Almost all movies fracture time. It's fundamental to the art of film. We're used to it now. We don't always know that they're doing it because the language of film has evolved to make it seem invisible, but even movies that adhere to a strictly linear chronology omit things in order to move from significant action to significant action. Sometimes the gaps between significant actions are long, sometimes as long as eons. How long is the gap between the second and third acts of Spielberg's A.I., I wonder? Geological epochs, methinks, but the film is not particularly confusing. Some movies fracture time and rearrange events so that they appear on screen in achronological order. Some films return to a specific event again and again like someone is hitting a reset button. Some films take place over the course of many years. Some are made in "real time." This isn't always the province of experimental films. Movies in the mainstream are as likely to eviscerate the flow of time as art films. I wonder, then, why it is that some audiences--including the one I was sitting in--have such a hard time with Cloud Atlas (2012, directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer). It's not like what they're doing is actually new, even considering the wide gulf of time the movie encompasses. D. W. Griffith made more or less the same movie nearly a hundred years ago.
I'm exaggerating, of course, though not by much.
Cloud Atlas is ambitious. Its subject: the sorry history of humankind as an ongoing negotiation between predation and love. Human beings do horrible things, and yet, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed, the arc of history curves toward justice. King was more hopeful and optimistic than I am, or than are the makers of this film. In the six stories that make up this film, stories that range from the 19th century to the 24th, human beings appear to be on a downward spiral, or, more accurately, trapped in a recurrent horror of their own making. The oldest of these stories finds us smack in the horrors of colonialism, the slave trade, venal predation for monetary gain. In the story set farthest in the future, we again find ourselves smack in the middle of the horrors of colonialism and the slave trade, with the script flipped somewhat. In the 19th century, it was white European/white American colonial missionaries who were the "civilized" people groping toward enlightenment while exercising their most savage natures. In the future, the remnants of white civilization have been swept away and they've become the tribal "savages" awaiting rescue by a future civilization of color. There's an implication that this future civilization has learned the lessons of the old white civilization and has exorcised their colonial impulses. In this context, it's still the fractured tribes of white people preying upon each other. The movie isn't this simplistic, though. Or, at least, I hope it isn't. In some ways, this is a significantly different set of extrapolations than one finds in David Mitchell's novel, upon which the movie is based.
As I say, there are six stories.
In the mid-19th century, we follow white missionary Adam Ewing on a fateful voyage home from the south seas. In New Zealand, he has caught the eye of the Moriori slave, Autua, who stows away in the ship Ewing takes back to America, hoping that Ewing will vouch for him. He does. Also on the voyage is Dr. Henry Goose, who has been collecting the teeth from the remains of cannibal feasts in order to make dentures. He's got his eyes on Ewing, too, or, more specifically, the money Ewing bears to found a mission. He contrives to poison Ewing slowly under the guise of treating him for a parasite that he says has infected Ewing's brain...
In the 1930s, Ewing's journal--half of it, anyway--is found by young composer, Robert Frobisher. Frobisher has inserted himself into the household of the composer, Vivian Arys as an amanuensis, in order to escape disgrace in the eyes of his family for his "perverse" love affairs. Arys has been creatively bankrupt for years, but finds new creative life in partnership with Frobishier, and takes an proprietary--not to say plagiaristic--interest in the music Frobisher composes for himself. Frobisher relates his experiences with Arys in letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith.
In the early 1970s, Rufus Sixsmith finds himself at the center of a conspiracy to build a nuclear reactor that is designed to fail. The oil industry wants to suppress Sixsmith's findings to this effect in order that the resulting disaster will discredit the nuclear industry. To this end, energy executive Lloyd Hooks sends "fixer" Bill Smoke to kill Sixsmith. Unfortunately for them, Sixsmith has befriended journalist Louisa Rey, who smells a rat in Sixsmith's death and begins to uncover the frightening truths behind it.
In 2012, Timothy Cavendish, the operator of a self-publishing business finds himself in possession of a best seller when one of his authors, the gangster Dermot Hoggins, throws critic Felix Finch of a high rise balcony at a book event. Hoggins's gangster brothers want their cut, and Cavendish goes on the run. His brother suggests a "hotel" in the north of England, a hotel Cavendish belatedly discovers is a residence home under the thumb of the abusive Nurse Noakes, and that he has inadvertently committed himself there. With several of his fellow inmates, he plots a jailbreak.
In the corprocracy of Neo So Copros, some centuries in the future, the fabricant worker Sonmi-451 has an intellectual awakening. She begins to chafe at her lot serving in a Papa Song's fast food shop when her co-worker, Yoona-939 shows her that there's more to life than serving food. Yoona is killed when trying to escape her lot, but Sonmi is taken under the wing of Hae-joo Chang, an officer in the underground resistance to corprocracy, who recognizes in her a rebuke to corporate power. He educates Sonmi, and Sonmi falls in love with him. Hae-joo shows Sonmi the ghastly foundation upon which their civilization is built: slavery, cannibalism, and oppression. Sonmi broadcasts a manifesto to the world, but she's captured by the corprocracy and put on trial.
In the far future, after civilization has collapsed and much of the planet has become uninhabitable deadlands, Hawaiian valleysman Zachry plays host to the Prescient, Meronym, who is on the island on some secret mission. Zachry's tribe is under constant threat from the Kona, slave-taking cannibals that are spreading across the island and he's not inclined to trust outsiders. He's under constant temptation from Ol' Georgie (the devil) to do harm to Meronym, but he resists and she takes him to a complex at the summit of Mauna Kea where she hopes to contact the civilizations that have left the Earth in order that they might come and rescue her and her people. Meronym, for her part, is dying of radiation poisoning. Civilization, and possibly humankind itself, is on the verge of winking out of existence...
Obviously, juggling six such disparate narratives is a feat of cinematic insanity. In the book, these narratives are nested inside each other like Russian matroyshka dolls. The film abandons that structure and crosscuts between them. There's method in this. Mitchell creates thematic and linguistic rhymes within each of his stories such that they add up to a cohesive whole. Some of Mitchell's post-modern literary technique simply won't work in film, and Tykwer and the Wachowskis know it. Instead, they've shattered the narratives into smaller pieces and placed them in proximity to other shards of narrative from the other stories such that they comment upon each other, lead into each other, and otherwise unify the whole. Or, at least, that's the plan. Whether or not this is successful is a matter of taste, I suppose. I know more than one person who thinks that this is an overstuffed and pretentious anthology movie. They're entitled to think so, I guess, because all they value is plot. At a basic level of plot, that's exactly what this is. I think it's more than that, though.
The narrative strategy on display Cloud Atlas is akin to a mosaic. That's true on a scene to scene level. It's true at a larger scale, too, where each of the six stories operates as a tile unto itself. There's a big picture here, one that my friends in social justice activism will recognize as kyriarchy. This is a film about the intersectionality of oppression. It's about how vectors of oppression are multifarious and pernicious between all kinds of groups rather than the simple (and simplistic) model of a linear oppression descending only from patriarchy. While it's entirely possible that any one of this film's six stories could stand on its own as a story unto itself, the whole is greater than the parts, because each story only focuses on a limited scope of relationship. You don't get that overarching pattern of kyriarchy in the individual stories taken by themselves.
To what end, though? What comes of this catalogue of human depravity? The book's ending provides an answer. The small actions of individuals in the moment are all the resistance that one needs. "It's just a drop in the ocean," the film's id proclaims. "What is the ocean," answers Adam Ewing, "but a multitude of drops." The film drops the ball on the ending a bit, I should mention. This moment in the book is perfect. The filmmakers can't leave it alone. They view the farthest future of the movie as the locus of its hope and they've fiddled with the story by appending an interplanetary scene of their own for this purpose. The true ending, the true hope, in the book is in the past, though. It's at the dawning of resistance to slavery and colonialism and bigotry and oppression and if we can't carry through on that enlightenment, the future will be dire.
Meanwhile, in the nuts and bolts, this is a film that's an embarrassment of riches. It's fun watching the filmmakers forge their connections with clever edits and diegetic dialogue that carries over from a shot in the past into the future or vice versa. Some of the thematic rhymes it creates are cleverer than I expected, too. My favorite moment in the film comes during what is probably intended as the comedy relief section of the film, when Timothy Cavendish runs across the screen shouting "Soylent Green is people!" This finds a much darker echo in the scene where Sonmi discovers the ghastly fate of fabricants in Neo So Copros, a scene of surpassing horror. There are good performances in this film, too, which makes it go down easy (though the conceit of having their cast of actors play all of the roles from past to future has its drawbacks--more on that in a bit). Tom Hanks in particular is clearly relishing the opportunity to break out of his role as two time Oscar winner and box office titan and do some really out there work. His portrayal of Henry Goose stops just short of mustache-twirling, while Hanks clearly relishes the opportunity to pitch a critic off a balcony as Dermot Hoggins, all whilst wearing ridiculous facial hair and speaking in a thick British bullyboy accent. Halle Berry fares less well. She's given a series of characters who act more as symbols than characters. The exception to this is Louisa Rey, the journalist, who Berry invests with the true spirit of Lois Lane (without Superman to save her). It's such an indelible character that I'd love to see subsequent Louisa Rey mysteries. Hugh Grant gets to play against type as characters who are symbolic of institutional evil and oppression in all six stories, whether a do-gooding missionary, a shady nuclear exec, or a Kona cannibal warchief. Hugo Weaving, by contrast, continues his role as the avatar of the Wachowski's id, playing the instrument of oppression in all six stories. The true star of the film, though, is probably Doona Bae, the great Korean actress, who provides the film with its moral center in Sonmi 451 and her awakening enlightenment. She commands the screen when she's on it.
The drawback of having every major actor play multiple roles is that this concept requires the actors to play cross race and (sometimes) cross gender. This creates an unfortunate and bitter irony. This film, a film about instersectional oppression, accidentally engages in the very thing it decries. It may not intend this--I think its heart is in the right place--but as they say in activist spaces, intention is not magic. The core of this movie (and the book, by the way) is the story of Sonmi-451, and since most of the other actors in the film are not Asian, in order to have them play characters in this segment, they have to do them up in make-up that makes them appear Asian. Yellowface, it's usually called, and it has a long, sorry history in film, from Katherine Hepburn and Louise Rainer in Dragon Seed and The Good Earth, respectively, on through Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Peter Ustinov in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Lady. The problem of yellowface in Cloud Atlas is a bit more complicated than a straightforward statement that the yellowface is racist, full stop. This is a question complicated by, say, Halle Berry playing Jocasta Arys, a white European Jewish woman, or by Doona Bae playing a white missionary or a Mexican sweatshop foreman. In which direction does the privilege run? Does an Asian woman playing in brownface have the same meaning as a black American playing a European Jew, a Moriori slave, or a Korean rebel? That's not for me to say one way or the other, not being a person of color myself. As an aesthetic choice, it's a disaster because whenever Jim Sturgess or Hugo Weaving is on screen as a Korean, it takes the viewer--this viewer anyway--right out of the movie. It just looks weird.
This happens, too, at the sight of Ben Whishaw playing Georgette or Hugo Weaving playing Nurse Noakes, though not to the same extent. For better or for worse, cis actors playing cross gender is more culturally accepted. That some actors play cross gender opens up a lot of possible interpretations of this film when one considers who made it. The necessity of Lana Wachowski to deal publicly with the circumstances of her gender transition in order to promote Cloud Atlas dovetails with some of the axes of identity and politics in the film itself. One of the through lines here is the notion of transmigration of souls through bodies and genders--the recurrence of the comet-shaped birthmark that marks the protagonist of each segment suggests that they are all the same character, only different--pricks a little at the question of whether identity is innate and ineffable and indestructible. This carries through, too, in the conceit of the actors playing multiple roles. One begins to wonder if gender or race is meaningful to one's fundamental identity. The key story to this question is, again, the story of Sonmi, in which Doona Bae plays multiple roles within the same story: cloned slave, prostitute, messiah. What IS identity? What sets Sonmi apart from the other characters in this story when they are otherwise identical to her. And what does it mean that this is being related by a director who has changed her sex to match her own sense of identity? There are clues in Wachowski's speech this fall to the Human Rights Campaign, but the movie itself is a sphinx. When it comes out on video, I'm going to have to revisit it to try to unravel this thread, because it's frustrating me even as I write about it.
I don't know whether Cloud Atlas is a magnificent, flawed masterpiece or a colossal self-indulgent fiasco. It's probably a bit of both. Since I don't write about movies as a consumer guide, I'm glad that I don't have to make those kinds of judgements. What I AM sure about is that this is the result of a group of filmmakers taking an absolutely huge swing at the fences and I admire that. I admire the film, too, in spite of its flaws and its cringe-worthy moments. It's thrilling to watch, the result of three immensely talented directors flexing their abilities to show what bad ass motherfuckers they are. Moment to moment, you can't take your eyes off of it. But, I'm also sure that those same filmmakers are so secure in the nobility of their intentions that they don't realize that a certain road is paved with them.