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Non-Review Review: Cloud Atlas

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Cloud Atlas is a bold, imaginative, creative, frustrating, original, inventive, exhausting and ambitious piece of work. It’s a film that really forces the audience to collaborate, to try to force the pieces of story on the screen to fit together into a structure that is both rewarding and unique. Coming out of the film – which has been dubbed “the most expensive indie movie of all time” – I was left with the impression that Cloud Atlas is a film where everybody is going to hold a slightly different perception of what the film is, and what it’s about. I can very honestly say that Cloud Atlas is quite unlike any other film I have ever seen, and that sense of experimentation and the sheer skill to force the narrative into a shape that makes some sort of sense, unique to almost each viewer, is one massive accomplishment.

Sweet music...

Sweet music…

I’ll also concede that I am a bit ashamed that I saw this as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. Not because I disliked it or anything – in fact, it’s the best film to date. However, I’m attending multiple screenings each day, commuting from far outside the city and getting home and leaving at unreasonable hours. My brain is a little frazzled, and I genuinely doubt my ability to fashion a piece that will adequately express just how I responded to Cloud Atlas and just why I was as impressed as I obviously am.

It’s a bit lazy to suggest that explaining Cloud Atlas is impossible. It’s quite possible, if you have enough time. But spending too long hammering out what the film does also robs it of some of its magic. The wonder is in watching Cloud Atlas unfold in front of you, refraining the urge to try to put it all together as you watch. Instead, the best thing to do is to let the film wash over you and then retroactively make sense of the story, the characters, the imagery. Patterns and themes, images and metaphors, all become easier to slot into place as the credits roll, playing to Tom Twyker’s Cloud Atlas End Titles.

Bridging the gap...

Bridging the gap…

It’s worth noting that technically the film is superb. It’s hard to imagine a more daunting task, but the directors have slotted everything perfectly inside each other, making deft use of scene transitions to ensure the audience can follow the rapidly-shifting action no matter where ti goes. Shrewd cuts see the sounds of galloping horses morph into the engine of a train, or a dash across a makeshift bridge becoming a sprint across a ship’s mast. It’s elegant, and beautiful, and poetic.

So, in that vein, aware that I’m probably doing the film a disservice and that interpretations of Cloud Atlas are undoubtedly even more subjective than usual, here are four things I’m still thinking about, hours after the lights came up.

A fine young cannibal...

A fine young cannibal…

“… we keep making the same mistakes…”

The most obvious interpretation of Cloud Atlas is the idea that it is the story of souls caught in each other’s gravity, drawn forwards through time in a cycle. “Our lives are not our own,” we are told repeatedly. Reading old love letters between Frobisher and Sixsmith, Reyes notes, “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.” There’s a definite sense of progression between the stories, expanding from 1849 to “106 Winters after the Fall.”

The notion of reincarnation is seeded throughout Cloud Atlas. Describing her idea of an afterlife, the rebellious Sonmi-451 explains, “I believe death is only a door. One closes, and another opens.” More directly, we’re assured of the law of cause and effect. “By each crime and every kindness we birth our future,” we are warned, and there’s a sense of strange karma here – from the way that Hugh Grant is always cast as a sleazy villain to Tom Hanks’ coveting of a nice waistcoat.

I would watch this show.

I would watch this show.

A bunch of escapees fleeing oppressive tyranny are able to find some unlikely support by playing on a centuries-old nationalist grudge in a Scottish pub. History defines us, it is inescapable. It plays through every single moment of every single day, to the point where the resolution to a completely unrelated current event might hinge on some violence done long ago by people who have long-since vanished from this world. That principle isn’t just seen in the epic span of centuries, but in more intimate interactions and even within some of the individual narratives.

Adam Ewing’s compassion to an escaped slave ultimately has a massive impact on the course of his life. Timothy Cavendish finds out that his book profits have all been paid to past debtors. The author who earned him his money sends some family looking for it. And the biggest betrayal of Cavendish’s story is seeded by his own actions. He demands, “Why are you doing this to me?” His tormentor replies, “I think a better question in this instance would be, what have I done to deserve this?”

It's not the end of the world...

It’s not the end of the world…

“… bound to others, past and present…”

However, there’s also a weird sense that time isn’t necessarily linear. Vyvyan Ayrs has a glimpse from Edinburgh in 1936 to New Seoul in 2144. Explaining the music that haunts him, he confesses, “I heard it in a dream. In a nightmarish café, … And the waitresses… they all had the same face.” It can’t just be a linear flow of time, as souls move through the story. The past doesn’t just lead to the future, the future seems to echo backwards in time to the past.

Most obviously this can be seen in the elements of recurrence. We’re introduced to Adam Ewing as Dr. Henry Goose explains the former cannibalistic habits of the island dwellers. We jump to the last story, and encounter a primitive world where cannibalism is again in style. Adam Ewing finds himself so stunned by the brutality of slavery that he faints on touring a plantation. However, we discover that slavery has been reintroduced in New Seoul in 2144. Time is very clearly not a straight line, a single march of progress. It bends, distorts and doubles back on itself.

... in a china shop...

… in a china shop…

Indeed, there’s every indication that the reincarnation cycle is not necessarily linear, despite what Frobisher might believe. When Sonmi-451 is told that a reunion with her lover is impossible, she states that they will be together in the future. However, the dramatic “pay-off” doesn’t unfold in the future, it unfolds in the distant past. The film establishes a clear cause-and-effect – one action leads to another consequence – but it is contrary to how we expect time to work.

“… this’d make a great mystery novel…”

Of course, the thing about Cloud Atlas is that it doesn’t make things simple. The idea that these are souls trapped in a cycle of reincarnation is great, but there are several problems. For one thing, several of the time periods are inordinately close together. 1936, 1973 and 2012 are all close enough that it seems hard to believe that all the cast would die and be reborn in order to fit their role in the next adventure in the cycle. That said, it presupposes that you are looking at it sort of linearly.

A baron future...

A baron future…

Still, there’s a sense that things aren’t quite literal here, and that any attempt to try to reduce the workings of Cloud Atlas to a trite summary will inevitably oversimplify things a great deal. For example, Hugo Weaving plays a character in each of the stories but – in the final story – he plays a character who doesn’t exist, at least not literally. It’s never clear if “Old Georgie” is a literal spirit, an expression of Zachry’s doubts or even some deep-rooted defense of the status quo rooted in the human psyche.

Of course, he’s an expression of the idea that Weaving’s characters consistently express throughout the film – Weaving’s characters all champion the status quo and the “natural order of things.” Even the most passive, in 1932, is still even more rigidly confined by social norms than his contemporaries. However, the fact that the character can be expressed as a non-corporeal concept, whether anchored in another’s subconscious or existing as an ethereal spirit, suggests that this isn’t literal.

Model employees...

Model employees…

Indeed, there are suggestions that one of the stories could be fake. The story featuring Reyes is based on a novel, even if the author appears within his narrative as a child documenting events. We see Cavendish’s story play out in a feature film from a different era, a sense that these ideas don’t just echo in history, but they echo in legend. Only one character directly carries over from one story to the next. Other stories overlap through recordings, or myths, or dreams, or journals. Much as Sonmi-451 might preach about absolute truth, these are subjective sources at best.

Memories and dreams blend effortlessly with reality. The stories aren’t necessarily snapshots of life so much as examples of particular subgenres. There’s a 1970s conspiracy thriller, a post-apocalyptic adventure, a science-fiction action film. As such, it’s quite fitting that the film opens and closes on Tom Hanks telling stories. That is, after all, all these are – stories echoing against one another. That is perhaps how they don’t feel as confined by linear time as we perceive it.

The great escape...

The great escape…

“Soylent Green is people!”

Of course, Cloud Atlas is more than just a story of multiple souls trapped in multiple stories, doomed to live out some of the same mistakes and trying to break the pattern. Aside from the superb cast used in a variety of interesting ways, the script also maintains a fairly consistent thematic through line in the six stories told between the nineteenth century and the end of time. It’s a story about the “natural order of things” and – in particular – the tendency for the powerful to exploit the weak.

“The weak are meat,” one character explains helpfully at one point, “and the strong to eat.” Dr. Goose explains to Ewing that sometimes only the teeth are left. Sometimes, as we discover in one future, not even that. Cannibalism is a literal expression of the concept, but slavery recurs throughout the narrative from the literal examples in 1849 and 2144 through to more metaphorical examples.

It's got Seoul...

It’s got Seoul…

Sometimes it is the subjugation of a whole country (“our great nation suffers from a debilitating addiction and its name is oil,” Grimaldi explains). Sometimes it is merely one person (“under the conditions of this relationship, I am certainly with my legal right,” Ayrs explains to Frobisher as he tries to steal the young man’s work and his credit). Sometimes it is a whole group of people we lock up and away and out of sight (“you’d be amazed how much children will pay not to have to see their parents,” one of the directors of an old folks’ home explains to Cavendish).

It’s quite telling that the last chronological story of the set focuses on the co-operation between two people from two very different classes. It’s a variation on the theme H.G. Wells included in The Time Machine. Here the educated post-apocalyptic human finds herself co-operating with the more primitive tribe that still resides in the region. The conflict arises when the voice of the status  quo – the demonic “Old Georgie” complete with Baron Samedi style top hat – starts to tug at the strings and try to undermine the co-operation between the pair.

Together again...

Together again…

Cloud Atlas is bold and challenging, and thoughtful and tough. The more you think about it, the more interesting and complex it becomes, refusing to reduce itself down to an easily-digested concept or shape. Instead, it seems almost infinitely complex, responding to our attempts to probe and to shape it, altering into something we’d never really though of before. I write this exhausted, on the cusp of falling into a deep sleep, and yet I know I have but scratched the surface.

I will return to Cloud Atlas, I will probably write more. But, for now, this is a good start.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 4

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11 Responses

  1. Oh darren this is so wonderful. I felt the same. It is wholly a post modern film, perhaps the first of its kind which we can see coming in Killing Them Softly.

    A couple of things. Cause and Effect exist within the Order of Production. (Baudrillard) and Consequences exist in the Symbolic Order of Seduction. Cloud Atlas falls entirely within the Order of Seduction. DeLillo’s Cosmopolis played with this. In the limo Eric Packer is in the Order of Production. Everytime he gets out he is in the Order of Symbolic Seduction. Cronenberg didn’t get this and messed and mixed it all up.

    Post modern thinking is non-linear so you got it! The world is ruled by Events not progression, not cause and effect, but consequences. It is not an accident that the makers of The Matrix based that film on the book in The One’s desk: Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard. Their thinking has deepened since Matrix, and the Foucauldian Grid and Zzizek’s “Welcome to the desert of the real” as Morpheus says.

    Zizek is all through Cloud Atlas. His signs from the future you haave accurately perceived. The signs from the future come, and we who see them, need to create space around them, help them to fruition to create a world to come for us. If we ignore them, if they get buried in noise, that future will not be ours. When Sonmi sees her future as “meat” she understands. Fowles has said, “If we are going to breed like rabbits, we will die like rabbits.” The future slaves are clones, and their lifespan is short like all clones. We are rapidly embracing cloning. It has already begun piecemeal. Burroughs has said “that the future will dig up our graves to see the plastic surgery we indulged in”, the transplanted organs, and the fully cloned. Houellebecq has revisited this scene in Atomized. Loved your review so much and I have tweeted it. The official Cloud Atlas is on twitter, and I am following it.

  2. Nice points Darren. Not the perfect flick some people have made it out to be, but still a pretty entertaining and interesting piece of work.

  3. Did you read the book? I did and I’m wondering if it translates well to the screen. I was having a hard time imagining it would work on the screen.

  4. Endless violence, blood all over, childish screenplay (for those who come from the european culture).

    • That’s a bit weird. Childish screenplay for those from the European culture? That’s a very strange assessment. Would you care to elaborate on that a bit?

      I thought the violence was a necessary ingredient, since you’re dealing with themes concerning man’s inhumanity to man. It’s very hard to do that if you aren’t willing to concede how unpleasant that is.

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