present at Sonmi-451′s punishment is Boardman Mephi, another one of Weaving’s incarnations of order, and the suppression of the will to strive for something better, more equal, and more connected.
Seeing the connections between these different time periods, and the parallels between characters played by the same actors, who grow, regress, or stay tragically static from timeline to timeline is one of the most rewarding parts of the movie. But not all of the stories Cloud Atlas moves through synch up to the same effect: Cavendish’s story, told in broad tones that are strikingly discordant from any other section of the movie, and Luisa Rey’s mostly serve to tell stories about soulmates more posited than believable who are effectively reunited. The one with the strongest stand-alone execution (directed by Tykwer), the narrative of Robert Frobisher’s apprenticeship as a composer, his separation from his lover Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), the creation of his masterpiece, and his ultimate despair with the world, exists largely in service of several small moments of connection later in the movie. While I found the best moments of convergence in Cloud Atlas deeply affecting, earning them is no small task, and may prove too exasperating for viewers who aren’t inclined through nearly three hours and multiple storylines for moments of convergence.
And even if you are, the decision to create those moments by using the same actors to play an array of parts even if it means using makeup and facial prostheses to assume different racial and ethnic identities may be insurmountable for some. The conversation about changing actors’ races is so complex and historically charged that I’ll be devoting a separate piece to it next week (along with some discussions about the issues of able-bodied actors playing characters with disabilities and cis actors playing transgender characters). I know for some readers, the use of race-switching makeup and prostheses is never acceptable, no matter the intentions of the artists or the material at hand. I’m hard-pressed to believe that a version of Cloud Atlas which had different actors for each timeline could have visually communicated the kinds of connections David Mitchell created in prose. The shock of repeated recognition is absolutely integral to the movie’s sense of repetition and convergence, and trying to suss out which actors were meant to embody the same souls throughout the timelines would have made the film an impossibly academic enterprise. How to get more characters of color on screen and how to give more work to excellent actors of color–I do think Bae gives the standout performance of the movie, along with Whishaw–is a critically important question. Cloud Atlas is not a movie that invites easy solutions to that very difficult problem, as even the comments of Media Action Network for Asian Americans founder Guy Aoki would suggest.
Overall, Cloud Atlas was engaging enough, and frustrating enough, for me to share Robert Frobisher’s letter to his lover that “I believe there is another world, Sixsmith, a better world.” If we had a movie industry that was brave enough to make Doona Bae be a giant star, to let Halle Berry play crusading investigative journalists, where touching, passionately observed gay love stories like Frobisher’s and Sixsmith’s didn’t need independent funding to bring them to life, if even a few more directors and writers cared as much about cinematography, fluidity of identity, and the struggle for liberation as the Wachowskis do, going to the movies would be a much more exciting experience. The problem is that Cloud Atlas tries to do all of those things at once, and ends up doing none of them as well as a more concentrated experience might. If reincarnation makes us better, try harder, and want to see truer, perhaps Cloud Atlas can be a springboard rather than an expensive dead end.