Verdict: 5 stars (out of 5) – If it doesn’t tickle your fancy, you have no soul
It takes a certain boldness to cast Hugo Weaving in a movie as both a 1970’s hit man and a heavy old nurse who tyrannizes a senior center in 2012. That boldness might approach insanity if you also cast him as a Korean official of a corrupt government in a dystopic future, a wealthy southerner involved in the slave trade, and as a Grinch-like monster that exists only in the hallucinating mind of a Tom Hanks character who exists in the future after the dystopia and speaks a bastardized version of English while painting star maps on his face.
You can see how an attempt to make a single, coherent movie out of this story might be near-impossible. Yet while Cloud Atlas is, perhaps inevitably, quite clumsy at times, each storyline contributes to simple yet powerful themes that make you leave the theater thinking about the universe and your place in it – what more could you want from a movie?
What makes Cloud Atlas fascinating and worth watching is that, at its core, the movie unabashedly and honestly affirms the power behind platitudes, reminding us that clichés and sentimentality are much more than just ammunition for our cynicism – they’re the unspoken rules that we live by and the feelings that we live for. A Tom Hanks character says, “She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” in a way that reminds us that this saying is more than just a dead phrase triggered automatically by a sense of spousal responsibility.
Cloud Atlas endeavors to reinvigorate these dead phrases with the enormity of the feelings that generated their very existence so that we may hear them as if for the first time. Ignoring the advice of George Orwell, the Wachowski siblings and Tykwer unabashedly attempt to resuscitate the “evocative power” of dying metaphors, and if the resulting movie isn’t wholly effective, it’s at least one worth experiencing.
The movie develops a few sets of dualisms to illustrate the importance of its central optimism: 1849 pits a dog-eat-dog social Darwinism against race-transcending friendship, 1936 gives us a fight between the visibility of the ‘legitimate’ (aristocratic heterosexual) life and the invisibility of the ‘illegitimate’ (homosexual conman) one, 1973 combats nihilistic corporatism with journalistic integrity, 2012 gives us a hilarious cage-match between medicalization and whimsical insanity, 2144 terrifies us with a political authoritarianism that overruns forbidden love, and 106 winters after ‘The Fall’ bookends all of these stories with a simple affirmation of family and fellowship over atrophied tradition and cannibalistic gluttony. Not confused enough? See the graph below!
Like the characters and actors in Cloud Atlas, these tensions are reiterations of a central divergence between two different ways to look at our lives – we can see ourselves as forms of matter whose death is inconsequential to the deterministic marching of time and material process, or we can realize the power we have to imbue our lives with meaning, affirming the eternality of each lived moment spent in one another’s company.
Sound schmaltzy? That’s the entire point – Cloud Atlas, in the words of Lana Wachowski, shows us that it’s ok to “look up” without any cynical throat-clearing. Cormac McCarthy captures this sentiment more eloquently, writing in The Road that all of this is “like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
Cloud Atlas does not endeavour to avoid the realization that we live in an indifferent universe, but remains intent on showing us that this indifference gives us an incredible (if not terrifying) freedom to breathe life into our ideas and relationships.
This isn’t to say that Cloud Atlas is a frivolous feel-good movie: the schmaltz is often a reaction to a very tangible bio-political threat. The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer use their optimism to accentuate the bio-political horror that is realized when political power becomes concerned not only with what we do with our bodies, but with how our bodies function as bodies.
This is most obviously evident in the 2144 storyline, where political power governs its subjects’ diets, sleep patterns and the like. The ancient Greek distinction between zoe (‘natural’ life traditionally outside the scope of political sovereignty) and bios (the particular form of political life) is collapsed in order to produce this dystopic nightmare where bodies, even in death, exist as commodities.
Life isn’t allowed to exceed politics – when ‘fabricants’ are named by sequential number, they don’t work as waitresses but are waitresses because they are constituted as such in their very biology by a supreme political authority.
This is the same horror we find in the Wachowski siblings’ Matrix movies, where life is made to exist only so that it can function as a battery for machines – it’s the horror of forgetting that life does not equal function. Sonmi-451 broadcasts a wake-up call to the oppressed as a last stand against the power that seeks to impose a total functional order, and it’s a stand that is reiterated throughout all of the alternating grandiosity and minutia of Cloud Atlas’ stories.
The multiple narratives of Cloud Atlas work tremendously in that they are used to reveal the complexity and variability of its seemingly simple central themes – it doesn’t just use its stories to exhaust us with the retelling of its central message, it uses its stories to entertain and engage us with an exploration of that message.
A perfect instance of this is the way in which Cloud Atlas connects the hilarity of Jim Broadbent’s struggle with a tyrannical nurse with the seriousness of Doona Bae’s doomed revolt against a terrifyingly intrusive and absolute political regime. These stories couldn’t seem to be farther apart, but they remain connected by the universality of our struggle to define and determine ourselves against the powers that seek to do those things for us.
The pairing of these narratives demonstrate that their common themes are so perennial that they can be both tragic and comic – or, in a reversal of Carol Burnett’s aphorism, tragedy becomes comedy plus time, and there’s plenty enough time in Cloud Atlas to allow for that transformation.
When a movie guides us on a genuine and intelligent exploration of these ideas, it seems ridiculous to try and quantify the experience using some bullshit movie-rating apparatus. It’s ironic that we take a movie so unapologetically concerned about the need to look beyond the settled regimes of power and perspective that shape our lives and force it to justify itself in a rating system.
So that’s my excuse for giving this movie five stars, because even if it doesn’t always work – the makeup is often hilarious or unsettling, the language of one sequence is frustratingly incoherent, and the stories themselves aren’t the most original – Cloud Atlas insists upon the value of its optimism with an unapologetic honesty that makes it difficult not to love.
Also, there are some moments that are so fucking funny that you want entire movies made out of them. So even if you’re the jaded asshole who didn’t cry a thousand tears at Ben Whishaw’s unrequited love, you’ll still enjoy how Jim Broadbent, with his posse of octogenarians, can start a bar fight with an obese version of nurse Ratched, who is in fact…Hugo Weaving.
Movies that do it better: Almost any movie has better old-age makeup, but few match the bravery of Cloud Atlas’ overwhelmingly positive message. The Matrix trilogy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Adjustment Bureau, and many of Spielberg’s classic sentimental movies are all reminiscent of aspects of Cloud Atlas.