I value ambition in movies and so I was rather drawn to Cloud Atlas (2012), the collaboration of directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski and their imaginations, and that of David Mitchell, who wrote the novel on which it is based. Speaking of novels and ambition, and if you’ll forgive a diversion (which, if you’re to get through Cloud Atlas, you’ll have to), the movie reminded me of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, not only because it was difficult to understand, but because, like Quentin, it seemed to be all ambition and no motivation, which can make for an admirable failure. Also, both meet their end in a lovely oblivion. Cloud Atlas ends so nicely you can almost smell the honeysuckle.
How does one synopsize the unsynopsizable? The movie stars Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant, who play different characters from a half–dozen stories spanning the 19th century to the 25th. In one scene Berry will be an investigative reporter in the 1970s; in the next she will be a nomad from the future. If we get used to Broadbent as a bitter composer, he’s suddenly a Korean musician. The stories are vaguely similar and the actors play like-minded characters (including Doona Bae, who is best remembered as a futuristic robot but is often a character who, though human, gives of herself). They are connected by symbols and birthmarks, and they deal with the human need for freedom and the nature of fate. Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Keith David and James D’Arcy also play a handful of characters each.
The trap the movie sets for the viewer is to tantalizingly dangle the possibility of an answer to its puzzling structure. This is a dangerous path; do not go down it. The movie works in the present; what each moment has to do with the one that precedes and follows it, or with the world in general, is a mystery the movie doesn’t give you the equipment to solve. Enjoy what you’re looking at anon and be prepared to change gears completely. My favorite story line is a comic one, set in the present, where Broadbent, playing a publisher who gets in trouble with the mob is committed to a stern assisted–living facility by his scheming brother (played by Grant, who’s the villain in many of the stories) and Broadbent organizes a breakout.
Broadbent emerges as the star of Cloud Atlas (along with D’Arcy, who has less screen time but makes the most of it), though the contributions of Berry, who reprises the role of underdog hero in her stories and Hanks, often hidden behind an accent and impressive makeup, as a sort of wise guide. All of these sections are visually distinct, either made up flawlessly with the period accoutrements or creatively imagined as stylized future worlds, doubtlessly showing off the Wachowski siblings’ knack for inventive locations.
“Our lives are not our own; we are bound to others,” is as close to a thesis as Cloud Atlas will begrudge us. Whether it has a theory about reincarnation or the nature of time, based on what I saw, I cannot say, only that it makes many references to the past repeating itself. My wife tells me she can immediately discern if someone will be important in her life upon meeting them, a skill others have similarly disclosed to me. Perhaps we are all interconnected in the fabric of time with a troupe of a few dozen, and we simply fill eternity going through the same adventures but with different scenery. As the movie suggests, perhaps we are not dead for long. It’s possible that my wife and others better attuned to the universe than I are simply recognizing their fellow players.
I don’t have the slightest clue whether or not the filmmakers wanted to lead me to those thoughts, but it is where my mind wound up. More than the exceptional visuals, this open-endedness is Cloud Atlas’s greatest achievement. An unclear message can drive some viewers to frustration or boredom, but I often find in it the freedom so many of the movie’s characters strive for. I’m able to draw my own conclusions. Throughout the film (when my mind wasn’t on Faulkner or my wife), I thought often of that most ambiguous of film moralists, Krzysztof Kieślowski, who certainly would never make a movie like Cloud Atlas, but it made me think of his Double Life of Veronique (1991), which wasn’t about meeting the important people in your life but just missing them. I also thought the movie felt like what might happen if you took each episode from Kieślowski’s The Decalogue, which presents 10 one-hour sections devoted loosely to the Ten Commandments, and mixed all the scenes together. What I like about Kieślowski, among other things, is that he invites me to relate his obscure stories to my own personal morality; in a small way Cloud Atlas did this for my spirituality and world view. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that by doing so, I’ve done some of the work for the filmmakers, who provide no strong point-of-view themselves. In many ways Cloud Atlas feels slightly hollow, as if they struck a deal with us to provide the images if we provide the meaning.
For all his open-endedness, Kieślowski never feels like he doesn’t have a theory on the purpose of his movies, a feeling I got a lot during Cloud Atlas. Less so for Tykwer, but the Wachowskis have always struck me as students awkwardly putting on the clothes of the professor. That’s not to suggest I think they’re amateurs; they’re excellent visual filmmakers but I get a sense from them that they want their thrillers to carry more weight than they do. The movies that made their name, The Matrix series, have always struck me as standard shoot-em-ups pumped up with pretense; they play to their strengths when they are storytellers, not philosophers. That’s why their best movies, like their debut Bound (1996) and their last movie, the criminally undervalued and wonderfully enjoyable Speed Racer (2008), have more meager aims but achieve a more full success. They feel like Peter Jackson’s more than Terence Malick’s. In fact, it was hard not to think of Malick during Cloud Atlas (Ok, that’s Faulkner, my wive, Kieślowski, now Malick), which had his visual eye (though Malick uses nature more than the imagination-renderers of computers) and some of his stream-of-consciousness but little of his depth. Still, Cloud Atlas is a step forward for the Wachowskis, I believe, because they certainly haven’t lost their touch for compelling images and action, and they come closer than ever to attaching some sort of heft to their stories.
So, should you go and see Cloud Atlas? The answer is incontrovertibly yes. I’d rather sit through ten Cloud Atlases, which sets its goal in the atmosphere and falls somewhat short, than just one Taken 2 (2012), which meets its aims just below the grass line. If you watch it as a movie and less as a story, it becomes a visual wonder and a small sample of what movies can be: comedies, dramas, thrillers, time machines to the past and future. The risks that the filmmakers are taking are never out of sight and watching them narrowly avoid pitfalls adds an extra level of exhilaration. The less you focus on what it can mean, the more you can search yourself for what it means to you. And more than that, I admired Cloud Atlas very much, because of its wonderful sound and fury—to hell with what it signifies.