Invariably when I say I’ve seen Cloud Atlas, the first question always is, “What’s it about?” That’s like asking what the Internet is about — easy to ask, difficult to answer… especially if you’re trying not to spoiler the movie badly.
Since its release, like or dislike for Cloud Atlas seems to reveal more about the viewer than about the film. In one of the later sequences, Sonmi-451 says, “Knowledge is a mirror, and for the first time in my life, I was allowed to see who I was….” Well, Atlas is a mirror as well, a jumbled network of ideas and characters aiming to tell us more about ourselves, and trying to sort through everything on the fly can be dizzying. It took me two viewings to discern what through-lines exist, and a third to start noticing small repetitive details that pull the through-lines together.
In the broadest sense, Cloud Atlas explores the influence of universal karma in the lives of a few particular souls reborn across a span of five hundred years. The movie even provides its own metaphor for this journey in the orchestral piece entitled, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” which one of the characters composes but musically overlays all the segments. The gist is that we (human beings) create this music together; we are not separate from each other as we might imagine, not isolated strains; no, we all are part of the same symphony and not just contribute to each other’s melodies but are changed by them, for good or ill.
Cloud Atlas is ambitious and probably terrifying to film — the kind of feeling that you are leaping out into space without a rope and that a pack of savages awaits you at the bottom of the fall if you fail to fly. But the directors thought through everything, from what aspects of the book were most important to capture to what changes needed to be made in order to fit the medium of film.
One of the most brilliant conversions was the structure. The book is written in chiasmic fashion, where if you assign each part a letter, the structure can be depicted as ABCDEFEDCBA. The movie, however, spirals through the narratives in an ABCDEF approach, to set the stage for each, then continues to whirl from part to part based on the visual and audial hooks from each in a way that reinforces the moment’s theme and tone. In this way, the settings and characters are not only established before we can forget who everyone is, but there are tighter dramatic links between each story – the similarities in pattern are more obvious, the resonance more pronounced.
The souls are also of different makes and models. One struggles with suicide regardless of incarnation. Two others seem perpetual villains, their lot in life only worsening with each despicable or boorish act they pursue as extensions of the “order of the age” (and let’s clear this up front – society is not the hero in this movie, it’s the disease). There are souls that are good but bland, and the occasional noble spirit. And a few of these souls seem adept at finding each other, life after life, to reaffirm love once thought lost.
There is one soul in particular who swings between bad and good, incarnation through incarnation, until there is finally an opportunity for repeated acts of bravery to compensate for past patterns of cowardice and greed. Even then, salvation will be found jointly, if at all. “From womb to tomb,” says Sonmi-451, “we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” We speak of individual souls, yes, but in a sense we’re all part of the same ocean and there is no division between us.
The actors are all invested; some succeed better than others. The stories are also of all different genre and tone — from noir detective and modern farce to scifi thriller and a version of Burgess’ Nadsat — so some sequences might be more palatable than others to a particular viewer. Still, the performances are most interesting in the vision they contribute to, even if it’s amazing how certain actors melt into their roles so much as to be almost unrecognizable. Complaints about makeup hold less water with the audience needing to recognize the souls via the actors, so makeup has to still permit some sense of who is wearing it. Having a racially and gender-diverse cast where all actors eventually portray all genders and nationalities in their various reincarnations reminds us that boundaries and categories are ultimately illusions, which would make the suppression of individual voices a form of social murder. The Wachowski siblings made this statement back in the Matrix, where rebellion against the system is mandated in order to save it, and it would be no wonder if Lana, with her unique background, has contributed an accentuated personal sense here of what marginalization of minorities can occur at the hands of the social order.
The strengths of Cloud Atlas seem to also be its weaknesses. It is big, broad, interwoven; multi-genred, generating a gamut of emotions; at times it can seem like a big ball of rewound yarn, unruly and rough around the edges, parts of it impenetrable until the outer layers unravel. It has characters that can be considered funny, scary, lovable, loathsome, admirable, resonant. At the same time, if you step back to see rather than getting lost in the details, you can see something bigger that all that, like a field of night festooned with twinkling stars … and the occasional brilliant comet streaking across.