Cloud Atlas is a film of astonishing ambition and scope, a $100million independent movie. The film begins by establishing each story in almost fleeting glimpses, offering an early example of the film’s vast temporal sphere. From then on the film flits between the six stories with breathtaking alacrity.
Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski took on a risk in adapting a book so innovative in its narrative structure. The three directors/adaptors have broken up the Russian doll-like structure of the book, weaving the stories together, all of them rushing to their conclusion in unison, connected to each other through time in much the same way as the book; through dreams, books, a journal, letters, a piece of music, and a birth mark.
The first story is that of an American lawyer who aids a stowaway slave in 1850. The second is the story of a disowned young musician attempting to revive his fortunes by becoming the amanuensis to an ailing composer in 1930s Edinburgh. The third is a thriller, as an investigative journalist gets caught up in, and attempts to expose, a deadly conspiracy in 1973 San Francisco. The fourth is the comic tale of a publisher who find himself incarcerated in an asylum-esque retirement home in 2012.
The fifth story is science fiction, in a dystopian future built around consumerism. The sixth is set in a post apocalyptic world where a goat-herder must protect the last bastion of civilisation. Each of these stories carries a distinct tone that, combined with the directors’ (at times ingenious) arrangement, allows the film to explore the themes of the book in a more compact art form. I say arrangement because the film feels almost composed rather than directed, each segment having to fit perfectly.
The book subtly explored the connectedness of lives through time and their legacy. Life, death, the afterlife and rebirth are all pondered upon. In the book this was symbolised, but never explained, through a comet-shaped birthmark shared by each protagonist throughout time.
The film does not shy away from the gravity of the ruminations of the book. Essentially, Cloud Atlas is an introspective to the human question. The film is able to more overtly question the essence of time because of its structure, jumping from one time to the next.
It plays with the temporal aspect of the book to more explicitly address it. Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” and the cyclical nature of time is offered to the audience in a more limpid manner than the book.
We see both sides of this “eternal recurrence” in the film, as it both suggests that choosing wrong in one life will condemn one to immorality in all, but to choose right will mean redemption because one cannot perceive their position in the cycle, and a circle is always beginning.
Tom Hanks’ characters are the most oscillating on the moral compass, preventing any easy, Hollywood nutshell answers to the questions of agency and time. It is true the film does not attempt to avoid these more complex existential questions but it has to offer the audience something more solid to take away in the way that a book does not.
One way this is achieved is through making the connections more explicit through the use of actors in five or six different roles throughout the stories. This also leads to some humorous cameos which are joyful to spot. Another is to lay on the thick moralising towards the end.
As the stories start to conclude the directors do slide into the habit of the neat round-up and leave the audience with a rather paltry moral of love being eternal. This can be forgiven in the face of the task though.
Cloud Atlas is a beguiling and enchanting film. It is not perfect, but an impressive attempt given the ambition of the film. It is at times slapstick, at others prophetic, and often thrilling and throughout it is expertly crafted and beautifully acted. It is for those who wish to watch a thoughtful film and those who want to be given exciting and enthralling stories.