Almost nothing about Cloud Atlas should work. Granted, there’s a lot of talent behind the cameras: the combined credits of Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer form a filmography that includes everything from The Matrix to Run Lola Run – truly innovative films that swung for the fences to redefine cinematic grammar.
Yet this is also a movie that invites you to be ruthlessly, relentlessly cynical about it. For all of the literary hoops being jumped through, the themes are tremendously simple, and from this stems the cynicism: This is a movie that uses six stories and 172 minutes to expound on a thesis that Kurt Vonnegut famously arrived at in eight words: God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
It is also for that exact reason that Cloud Atlas often feels like a miracle.
That miraculous quality is a testament to the film’s considerable formal achievements, and the end to which those achievements function. From a narrative perspective, Cloud Atlas may seem like a convoluted film, but never a particularly difficult one, as each of the six stories follows a fairly straightforward genre trajectory. There is the seafaring adventure about the lawyer being poisoned by his duplicitous doctor, the forlorn romance about the composer working for his sickly idol, the noirish thriller about the journalist uncovering the sinister happenings at the nuclear power plant, the comedy about the hapless publisher locked away in a retirement home, the futuristic sci-fi saga about the service clone who decides to rebel, and the post-apocalyptic fable about the meek goatherder forced to choose between loyalties. (Phew.)
Yet it’s the way these simple stories collide across genre, sentiment, and visual signifiers that lend their intersections such power. A house imprisons one man in the 1930s and another eighty years later. A selfless act of sacrifice in a distant vision of Korea mirrors a moment of courage some hundreds of years previous. The spirit of a single man evolves across time from a buck-toothed social Darwinian savage of the past to a noble savior of our future.
Yeah, yeah, yeah – formally audacious and what not, sure, but it all sounds like the sort of pseudo-profound new age mysticism that only seems particularly deep when you’re cooked in your dorm room at two in the morning. However, these themes are explored with such genuine humanism, and delivered in such a creatively committed fashion, that they command your emotional attention. Every filmmaking decision made by the Wachowskis and Tykwer – from the incredible editing to the already divisive choice to have actors take on multiple roles of different races and genders – serves to convey these ideas of generosity carrying across history.
Does Korean actress Doona Bae look that realistic when made up to look like a 19th century white woman? Not particularly, but the film isn’t necessarily suggesting that she does either. Rather, it’s a conception of a potential societal state where these differences in identity don’t really matter. And just as the film effortlessly amalgamates comedic adventure with romantic tragedy and sci-fi action spectacle, each statement of style serves to convey the emotional spectrum of the human experience.
You might adore Cloud Atlas, and find it brave and beautiful and triumphant. You might loathe it, and find it pretentious and naïve and silly. But it’s a movie that does deserve to be seen either way, because like the other best films of this year thus far – Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, Holy Motors, Looper, Seven Psychopaths, Cabin in the Woods – it operates on its own terms completely. There’s nothing else like it, and if you’re willing to really give yourself over to it in its craziest moments, it makes for a devastatingly soulful experience.
Fittingly, last Friday night Cloud Atlas kicked off this year’s Fusion Film Festival, which serves to celebrate and encourage female filmmakers in the NYU community. The festival doesn’t really begin until March, but Cloud Atlas is such an appropriate selection for a launch event not just because of its statements about gender and identity, but because of what it says about art too.
As music carries across time in Cloud Atlas in the form of “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” a motif that only further tightens the bond between each story, the film (which is constructed rather musically too, as the stories play off one another like melodies and rhythms) makes a final statement about the power of art and storytelling as the ultimate form of human communication. It’s a simple sentiment, admittedly, but it’s also one made especially bold by its humanistic simplicity, and earned by the narrative audacious, lovingly crafted film that houses it.