I gave up reading Cloud Atlas after beginning the second section. The novel is written in first person with thick dialect appropriate to the time of the character writing. This makes comprehension difficult. The reader must also slog through this to come to understand the time and world and place of the character, all while the character remains frustratingly obtuse. It’s rather unforgiving, and when the second section began only to drop the first thread entirely and leave the reader in a completely unconnected world, it was too much to take.
The film then has quite a bit to deal with. In the opening sequence we are whisked through half a dozen places and times and introduced to too many characters to remember. Over it all though, we hear one character asking us to bare with him, that if we just wait, we’ll see how this all adds up. Naturally, he’s speaking of his own writing, not the film that we’re watching, but we know how to apply this, and this wonderful meta plea from the directors goes quite a ways. We instantly feel that we’re in hands aware of how daunting this film may be to grapple with.
There are six movies here: a pirate journey, a period love story, a political thriller, a wacky comedy, a science fiction dystopia, and a post-apocalyptic adventure. The film is near to three hours long, and it needs every second of it. We cut between all six threads at varying speeds, sometimes quickly to orient us or draw comparisons between events, elsewhere we linger, spending significant time to establish the world and plot. It’s remarkable how the film retains our interest. Even when we’re away from threads for a time, we never lose our place. The film never spends too much time in one thread or forgets another thread for too long. The bouncing across time is never problematic. Even if there is no conclusiveness from where we were, it always feels correct. The film justifies every cut through juxtaposed imagery or ideas. It cuts from one character’s shuffling feet across one thousand years to another’s. It cuts from a character musing on an opening door to a physical door opening. Even if these connections seem simplistic, they go a long way in elaborating upon the connecting themes of each story.
It is, certainly, a film one must be patient with, though one never feels this need for patience. For all its ambition and niche appeal, the film comes off with mainstream sensibilities. This likely works to its strengths. This isn’t to say it is cheesy or broad, but rather, everything is clearly shown. There are subtleties, but largely these lie in the connections between the threads rather than careful moments within any one. This makes each thread deeply engaging. They’re all big and exciting, and they simultaneously speak to something more important. The film does, however, rely on our intense interest in each of these threads to keep things moving. For a good portion of the film, though we have a solid situation within each of these worlds, we can’t quite see its broader purpose or plot. It never becomes an issue, but later in the film when one still can’t see this, it can begin to nag.
This is resolved through an eventual realization: there is no grand meeting of these threads or grand purpose within these threads. These are each simple enough stories. They need to go from one place to the next. Someone comes, someone leaves, someone discovers something. Each is as good as a film devoted solely to that. There is perhaps an inherent hint of some greater crossing that films like Cloud Atlas or Magnolia cannot escape and cannot fulfill. Magnolia does not try to and neither does Cloud Atlas. When we realize this, the film’s projection becomes clear. It may not resolve in some Earth-shattering revelation, but rather, it intends to resolve in a myriad of personal connections and parallels.
Helping us draw these parallels is the continual reuse of actors. Sometimes we can recognize them, other times we can only question the similarity. It works to great effect. Big actors like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are an intentional choice. We can always pick them out in each world. It isn’t distracting, rather, it’s enlightening. The directors make incredible visual choices. The depiction of Neo Seoul tells an entire story. We see Old Seoul, we see why this bizarre world of shanties has been constructed over water and around the remnants of buildings. It’s an entire culture and history explained through visuals. Otherwise, the film’s visuals succeed on minor flourishes. Smooth shots of a car from above, a shadow falling in the background.
It’s interesting to compare the science fiction here to that of The Matrix, another film made by The Wachowskis, two-thirds of Cloud Atlas’s directorial team (the final member being Tom Tykwer, known best for Run Lola Run). We see shots of machines descending on humans in a way reminiscent of Neo’s first awakening. There are conversations where “the one” bashfully and humbly declines their destiny. We see endless fields of machines manhandling humans. We even get the kind of swift and skillful fight sequences one would expect from The Wachowskis, a great surprise after Speed Racer and those other two Matrix films.
The film’s conclusion may not be fulfilling in a specific way, because simply, it cannot manage this. There is no one answer to these six stories. Each is individually smart, however, and their collective ideas form something ambitious and hopefully meaningful. The film is almost impossibly big, and it perhaps has no one specific message to deliver. This may hurt its impact. It cannot be sharp and precise. Instead, it leaves you with a broad fabric of ideas and emotions, though one that is truly taught. You won’t be walking out in tears, but as the film settles in, there’s a whole spectrum of emotions and ideas to consider. Cloud Atlas is a stunning piece of cinema.