Cloud Atlas (2012)
1849, Pacific Ocean. A businessman dealing in slaves is being slowly poisoned by the ship’s doctor.
1936, Cambridge, England and Edinburgh, Scotland. A young homosexual composer moves in with an elderly composer to help him out.
1973, San Francisco. A girl reporter works to expose a sinister plot by Big Oil, involving a nuclear meltdown.
United Kingdom, 2012. An elderly publisher, one Cavendish, is threatened by his psychotic author, and hides out in an old folk’s home run like a concentration camp,
2144, Neo Seoul, Korea. A clone-slave named Sonmi-451 (a Bradbury reference?) is contacted by the rebel underground, and has a satori.
106 winters after The Fall, the Big Island. A primitive tribesman is visited by a woman from a high-tech survivor society.
Several decades later, on another planet. The tribesman and the woman are old and still together, and have a litter of grandkids.
So, what do these seven stories have to do with each other? All I can really come up with is: Fuck-all.
Okay, that’s not strictly true. There are common themes, and some fairly tenuous connections down the years, but the main thing is that most of the parts are played by the same set of thirteen actors. The most prominent of these are Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, and Hugo Weaving. But they are in such heavy make-up and sometimes in such small, almost off-stage, roles that I often didn’t spot them. Hugh Grant, for instance, appears in all six of the main stories, but I only spotted him once, when he looked like … well, like Hugh Grant. I didn’t catch it at all that Weaving, who plays an oppressor character in all six, was Big Nurse Noakes. I only spotted Berry twice, when she was easy to spot. I spotted Hanks five out of six times.
This is an interesting concept, and it’s done in an interesting way. To my surprise, I found it a lot more enjoyable than I would have thought. The traditional way to tell this story, and apparently the way it was told in the book, would be to take it chronologically, one story at a time. Not here. The writers-directors, Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, hopscotch all over the place, with no breaks between scenes. We will be with one set of characters in dire danger, then skip to another set, who may or may not be at a crisis point. And then we’re whiplashed right into another part of another story.
This sound awful but, I’ll say again, to my surprise, I found it very effective. Unless you just can’t get into it, I guarantee it will make you pay attention. There aren’t many slow points. In fact, much of the action, particularly in the monstrous SF world of 2144, is breakneck, but never stupid.
I’m sorry to say, though, that in the end there’s not a lot of meat here. Sonmi-451’s revelation, which reverberates down the ages since her message was discovered (they are worshipping her on the Big Island) is not exactly earth-shattering. It goes something like (and I cribbed this from someone else’s analysis): “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. Every person matters, every decision has consequences.” That’s really groovy, ain’t it, Sunshine? And heavy. You gonna Bogart that joint?
On the other hand, it’s not a bad message. It wasn’t clear to me if this was an argument for reincarnation. It was never stated that these were all the same souls. And the connections (other than Sonmi-451’s to the future Big Island) are not really of the “What if Hitler had been strangled in the crib?” variety. But of course it is true (and obvious) that we are all inter-connected, and that what we do today affects what happens in the future. Whether we all “matter” is a bit more debatable.
I have to mention that I was very grateful for the subtitles for the hearing impaired. Much of the dialogue was indistinct, and on the Big Island they speak a sort of pidgin that might have been indecipherable if I hadn’t been able to read it.