Cloud Atlas, like many works of art, deliberately eludes explanation. I’ve seen this film many times and the only question I am emphatically not interested in answering is “what does it mean?” This quality probably makes the film a rather infuriating experience for a certain kind of audience.
We’re trained, in modern western culture, to decode, to unpack, to approach art as if it were a puzzle to be solved, and one with only a single correct answer. This is classic, old-fashioned rhetoric, the way it was taught in the middle ages and in many religious traditions, whether the audience is aware of it or not. There are other approaches to analysis, though, ones that have roots in post-structuralism and post-modernism, where the goal is simply to ground a reading in theory and use it to illuminate some aspect of the art. This sort of analysis can be frustrating and disorienting for someone who is still caught up in that classical thinking. Or, it can be approached with an open mind, curious to the possibilities of artistic meaning and to the overall effect of the art.
That’s a long preamble, but it has to be said in order to set the stage for a movie like Cloud Atlas. It’s the reason why this sort of movie cleaves an audience into two polarized camps of opinion, with one expressing the deepest sort of love and the other the most hateful and spiteful sort of scorn. That’s generally the sign of a great piece of art.
Cloud Atlas is fundamentally a long exercise in montage, and the rhythms of the film are driven by the music, not the drama. Taking place in several time periods over millennia, involving characters that seem to be related in a poetic and metaphorical way (although there are sometimes direct links), the narrative, such as it is, has an emphatic, gentle sort of energy that keeps the piece in motion but not in a conventional fashion. In other words, the film isn’t dictated by the need for a third act action sequence (even though there is one) or by a love story (even though there is one) or by bringing protagonists and antagonists into conflict (even though they do meet and conflict). Instead, it flows along with the logic of a dream, finding wonderful moments in which to transition from story to story, echoing dramatic elements and often ironically commenting on other time periods. It’s a very unconventional, complex and utterly refreshing approach to cinematic storytelling.
We wouldn’t necessarily expect this sort of film from Andy and Lana Wachowski, who made this film along with their collaborator Tom Tykwer. Their early masterpieces, Bound and The Matrix certainly announced the arrival of another great team of sibling filmmakers, but they lost their way in the mid-2000s with the overblown Matrix sequels and the overhyped Speed Racer. Probably their greatest achievements were in animation, with the wonderful collection The Animatrix and as producers for films such as the interesting adaptation of V for Vendetta. The critical consensus emerging at the time was one of disappointment; that these were another group of filmmakers who were talented visually but have no gift for subtlety or narrative nuance, raised in the generation of video games. Which made Cloud Atlas all the more impressive.
As science fiction, the film is impressive. (I have not read the book upon which it’s based, so this will be a discussion solely of the film.) Science fiction is a powerful genre for making post-modern connections, metaphorically exploring our own time and challenges by calling upon our mythic vocabulary and using exotic settings and unfamiliar customs. In this film, the settings in the 19th century, the 1930s, the 1970s, the present day, the near future and the far future all illustrate aspects of how our world was made, what forces still operate within it, and how those forces can shape our future. The forces in question are, of course, the eternal forces of love, hate, jealousy, compassion, sacrifice and hope. The film shows many of the various ways in which those forces manifest, including saving a dying man, sacrificing for a political ideal, discovering and acting upon a previously obscure personal identity and above all demonstrating courage. Cowardice is also on display in every timeline, as the human condition is incomplete without both the noble and the ignoble.
Nobility, not the political or royal sort, but the quality of nobility and grace within us all, is also on prominent display in Cloud Atlas. Halle Berry, one of the handful of actors who play every role, exudes her natural elegance and dignity in the “far future” sequences, where she plays an advanced, technologically literate human visiting her radiation-scarred planet and the relative primitive people who still live there. Her belief in her species to take back the planet, to repair the breach between “high and low” created by a long-ago revolution, is generous and noble. She even sees nobility in the character played by Tom Hanks in this period, an anxious and superstitious, if curious, sort of post-modern caveman. In other sequences, the concept is discussed ironically between characters, for example, from the 19th century discussing the issue of slavery, using the old argument that there’s a “natural order” to things and black people belong a the bottom, even as Keith David’s performance as an enslaved man demonstrates his own version of natural dignity.
Berry’s characters are believers, people who are not afraid to fight for a noble cause. Hanks, on the other hand, plays more ambiguous characters such as a devious little ship’s doctor in the 19th century and a mellow but morally vacant scientist in the 1970s. (Probably his most fun, and least recognizable role is as a tough British ex-boxer in the 2012 storyline.) The next most important category of character is played by the Korean actress Bae Doona, whose role in the near future storyline is central to the whole plot. She plays an innocent whose eyes are slowly opened, with great effectiveness. It is interesting that the two of the main characters who display the most agency and whose actions propel the plot are women, with men firmly in supporting roles. And the other quite important character whose activities and decisions drive things forward is played by the superb British stage actor Ben Whishaw in the 1930s segments as a young music composer involved in a passionate love affair with a young scientist, played extremely effectively by James D’Arcy. Their dynamic is similar to those from other storylines: a character pushes at the boundaries of his society, and is loved and supported by someone who appears far less daring but finds it within himself to act for nobility.
Surrounding those key characters are some great actors having a wonderful time biting into character roles, such as Hugh Grant, clearly enjoying his makeup and the rare chance to be in this sort of film, and Hugo Weaving. Weaving, who is of course a veteran of The Matrix and the star of V for Vendetta, is clearly doing the Wachowskis a favour here, playing some quite odd and dark roles at the periphery of the story, including a strange imaginary demon and a chilling hit man. The veteran character actor Jim Broadbent anchors a cast of senior citizens escaping form a nursing home, providing the film with some of its many laughs (Weaving, always-game, goes in full drag for that sequence as an evil nurse).
Yes, that wasn’t a typo: Cloud Atlas is often as funny as it is dramatic, tense and meditative. It has a smart and warm-hearted sense of humour, devoid of meanness or hard satire. Instead, the jokes generally flow from the characters themselves, although some (like Hanks’ tough-guy boxer) are clearly and enjoyably meant to be over-the-top. Humour is notably absent in a lot of modern science fiction, which seems to be overly concerned about being “taken seriously”. Cloud Atlas demonstrates the obvious point that one can be taken seriously without being entirely serious. All truly great art understands this, but the straightjacket of Hollywood genre rules tend to enforce a different, dumber standard.
The film has a great deal of music, much more than is usually dictated by the modern style. This is something of a hallmark of great science fiction, going back to Forbidden Planet, the innovative soundtrack of which is noted today in the annals of electronic music. But it was 2001 that really wedded music to sci fi in a profound way, almost completely appropriating some well-known classical pieces like the “Blue Danube” and placing forever within the firmament of film. Later, Star Wars also featured an almost non-stop soundtrack, embedding memories of that unique combination of sound and image into the imagination of an entire generation. (To the point where, in the Family Guy parodies, they even parody the music, imagining what it would have been like had Danny Elfman written the score.)
In Cloud Atlas, the music dictates the rhythm of the cuts and the scenes, providing the film with its beating heart that unites the sometimes-disparate styles of the various segments. It’s unobtrusive but very spiritual. Interestingly, just this week, as the legendary Pink Floyd is releasing their last and mostly-instrumental album, drummer Nick Mason revealed that he and David Gilmour had spoken with the Wachowskis a “couple of years ago” for an unspecified film project that was obviously Cloud Atlas. Things didn’t work out, but that just shows how seriously the filmmakers were taking music, right from the very beginning. This wouldn’t have been the first time Pink Floyd has been asked to participate in that sort of project. Although they weren’t approached to score 2001, the BBC scored their coverage of the 1969 moon landing with Floyd music, and of course we all know now that Jodorowsky had recruited them for his ill-fated Dune project. That directly links Cloud Atlas to one of the greatest of sci-fi movies and one of the greatest unmade films in history, and besides, carries on the tradition of Floyd being the sci-fi cinema’s eternal bridesmaid.
As a big, sweeping spiritual epic, Cloud Atlas succeeds brilliantly, and to my eyes it is obviously, fully and classically science fiction. But that genre is elusive when it comes to definitions. There are scenes in this movie of future cityscapes with flying cars where people shoot laser guns, so I suppose it’s sci fi by default. (Yes, there are even spaceships at one point.) But that, to me, doesn’t make it sci fi. It’s the commitment to ideas over character and plot that really places this film at the head table of “hard” science fiction. That’s what the best of the genre is about, in any case. Some sort of interesting intellectual idea, and usually the historical, political and even spiritual consequences of giving that idea voice and life.
Fans of movies where the good guys fight the aliens and win will be frustrated and confused by this film. But fans of true science fiction, whether that appear in literature (including comics of course!) or any other medium will recognize this as one of the most important and most beautiful science fiction films of this young century.