Some movies just stick with you. Some movies are so unique, innovative, experimental, and transcendent that they worm their way into your subconscious, become a part of you. Cloud Atlas is one such cinematic experience. The only film it comes close to resembling is Yoshihiro Nakamura's Fish Story, which also examines the unlikely ways in which all human beings are connected. But even that comparison seems inadequate. Fish Story deals only with individuals; Cloud Atlas goes further, chronicling the journey of our souls through the ages.
On paper, the idea sounds a bit dense and impenetrable, but because directors Tom Tykwer and Lana & Andy Wachowski embrace it so completely, it never feels inaccessible. In each of the six intersecting stories, the central theme echoes through every frame with resounding clarity. Tom Hanks spends his multiple lives making the easiest, most selfish choices, and his few acts of kindness are often too little, too late; but in the distant future, after the fall of society as we know it, these experiences have shaped him into the hero he needs to be. In the 1800s, the kindness of a self-freed slave inspires Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae to champion the cause of emancipation; centuries later, in the dystopian, decadent Neo-Seoul, they reunite (as Hae-Joo Chang and Sonmi-451) to fight for the liberation of “fabricants.” Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving appear again and again as the rigid, inflexible forces of oppression and evil.
And then, inevitably, we come to the less obvious roles, which invite reflection, meditation, speculation–and which yield greater and greater rewards the deeper the bravest viewers dare to dig. Consider, for example, Keith David. When we first encounter him in the 1800s, he is a house slave, resentful towards his masters but seemingly resigned to his fate. Then, in the ‘70s, something within him changes; he decides to defy the status quo and help Halle Berry expose his corrupt corporate bosses. By the time his path leads him to Neo-Seoul, he has finally broken free of his shackles, and is ready to lead a rebellion against those who would subjugate the weak.
I look forward to revisiting Cloud Atlas very soon–and continuing to chip away at its layers of meaning.
[Originally written October 29, 2012.]