Dir. Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer. Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Doona Bae
Mark Harris, whose best work as a film critic concerns the larger trend of American studios making the safest decisions possible to the detriment of American film, has spent years on the topic by now. I don’t know what his opinion on Cloud Atlas is as a film – the general consensus on it is that it’s too ambitious for it own good – but better Cloud Atlas than another superhero movie.
That general consensus sells the movie a little short, I think. Cloud Atlas makes two mistakes which I think are hard to put aside. First, the David Mitchell novel the film is based on is more rigidly structured than the film. For example, the Pacific Islands plot is given the first and twelfth chapters, the Cambridge and Edinburgh plot the second and eleventh, and so on. While I can appreciate that Tykwer and the Wachowskis would want to place all of the buildup and exposition at the top and then finish with climax after climax, it seems to me that the film could have just as easily created waves of feeling and then let their audience make the connections themselves, rather than gift-wrapping them. People swim in the ocean to enjoy wave after wave, rather than weathering one big wave all at once. Even a totally chronological film would have created more mystery and emphasized the power of connectivity. (It would hardly have been impossible to chart the way that the last story seeps into the present one: Adam Ewing’s diaries to the Cloud Atlas suite to “Half-Lives” to The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish to the revelations of Sonmi~451.) This is a film issue, and doubtless someone on YouTube has already created a chronological Cloud Atlas that’s probably a legitimate editor away from being a better movie. The issue that’s significantly more troublesome is the yellowface that everyone signed off on 2012. The cast is mostly white (with the notable exceptions of Halle Berry, Doona Bae, and Keith David), and so in the Neo-Seoul segments we have a depressingly huge number of non-Asian actors being made up to look that way. Yellowface has tarried behind blackface in terms of “No, actually, that’s racist” in this country for some time; consider Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon, who originated the Engineer and is still very much associated with the role. This is the really critical flaw in the film, far more than the structural issues which likewise plague it. It’s easy enough to see how the filmmakers talked themselves into it (“We used the same actors for all of the other sections!”), but it should have been a much quicker decision to say, “No, we’ll figure something else out for this part of the movie.” The rest of the film’s issues – special effects which were below the state of the art at the time of release, scene-chewing that occasionally falls into scene-chomping, it’s maybe a little long, Tykwer’s three sections are higher quality than the Wachowskis’ three – we can take or leave personally.
I’ve seen the movie a few times now, and returning to it recently I found myself thinking about the movie not just as a statement of universal human connection. The film is, of course, about human connection. Luisa and Isaac are struck by how quickly they hit it off with one another. Frobisher and Sixsmith, despite sharing about thirty seconds on screen together, make one of the more affective romantic pairs in a movie from this decade. A significant portion of Timothy Cavendish’s life has been spent pining over the one who got away. Zachry and Meronym have what’s probably the most complete relationship of the film, spanning the full gamut of emotions. Hae-Joo Chang helps to open up Sonmi~451 to the humanity which had been denied her for her entire existence. Some works can get away with people, for the most part, being changed by environment or God or themselves; Cloud Atlas doesn’t do a soaring job in showing how people change people, but it’s not incompetent either.
The emphasis on human connection is why the story of Sonmi~451 (Bae) is very much at the heart of the movie. Her most repeated line, one of the revelations that is the root of a pseudo-religion taken up centuries later by primitive people, is referenced for good reason:
Sonmi451: Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness we birth our future.
There’s something vaguely karmic, in the way that we Starbucks-Purchasers use the term, about her position, although the film is smart enough not to indulge that line of thought too much. The “Cloud Atlas tells the story of how Tom Hanks becomes a good person” line of thought is bankrupt because his characters simply don’t progress that neatly. Some characters, like Bae’s, seem to be on the right side of history no matter what; others, like Hugo Weaving’s (naturally) or Hugh Grant’s (I know, right?), aren’t. Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, and James D’Arcy have more unpredictable arcs; some people, like Susan Sarandon, appear to be given to the background regardless. It is more likely that Sonmi’s words are more meaningful within each individual life (particularly given the prepositional phrase at the top of the sentence), and we can’t help but attach a significantly wider meaning to the word “future” given what we’re watching. And we certainly do keep track of which actors play which characters, and we notice the interesting comet birthmarks on many of our principals, and we see the battle of the decent weak against the conniving strong. But this is where we start to see repetition sneak in as the key element of this film.
Late in the Pacific Islands segment, which is set in 1849 and is thus the earliest piece of the film, Dr. Goose (Hanks) tells his ailing patient, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess, whose affable persona makes him a better fit in this movie than any other I’ve seen him in) that all nature is the story of the weak against the strong. “The weak are meat,” he says, “and the strong do eat.” For the gold that Ewing carries on his voyage back to San Francisco, Goose is willing to kill him, and very nearly pulls it off. Only the intercession of a runaway slave named Autua (David Gyasi) hiding out on the ship prevents Goose from administering the fatal dose of poison which would sneakily finish Ewing off for good. Cloud Atlas spans nearly five hundred years of humanity, and most of it tries to contradict Goose’s nifty little aphorism about power. The strong are ubiquitous in Cloud Atlas: the institution of slavery in 1849, the power of an established name in 1936, a nuclear power plant which is a front for Big Oil in 1973, a sadistic nursing home in 2012, an all-seeing government in 2144, a vicious tribe of warriors in the post-apocalyptic future. And the weak who face them are outnumbered, outgunned, outmaneuvered. On a societal level, the weak are largely culled. Despite the best efforts of nascent abolitionist Adam Ewing, we know how American did with slavery; Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas sextet is recognized after his death by a very small number of people as genius; Sonmi~451 and her resistance are wiped out; so too are the less advanced tribe on Big Isle. Individuals, however, find some sliver of recompense or retribution. Zachry may be among the last of his tribe, but he acts heroically and comes to a good end. Sonmi, even before her execution, manages to convince her interrogator of the rightness of her cause. Luisa, despite the deaths around her, manages to expose the brass at the nuclear power plant and save countless lives. And Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent, going full goofball), the ennui-stricken old man, manages to have something of an adventure. Cloud Atlas is, at least in this context, pretty far from naive. The film finds a way to realistically, and even optimistically, showcase the power of individuals who resist more powerful forces. Their victories are only clear in the future, maybe, or they may only be personal, but they still scrape out triumphs.