Admission up front: I have a weakness for cosmic-scale, philosophically inclined sci-fi stories. That’s a pretty niche market, and includes such polarizing epics as “The Fountain” and “The Tree of Life.” Are these movies ambitious? Yes. Are they impossibly pretentious? Maybe so. And “Cloud Atlas,” love it or hate it, is perhaps the grandest entry yet into this narrow subgenre.
I loved the source material (David Mitchell’s novel), and reviewed it several months ago. Naturally, I was curious to see how such a complex and multilayered plot would translate into a big-budget cinematic blockbuster – particularly one helmed by the Wachowski siblings (responsible for the “Matrix” trilogy).
It’s hard to explain the plot, as six seemingly unrelated stories are intertwined into one: a lawyer in the Pacific Isles who learns about human dignity; a bisexual composer in Edinburgh struggling to distinguish himself; a daring tabloid reporter investigating a nuclear power plant; an elderly publisher trying to escape an oppressive retirement home; a cloned girl who becomes the leader of a futuristic rebellion; and a tribesman battling subhuman cannibals in post-apocalyptic Hawaii.
In a departure from the source material (more on that to follow), “Cloud Atlas” is interpreted for the screen as a reincarnation story. The same cast of A-list actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, etc.) occupies each of the six stories, playing different roles. This is a fascinating technique that beautifully captures the motif of souls traveling across centuries. At times, this even employs gender- and race-changing makeup for dramatic effect. Say what you will about its worldview…it’s a remarkably inventive piece of filmmaking.
For that matter, the worldview of “Cloud Atlas” is inseparable from its plot and other merits – this is a movie that demands to be evaluated holistically. Most notably, “Cloud Atlas” drastically diverges philosophically from its source material. Mitchell’s novel was fundamentally dystopian, envisioning a brutal future ruled by Nietzschean principles of subjugation and violence. Conversely, the Wachowskis’ interpretation posits a counter-principle: something that may be best described as “the Power of Love.” As a result, the storyline moves from entropic (“everything is getting worse because of humans and their depraved natures”) to karmic (“every action shifts one’s rebirth and impacts the course of the future”).
When compared to the much bleaker novel, the endings of several stories are completely inverted. This was highly jarring to me at first, until I realized something critical: the worldview underlying the story has been completely stripped out and replaced with something much more comprehensible to mainstream audiences. The film is a hopeful humanistic vision, whereas the book is a grim warning against the “will to power.”
None of this means that “Cloud Atlas” is a failure as a film. In fact, the Wachowskis’ changes probably make for a better and more accessible movie. (It’s fair to say that the original text, if rendered as written, would produce a disastrously choppy result.) But as a work of art or literature, the movie lacks the nuance of its source material. The Hollywood-added epilogue (a “seventh plot,” if you will) particularly grated on me: its tone is joyous and optimistic, a far cry from the thought-provoking sobriety of the original conclusion.
The acting is great, as one would expect from performers of this caliber, and the visuals are breathtaking (particularly the science fiction-themed segments – I got the feeling the movie blew most of its $100 million budget on these). The story’s flow is surprisingly fluid…anyone put off by the obtuse imagery of “The Tree of Life” will find “Cloud Atlas” far more comprehensible.
Of note: this is definitely not an all-audiences film. “Cloud Atlas” is oftentimes brutally violent, and none of it feels sanitized or stylized. There’s also some momentary nudity (in a non-erotic context), a sexual encounter between two protagonists, and occasional harsh language. Overall, the movie’s R rating is justified.
There’s so much I could say about “Cloud Atlas.” At almost three hours in length (it never feels this long), the film is jam-packed with ideas, images, and themes that demand a more thorough deconstruction. (I was very glad I’d read the novel before seeing the movie.) Aficionados of the genre, like me, will be blown away by the stellar production values on display here.
Audiences with more mainstream tastes, however, probably won’t enjoy “Cloud Atlas” without a knowledge of the source material. At times, characters’ thick accents can be impenetrable, which muddles important plot points. The six-stories-in-one structure, while inventive and well-executed, sometimes moves too abruptly between time periods (cutting from the middle of a futuristic chase scene, for instance, to an argument aboard a ship).
Would I recommend this movie? Undoubtedly – but with caveats. Read the book first…I can’t imagine seeing the film any other way.
A majestic, though imperfect, vision of human existence.