People don’t tend to like it much when you wear your heart on your sleeve. This isn’t universally true, but seems to be a relatively persistent trend in modern culture. Pessimism is easier than optimism, and there’s something admittedly thrilling about a blasé cynic, which for me explains the tepid response to Cloud Atlas, an epic adaptation with three directors and a hearty interest in the workings of the heart. That’s not to say there aren’t valid criticisms to be made about Cloud Atlas, or that the general ambivalence around the film is coming exclusively from the heartless. But there’s a common refrain in these assessments—“It just didn’t work for me.”—that reveals a structural weakness: intellectual critiques of sentiment are inherently weak, because sentiment is not an intellectual mechanism. Whether or not you respond to it isn’t a a matter of what you think, but what you truly feel, and post-Cloud Atlas, I felt a great deal.
Adapted from David Mitchell’s 2004 novel of the same name, Cloud Atlas tells six separate stories in six distinct timelines, following a variety of characters played by the same collection of actors. As an example, over the course of 172 minutes, Tom Hanks plays an illicit doctor, corpulent hotel manager, conflicted physicist, violent memoirist, B-movie actor, and dystopic goat herder. And he’s far from the exception, as Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, and Ben Whishaw all spend varying amounts of time under layers of prosthetics and makeup. This choice—and many of the choices made by the directing trio of Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski—has all the potential in the world to pull audiences out of the film, which is why it’s so important to understand the motivation. Cloud Atlas is ostensibly a sextet of journey stories, but far grander is the film’s (and book’s) overarching theme: the notion that we are all of us connected through time and space, and that our choices now will immutably affect our own futures. By using the same core of actors in a variety of roles, Tykwer and the Wachowskis are attempting to create a visual indication of these ideas. It’s a choice that will leave some viewers bogged down in the technical imperfections, but if you can move past them, you’ll find yourself truly invested in these characters, and in the notion that at the core of each new form lies the same voyaging soul.
This idea of moving past imperfections is an important one to consider, because Cloud Atlas is a far, far more satisfying experience if you don’t get hung up on the occasional missteps. Let me hasten to say that this is not advice you’ll find me giving very often. Most films must be judged on their balance of plot and writing, actors and their performances, production, direction, and so on. But Cloud Atlas is an altogether different beast, articulating in its exhaustive execution not just a caliber of theme we aren’t often treated to, but a broadness of scope so large, it bridges the gap between the shocking power of a moment and the dense load of a lifetime. This is storytelling on another level, and while the three directors at the helm haven’t made a flawless film, they have made the film of their careers. Cloud Atlas is interested in nothing less than the stuff of humankind, the inarticulate something that we are so intent on defining and encapsulating. Maybe it won’t bring you to the brink as it did me, but it will do absolutely everything within its power to try.
Some are saying that Cloud Atlas reveals too much, that it does all the work for you. To this I say, a movie less intent on revealing its grand themes would end up stuck in the worlds it has created. Adding ambiguity to these individual stories would use up all of the viewer’s energy, and leave them reeling and bewildered at the close. While the character journeys within each of the six timelines are clearly important, it’s far more important (from the directors’ point of view) that the audience understand the thesis. There will always be disagreements about how much or how little a director should show his audience, but in this case a balance has been struck that seems to be just right. Any less, and the audiences attention would be spent on the mysteries within each story. Any more, and the film wouldn’t, itself, be a journey for the viewer to experience. Whether intended or simply a fortunate happenstance, Cloud Atlas seems a near perfect convergence of storytelling.
If I have any failing as a film critic, it’s my weakness for sentiment. Cloud Atlas is overflowing with pathos, and, based on reviews from far less nostalgic critics, seems to sit perfectly in my blind spot. It has a gorgeous soundtrack and a plethora of stirring moments, from hate and fear to love and compassion, and at three hours plus, never seems to drag. It is a spectacle of, at the very least, remarkable ambition. But more than that, it is a symphony of devotion—not to a particular creed or faith, but to the idea that that unknowable divinity we all have some sense of, lives within us. Whether you agree with it or not, there’s beauty to be found in this idea. Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis seem to have found it.