So goes the riddle in “Cloud Atlas,” the most elaborate cinematic puzzle of my time, a movie that transcends all structure for a meaning much deeper than can ever be written in clarity. I marvel at the sheer possibility of imagination in films like this, because rather than simply thinking outside of standard, they seek to bask in a new shadow of influence. Here, like “2001,” “Metropolis,” and “The Wizard of Oz,” is a film that abolishes tradition and manufactures its own through an impeccable skill and enthusiasm, and a drive that suggests its filmmakers are not just thinkers but visionaries. Seldom will any of us see something this ambitious on the movie screen in this lifetime, and that is no exaggeration.
The movie is cultivated from equally complex source material, a novel written by the talented David Mitchell, which chronicles six interconnecting stories set in distinctly opposing time frames across centuries of human civilization. Many have heralded the literary work as a profound revelation, and indeed the book earned countless awards and praise when it was published in 2004. Successful screen adaptations of great literature are unfortunately less frequent than they should be, but if the source material is anything resembling the movie it produces, then here is perhaps one of the finest ever written. I can only base current judgment, alas, on what I see from the screen, which is flawlessly crafted, and as perplexing as it is profound. It’s the kind of endeavor that is impossible to fully absorb in one or two viewings, and perhaps one that will never reveal the full scope of the spell it casts. After three of my own, I do know there is still much more to learn, and experience, and be enchanted by.
A plot synopsis is pointless, but here are general strokes. The first story is set in the 1800s, revolving around a lawyer who has married into a family within the slave trade, whose experiences aboard a ship with a shady doctor and an African stowaway revise his perceptions of people based on time-bound predjudices. His journals become published, and eventually they are passed down the main character of the second arc, an aspiring musical composer in the 1930s who lacks reputation in the classical field, but hopes, perhaps foolishly, that working with an established but aging legend in the music world will propel his career forward. A painful endeavor yields results but not an opportunity to bask in the glory of achievement, and the gifted musician takes his life following an unfortunate and tragic series of events. His eventual symphony, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, is nonetheless passed to a lover to endure. Cut to the third story, set in the 1970s, where the Sextet exists in obscurity but affects the lives of those it touches – including an ambitious female journalist, who is at the doorstep of a dangerous but career-altering lead involving the potentially devastating design flaws in nuclear reactors.
In the fourth story, an aged publisher does dealings with a threatening would-be autobiographer, and is forced to seek help from his brother, who has darker motives. The resulting consequence is that the publisher finds himself sentenced to imprisonment in a retirement home, and the movie engages an ensemble of older but quirky retirees in a secret plot to overthrow their “captors” and find freedom in the world outside (this, not coincidentally, is the funniest of the six fables). The antics implored by the group of elders becomes the premise for a popular movie that becomes passed down even further, and its effects resonate greatly with a woman in the distant future who is a victim of consumer enslavement. She is freed by an anarchist revolution that stands against a totalitarian government, which we gather has been structured on the basis of robbing the underprivileged of free will. The events of this story result in some sort of biblical manifesto that fuels the faith of the characters in the sixth story, whom are all survivors in a post-apocalyptic world that seems to have reverted back to its primitive instincts.
Confused yet? Don’t be; all of this is actually much clearer in context of a concentrated viewing or six. The material, however, is not presented in a linear fashion. This creates a dynamic challenge seldom seen in such multilayered movies: I refer to it as the “thrill of chasing a story.” Those too wound up by the kaleidoscopic execution will no doubt be frustrated enough to give up the chase altogether, fearing that the film is actually going in circles. In truth, the movie is smarter than it lets on; the editing creates a series of clever (but audible) overlaps that only appear randomized on the surface. Careful and attentive inspection, however, reveals deeper meanings, and a rhythm that isn’t nearly as difficult to join in on as many might have you suspect.
The cast list reads like a gathering at the A-list table of a Screen Actors award ceremony: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving, just to name a handful. To indicate which roles they play would be pointless, as nearly all of the 40-something speaking parts are interlaced in such a way that mere description would not offer any clear distinction. A good portion of the characters, furthermore, are so carefully masked that sometimes you don’t even know who is playing them. That is an especially remarkable feat given how recognizable many of these thespians are to their audience. On no less than five occasions, in fact, I marveled at the big reveals that roll over the closing credits; there, we physically see images of all the roles that each actor embodies throughout the movie. You can trust me when I make this statement: you would never be able to predict several of the disclosures.
Yet amidst all of these connecting events and stories, a center does emerge: the character of Sonmi-451, who is the focal point of the fifth story (some would later refer to her as a “Messiah”). Hers is the tale that absorbs every event and circumstance passed down through time into a critical juncture, where humanity reveals its very core cycle of survival: enslave, kill, and then risk everything to change the voice of just one in the ranks of a million innocuous followers. The actress, Doona Bae, must have been driven nearly mad by the idea of playing the role so straight and mild-mannered; after having to adopt an additional five or six roles in the same movie, each requiring its own distinctive approach, most would be too unnerved to take their creative thrust down so many notches. The performance is remarkable, and arises clearly amidst a slew of passionate (and potent) characterizations that are wall-to-wall in the narrative jigsaw.
A review will never do this movie justice. I would imagine, furthermore, that books will be written about it for generations, and the filmmakers no doubt have enough stories to share that would make for a rousing documentary. What I can convey, without question, is the presence of genius that is at work here: the genius of stunning cinematography, of careful and precise directing, of incomprehensible editing, of brilliant makeup, of multi-note performances from zealous actors, of brilliant art direction and special effects that reach beyond the film’s aspect ratio, of emotionally-charged lessons that rise from a unobstructed vision, and of storytelling that weaves philosophical implications in and out of lives that, in one way or another, carry a subtle forethought that their existence adds purpose in a grand scheme set by an unbound universal consciousness. Indeed, as perfectly framed in the movie’s most important line of dialogue: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
“Cloud Atlas” is, without so much as blinking an eye at the prospect, one of the great motion picture achievements of our time.
Thriller/Drama/Science Fiction (US); 2012; Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use; Running Time: 172 Minutes
Produced by Stefan Arndt, Alex Boden, David Brown, Jose Luis Escolar, Grant Hill, Lora Kennedy, Phillip Lee, Marcus Loges, Roberto Malerba, Gigi Oeri, Alexander Rodnyansky, Uwe Schott, Pearry Reginald Teo, Tom Tykwer, Alexander van Duelmen, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski; Directed and written by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski; based on the novel “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell