Explaining what happens in Cloud Atlas is surprisingly simple. Explaining why it deserves to be loved and admired is a little harder.
The story (based on a novel by David Mitchell) is in fact six separate stories. In 1849, a dying lawyer crosses the Pacific Ocean. An aspiring composer finds work as an amanuensis to a musical legend in 1930s Scotland. A San Francisco journalist in 1973 is embroiled in a shady conspiracy. In 2012, a doddering old publisher goes on the run after a brush with gangsters. An enslaved clone fights for her freedom in a dystopian version of 22nd century Korea, and on a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian island a shepherd helps a member of an advanced civilisation reach the top of a mountain.
Taken on their own, each of these tales is a gem. As a whole, they’re a brave, brilliant and transcendentally beautiful piece of cinema that takes everything we know about narrative and genre and turns it completely on its head. Not only have the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer managed to film a supposedly unfilmable novel – they’ve actually improved on the source material.
Mitchell’s original novel presents this sextet of stories like a set of Russian dolls, each one stacking on top of the other in chronological order before being unpacked again. The film, on the other hand, treats them more as a mosaic. We’re introduced to each story in turn in a near-perfect five-minute intro, before cutting across the timeline back and forth almost at random. It’s only as each story unfolds, and we step further and further back from the canvas, that the true majesty of the full picture and the skill of the editing is revealed.
While they jump wildly from thriller to science fiction to period drama and even outright comedy, the messages at the heart of each sequence are near identical. These are stories about fighting for freedom (be that freedom of thought or freedom from captivity); about the ways we change as societies and as people, and about searching for redemption in many different forms. What’s most amazing about it is how all six stories feel absolutely essential – take any of them away, and the house of cards would topple completely. Even the 2012 story, which casts Jim Broadbent in a parody of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is a testament to just how superbly written the screenplay is. Throwaway lines like a reference to Soylent Green take on an unexpected poignancy when put next to on of the film’s recurring motifs: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”
It’s not just themes that link the parts of Cloud Atlas together – the small but perfectly formed cast all play multiple roles through some incredible make-up, and turn what could have been the movie’s silliest gimmick into its biggest strength. Actors like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving change age, race and even gender to play half a dozen roles each, and yet it’s always clear who is underneath (mostly, anyway: seeing who Halle Berry played in the Neo-Seoul segment still blows me away every time).
It’s a move that’s garnered some controversy – why, the naysayers argue, couldn’t they have hired Korean actors to play the Korean parts? Because to do so would be to miss the whole point of Cloud Atlas. Ideas of reincarnation and recurrence are so vital to the plot. These characters are reborn, and yet they make the same mistakes over and over. They are different, but fundamentally the same – something that director Lana Wachowski undoubtedly understands as a transgender woman.
With a budget of around $102 million, Cloud Atlas has been described as the most expensive independent movie ever made, and not a single cent was wasted. Tom Tykwer’s score, including Robert Frobisher’s ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’, is a masterful work that ebbs and flows beautifully as the film unfolds, while the visual effects are some of the most stunning of the Wachowskis’ entire career. That money looks all the more well-spent when you consider how difficult it was to find funding in the first place. The directors had to seek funding from many different organisations in Tykwer’s native Germany, while the Wachowskis contributed $7 million out of their own pocket. All three have admitted that, if Tom Hanks hadn’t pressured them to get on the plane and fly out to start principal photography, this movie might never have gotten made.
That, when all is said and done, is why Cloud Atlas is a cinematic milestone. Not for the acting, or the writing, or the visuals, but for the mere fact that these maniacs actually managed to pull it off. They took an impossible leap of faith, and in doing so they made something the likes of which nobody had ever seen before. When the next decade’s worth of Best Picture winners have faded from our memory, Cloud Atlas will still be remembered as one of the most ambitious and important movies ever made.
And that’s the true-true.