Can I write six different reviews of Cloud Atlas under six unique names, each one offering a varied take on the movie? Not only would that be in keeping with the film’s structure – in which a handful of actors play numerous parts across various times and locations – it would also be an easier way to express the extreme ambivalence I have about this audacious, yet never quite awesome, project.
A bit of plot synopsis, because a comprehensive one would have us here all day: adapted from the novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas alternates among a series of tangentially connected narratives that are set, among other places, in the Pacific Islands of 1849, San Francisco of 1979, London of 2012 and the future city of Neo Seoul. Along the way we meet a variety of characters, most played by the same core set of actors. Tom Hanks is simultaneously a 17th-century doctor, a groovy nuclear physicist and a post-apocalyptic primitive who lives in the forest and talks like Jar Jar Binks. Hugo Weaving is, at turns, a voodoo ghost and an abusive female nurse. Halle Berry is a crusading journalist and a British composer’s wife. You can see already the film’s ambition – and potential pitfalls.
A recurring motif in a few of these story lines is “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” an elaborate musical composition created by a suicidal wunderkind (Ben Whishaw). Indeed, Cloud Atlas functions as a symphony in many ways. Conducted as much as it is directed (Andy and Lana Wachowski have helmed some segments and Tom Tykwer others, with Alexander Berner serving the crucial role of editor), the movie floats along from one movement to another with amazing ease, allowing the familiar faces of the same actors to serve a role similar to what repeated chords do in a musical piece: create tonal echoes that help disparate movements relate to each other within a coherent whole. Even its detractors – and this is a movie that’s easy to take potshots at – will have to admit that Cloud Atlas is more fluid than it has any right to be.
Cloud Atlas is at its most successfully symphonic near its midpoint, once its various locations and time frames have been established and the cross-cutting among them achieves a visual and thematic resonance. Two parallel scenes of attempted liberation – a slave’s leap from a ship’s mast in 1849 and a fugitive’s escape via a bridge between skyscrapers in Neo Seoul – use a sense of extreme height to generate suspense, thereby amplifying each other (as well as the third, less dynamic, thread in the sequence, of Berry’s journalist sneaking into an office at an energy company she’s investigating). In this way, the movie is something akin to one of the concerti grossi of Handel or Bach, in which the music is passed back and forth among a small group of soloists and a full orchestra (a music professor who knows much more about this than I do pointed me to Handel’s Twelve Grand Concertos and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 as examples).
So Cloud Atlas’ self-imposed, musical allusions are more than a grasping for pretension, then. Tykwer and the Wachowskis are talented enough to pull it off, at least in structural terms. But to what end?
If the movie’s construction is intricate, its handling of its main thematic concern is the opposite. In action and explicit dialogue, Cloud Atlas repeatedly hammers home this unassailable message: Freedom good. Oppression bad. (In fact, Hanks’ primitive sort of sounds like this.) Almost all of the major characters are struggling to free themselves from some form of oppression, whether it’s the brainwashed café waitress in Neo Seoul (Xun Zhou) or the book publisher (Jim Broadbent) who has been unwittingly committed to a nursing home. Others – like the 17th-century explorer (Jim Sturgess) who befriends a slave (David Gyasi) – are awakening to the ways that the conventions they follow are built upon the oppression of others. In Cloud Atlas, it isn’t enough that this friendship between master and slave develops, however. The movie also includes a climactic scene in which that explorer defiantly tells his racist father-in-law: “We’re moving back East, to work with the abolitionists!”
If Cloud Atlas is a symphony, it beats its message like a gong.