To go into the ways that Cloud Atlas has affected me as a person when I went to an extremely late screening one October night 2012 at one of the lowest points in my adult life would involve being a lot more emotionally and psychologically vulnerable than I’m willing to be in public. I only vaguely refer to how that watch was one of the most fundamental moments in my development as the person I am today to at least give an explanation on why I simply don’t think I can be THAT objective about the movie. I can give the impression of it – it doesn’t take too much effort to acknowledge at least one particular element that is out-and-out racist, full stop – and I think I’ve done enough hair-splitting on what defines “best” and what defines “favorite” to me that I can disrupt the illusion of perfection in any movie, let alone Cloud Atlas which has pretty clear missteps in my eyes. But all of that qualifying is just formalities in the face of the fact that there are few movies in the 21st Century that I feel changed my life the way that Cloud Atlas did.
Fortunately, there are also few movies that I can think of that radically codified what I look for in movies: I had definitely seen Intolerance beforehand, so ambition on this level was not new to me in 2012 but I think this made me consciously aware of what a vast canvas of styles and stories as realized by filmmakers Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, all three of whom are visionaries in their own right (it is safer to say in 2022 now that the Wachowskis are working separately than in 2012 when they were still kind of an item). Of which Cloud Atlas would demand given that the 2004 novel by David Mitchell which it adapts is literally six different storylines, structured in the source material so the stories bookend each other snugly into a Russian nest doll style and flipping different forms of dialect appropriate to their setting. Tykwer and the Wachowskis decided to be a bit more radical than that structure where the only logic to Cloud Atlas‘ continuous cross-cutting between its stories is their momentum and trying to map their climaxes alongside each other, though I am certain they worked very closely with editor Alexander Berner to make sure that the patterns in character arcs and visual compositions were arranged like a cinematic symphony alike one of the central leitmotifs, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” which is credited in the narrative to Robert Frobisher but actually is composed like most of the score by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil.
Anyway, the stories: we have a sea-faring period adventure in 1849 about a fresh young lawyer connecting with a Moriori slave while a doctor in the lawyer’s employ reveals his intentions. We have a 1932 queer tragedy centered around a passionate amateur composer and the aging legend’s home he infiltrates. We have a 1973 conspiracy thriller centered on a journalist who has a chance encounter in an elevator that puts her in a position to blow a big damn whistle. We have a 2012 screwy British comedy on a publisher manipulated in his fleeing from crooks to be entrapped in a prison-like nursing home. We have a 2144 science fiction picture set in Neo-Seoul that depicts a class-based insurrection essential to asserting the personhood of clones (the closest it gets to resembling the CGI-heavy popcorn movies we think of these days, specifically with special effects miles better and more stimulating than most MCU movies). And last but not least, a post-apocalyptic yarn on an Islander’s survivor’s guilt and challenge towards his worldview when he is commissioned to guide a visitor from a more advanced civilization.
That’s a whole lot of material and that translates in the hands of these filmmakers (the Wachowskis directed 1849, 2144, and the post-apocalypse, which makes sense given their history with genre filmmaking, while Tykwer took on the more contemporary period pieces of the movie) with purpose to that as we are suggested the idea that these tales actually intertwine and influence each other’s course of action in subconscious ways, largely through the running theme of souls transcending time and identity and such. That last part is certainly embodied by the extensive cast of names and familiar faces continuously reappearing in roles whose arcs seem in conversation with each other or at least consistent in their carriage: Tom Hanks (whose unflappable enthusiasm reportedly was why the very unstable development of what was to be a very expensive production came through), Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Bae Doona, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, David Gyasi, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, and Robert Fyfe altogether play multiple roles in the many storylines and most of them have been saddled with roles that reflect each other in ways I had never guessed from reading the novel with all of them finding the most dedicated ways to keep their performances in conversation (Broadbent, Grant, and Whishaw are absolutely the best at this; Weaving has the easiest path for this since all of his roles are characteristically villainous; Hanks I think has the most difficult set overall and therefore is most admirable in his loopiness).
This is where I must confess the primary reservation I have in recommending this movie to others liberally: part of the admirable conceit is that the actors play roles that cross genders and age and in one particular case… race. Specifically the Neo-Seoul storyline is almost entirely populated by non-Asian actors in latex makeup meant to make them resemble Koreans (Tom Hanks is a notable exception who appears in that storyline without the yellowface makeup, which no doubt would have demolished his screen image) and I truly understand the thought process that gets to that decision, but that’s not the same as thinking it’s particularly the right decision. It’s just racist. But in a film as expectedly indulgent as Cloud Atlas very much is, one would expect that not every decision will be the right decision and I personally consider messy self-betrayal of the lapses of the artist to be very much essential to art.
But returning back to that central idea: souls defying the end of life to find its way to some peace and satisfaction (I think most beautifully represented in Hanks’ characters – particularly when it comes to how interacting with Berry’s characters relates to his character’s corruptions), the connectedness of separate lives (the most heartbreaking instance: two lovers meet their ends in similar ways, one commits suicide through the mouth and the other is murdered by a gunshot through the mouth), the idea that one act can make ripples that it will never be aware of for the better (“What is an ocean but a multitude of drops”), all of this stuff drives Cloud Atlas as the most convicted embodiment of these admittedly fanciful but much attractive ideals. It is a very humanist picture at its core and its aesthetic decisions come from that humanism – explicitly through the cross-cutting that mostly tries to keep the movie at a propulsive rate but also finds the smallest gestures to make up the connective tissue within those cuts (characters on the phone, writing, running on elevated and slim platforms). In virtually every way, Cloud Atlas basically signals towards the future television series Sense8, but that is settled towards globetrotting in the present time and Cloud Atlas just takes blockbuster money to fully create worlds like Neo-Seoul’s futurism in spacey action movie laser blast setpieces and the ruins of civilization in the post-apocalypse against beautiful Pacific Islander landscapes as well as revisit dated designs like pre-war Belgium or 70s San Francisco (captured by production and costume designers and cinematographers regular to the director of their respective segments: the Wachowskis brought on Hugh Bateup, Kym Barrett, and John Toll; Tykwer brought Uli Hanisch, Pierre-Yves Gayraud, and Frank Griebe) that can only be made compatible by the beautiful visuals, mannered performances, or simply the familiar emotions within those distant worlds.
Such inspired and grandiose pursuit will of course collapse and fail in areas, even outside of the Asian make-up. There are performances that do not work, the Sloosha’s dialect is much easier to read than it is to say, the old age make-up is so blatantly artificial and cartoony. But all of that comes from the movie’s fearlessness and actually enhances the broad dramatics of its storyline with its artifice much more than its undisciplined screenplay could. I frankly feel the script flattens the complex density of the novel’s themes to near-incomprehensibility, even when its final third gets annoyingly didactic about what it thinks it’s saying. It pretty much aids the movie to be so sprawling to the point of disaster, particularly in the face of everything it miraculously gets right which outweighs what it gets wrong despite the odds. And it is never less than beautiful (both to look at and to listen to), watchable, and entertaining: it is as cinematic as things get and it is specifically a movie that best represents what it is to BE moved. In the darkness of that theater for its fully-felt 3 hours, I came to recognize that boldness extravagant to the point of chaos is the pinnacle of expression that a film artist can accomplish: daring, sincere, full of personality, and defiantly establishing its own terms. That’s Cloud Atlas: it’s the first movie that crosses my mind when I think of those specific superlatives, maybe my favorite example of “interesting messes” in cinema and unlocking what about them embeds their takeaway to my heart. Now what that takeaway was that I feel changed the course of my life 10 years… that’s between me and Cloud Atlas in the dark of that cinema.