“What is the ocean,” a character toward the end of Cloud Atlas replies to the charge that he is about to waste his life on a cause that can’t make a difference, “but millions of drops of water?” It is this idea more than anything else – the interconnectivity that makes life greater than the sum of our parts – that enables Cloud Atlas to make such a bold, successful transition from novel to screen.
The 3-hour epic by the writing/directing team of Lana & Andrew Wachowski (The Matrix, Bound) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) is a stunning accomplishment of incredible ambition. It is a flawed film, and there are certainly moments and elements in which the film’s ambition exceeds its grasp, but its flaws are understandable – because this is a film that swings for the fences in every capacity.
Based on the novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas interweaves 6 stories spanning centuries, beginning with a Pacific sailing vessel in the mid-1800’s and reaching to the far future, “106 Winters After The Fall,” when humanity is only the barest, primitive remnant of itself.
The novel itself would seem unfilmmable for its complexity, but where the filmmakers succeed is by drawing certain thematic elements of the novel to the surface – such as outsiders disrupting the system and the slow, often failed, search for redemption – and letting that guide what becomes a meta-narrative about the idea that each life is greater than its personal, mortal existence.
Like the 6 stories themselves, the film feels choppy and hard to connect at first, but gradually as the film progresses, the editing becomes smoother and more elegant, until the stories seem to almost melt in to one another. It is masterfully constructed and edited.
Unlike the novel, which gives each story 2 chapters except the 6th (a structure which would not translate to film) Cloud Atlas continually interweaves the stories, at times spending several minutes on a single narrative, at others dwelling only for a line or two.
Certain storylines take to this, such as the one in the furthest future and – in particular – the early-1900’s tale of Robert Frobisher, a young man who moves in with an aging composer in the hopes of finding artistic and commercial success. Others, while still entertaining, suffer for it; in particular, the story of Luisa Rey, a journalist in 1973 San Francisco who stumbles upon a terrible conspiracy within the energy industry – a storyline which ends up feeling rushed and incomplete.
The story of Sonmi – a clone in servitude who gradually becomes the face of attempted revolution in Corprocratic 2144 Seoul – is the most exciting and visually arresting thread. It could easily be its own film, and would probably be a tremendous commercial success. But this is not a film that strives to be merely “successful.”
Each of the principle actors plays several roles throughout each narrative storyline, and for the most part, they succeed. The casting of actors in multiple roles can be, of course, a most hackneyed gimmick. In this case, however, by doing so – and doing so across age, racial, and gender lines – the story becomes one of transmigration of souls and the Kantian idea that redemption and growth can take more than a single lifetime – centuries, even. And this is where the film’s ambition really comes together. The filmmakers take their time with this central notion, letting it evolve and manifest naturally rather than throwing it at us through awkward exposition. This is a film that trusts the intelligence of its audience; that wants you to be an active participant.
And again, this is a flawed film, but its flaws lie within the details of its attempts at greatness. There is nothing safe or mediocre in the film. This notion of our lives being drops that make up an ocean may not be in and of itself revolutionary, but the execution of it is. It is, in many ways, a singular achievement. It is exciting, it is funny, it is fun, it is thought-provoking. It is a film that I cannot imagine leaving and not having something to say about.