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.