Review by Maryann Johanson, FlickFilosopher.com
It opens in the same way that, most likely, the very first story told for entertainment began, 100,000 years ago: with an elderly person wizened by wisdom speaking to an audience gathered round a campfire. I didn’t realize till Cloud Atlas was finished, a rousing and astonishingly quick three hours later, how thrilling an opening that is. For this is a meta story, an uber story: it’s a story about story. It’s a story about why we tell one another stories—about how we almost can’t not tell stories—and what stories mean to us, and how they affect us.
To say that this is an idea, entirely separate from this film, that consumes me is an understatement. It’s been the underlying thesis of my criticism from its inception. It is the thing that drives everything I think about when I think about storytelling. I recently figured out that being a movie geek and a TV geek and a book geek means that I am, in fact, a story geek. And that epiphany came only a nanosecond—compared to the scale of my life—before I saw Cloud Atlas. If this were a story, there would be great significance in such a seeming coincidence.
And maybe there will be some significance that I cannot even conceive of now. Cloud Atlas suggests there could be, at least potentially, especially since I’ve now written that down! For this isn’t a story merely about stories, but about how our lives are stories and those stories have a legacy that we cannot begin to imagine as we are living those stories or even when those stories are first retold. It’s bonkers how far across time and across the planet this insanely grand matrix of interconnected tales ranges, from 1849 to 1936 to 1973 to 2012 to 2144 to a future so distant and removed from our continuity of civilization—“106 years after the Fall”—that they no longer count on the same scale we do; from Cambridge to San Francisco to the middle of the widest ocean to locations unknown to us because even those who live there have forgotten what they were once called. The interconnections all come via stories told in diaries and novels and letters and manuscripts and movies and testimonies and even a symphony (which is a kind of story) passed down through time. The tales are in themselves gripping because they are all about the Big Important Things: truth and legend, love and betrayal, freedom and slavery. A lawyer on a sea voyage bearing a vital contract home becomes ill at sea; a journalist uncovers corporate malfeasance and becomes a target; a wannabe composer working with a renowned mentor believes he can surpass his boss’s genius; a once content slave worker in a dystopic future awakens to her plight and rebels. (That’s not an exhaustive list of the individual threads here.) But only we see how the past inspires the future via a narrative heritage inherited by the present. Well, no, that’s not quite true: of course the composer in 1936 knows he’s inexplicably gripped by the diary of the 1849 lawyer, who sees truths about the lawyer’s situation that the lawyer himself cannot see; of course the 1973 journalist knows she’s inexplicably gripped by the now faded and fragile romantic letters of the composer to his lover. But only we see the chain of inspiration that continues across countless generations, how the often seemingly mundane events of one life can nudge great things to happen in another.
Only we see a more tenuous connection that could, if you’re so inclined, be called the persistence of individual souls, or could be a “mere” fantastical expression of the metaphor of connection and continuity, simple human unity, and philosophical and biological succession (though there’s nothing insignificant about any of that, even if they’re also nothing supernatural). For a handful of actors play different characters across space and time, often intersecting in different ways than their apparent distant relations did. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, together again and reconnecting again over and over across human history, are an especial treat to watch, with their unexpected charm and chemistry together. (He’s always been charming; she’s so much more engaging, in his presence, than she often is in other films.) But the whole cast is entirely enthralling, over and over again, sometimes changing race and gender: Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, and Jim Sturgess in major roles; Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and James D’Arcy in smaller but still vital ones. (Sturgess is the other real standout, with a recurring magnetism across radically different roles—he goes from steam-age costume drama to sci-fi action here—and I hope this heralds the stardom for him I’ve been anticipating since I was first taken with him onscreen in Across the Universe) These are wonderful actors—and makeup artists!—giving multifaceted tour-de-force performances.
As we watch these oh-so-human people, their stories past present and future interacting with and feeding upon one another, something else extraordinary happens: Cloud Atlas ends up replicating the sort of experience we today have as we sit before our storytelling campfire of the television. Though it may sound contradictory, watching this wholly winning and completely cohesive movie is like flipping around the TV and happening upon all the Good Bits from half a dozen different and hugely awesome movies with each change of channel. Every sort of story is here: SF drama, postapocalyptic action, codger comedy, twee British romance, historical mystery, ’70s conspiracy thriller. And we’re getting the highlights of funny, exciting, affecting examples of the various genres, the important scenes in which people learn fundamental truths about themselves and the world and are rocked by them and choose to act on them, for better or worse. Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the sibling team of Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix Revolutions) may have separately adapted (from David Mitchell’s novel) and directed the separate temporally dispersed tales, but those distinct stories come together in a way that sneakily injects itself directly into our media-savvy minds. Our stories today, the really influential ones that have real cultural impact and that create our cultural context, are ones that have started in film and reinforced their hegemony in our minds via repeated exposure on the small screen. Or they originated on TV in the first place. (There’s one funny—funny-strange and funny-haha—tendril of connection that sees a pop-culture joke of today become reality in the future.) In some ways, too, then, Cloud Atlas is about how we tell ourselves stories right at this precise moment of human history.
My god, I love this movie. It’s every movie. It’s the ultimate movie. There’s a line from another movie that I love but can’t quite place at the moment, but it kept ringing through my mind as I watched this film: “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” I refuse to Google it*, because it doesn’t matter: it’s from a story that’s like the kinds of stories Cloud Atlas is about. It could be about this movie, and that’s all that matters.
*Of course I Googled it: it’s from Gladiator.