Cloud Atlas makes its intentions clear from the get-go: an opening shot of the Milky Way galaxy. By essentially showing us all of humanity in one image — it’s later revealed that we’re seeing the Milky Way from another planet, and that Earth is in that starscape somewhere — it’s displaying its theme of the oneness of the human condition before we’ve even realized that’s what the film is about. But even without that knowledge, it’s a humbling and awe-inspiring note on which to start. We’re already contemplating our place in the universe and we haven’t even gotten into the story yet. The film wears its ambition on its sleeve throughout, but it never quite matches the philosophical grandeur of that opening image. It says all the right things about our interconnectedness, but never in a way that justifies the grand treatment the idea is given. It’s as if the combined heavenly host descended to sing to us about how 2+2=4.
Which isn’t to say that it’s a bad film. That very ambition places it above 99% of what’s out there today. The sheer cinematic verve with which directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski weave the six different narrative threads together is worth the price of admission alone. David Mitchell’s book on which the film is based nests each story within the others, each one breaking off in the middle except for the last one, which runs for its entirety before the book moves on to end the preceding stories in reverse order, so that it finishes with the ending of the story that began first. It’s an incredible device, but a very literary one, that probably wouldn’t have worked as well with modern cinematic attention spans.
So instead, Tykwer and the Wachowskis intertwine the stories, which allows them to not only reach the climaxes at the same time, but to let them reinforce their connections as their links happen. For example, a composer in one story finishes his work and announces, “It’s done,” from which we cut to a seemingly bleak moment in another story, where its characters appear “done.” There are also recurring motifs, echoes if you will; one character mockingly shouts, “Soylent Green is people!” and later, in a story set a century from now, it’s revealed that people are actually being recycled for food. This occurs throughout, and it’s a boldly literary way of crafting a film. The directors manage to pull it off pretty much without a hitch, and without ever beating us over the head with it. The echoes all come naturally, and each story is made involving enough that you never feel disappointed when one transitions into another.
But those echoes necessitate that the same actors play multiple roles throughout the six stories, and therein lies a drawback that didn’t really become apparent to me until the credits had started rolling. Each performers name appears along with images of the parts they played, and there were people around me essentially scoring themselves on how many they recognized. It was a cinematic Where’s Waldo? where it seemed people were more focused on playing hiding and seek with the famous people than paying attention to what those people were trying to convey. It’s absolutely essential to the film’s themes that those actors appear and reappear as they do, but I’m afraid most people are just going to see a gimmick. A fault that rests entirely with the audience, not the film.
Still, when all is said and done, yes, we’re all connected, from the past through the present and into the future, and … well, that’s about it really. There’s no examination of the concept, no deeper exploration, just a three-hour demonstration of the idea. Now not every great film has boldly ventured into new aspects of the themes they present; Roger Ebert once said that a film isn’t about what it’s about, but how it’s about it, and on that level Cloud Atlas is an unqualified success. It’s about it with style to spare. It’s just a little disappointing that a film with this kind of ambition and scope doesn’t attempt to take its themes to another level.
Like life, it’s really not fair to examine Cloud Atlas until it’s finished. It’s definitely a cumulative kind of film, where the momentum of the last forty-five minutes or so snaps everything that’s come before — even seemingly extraneous moments — into sharp relief. It might not have a message to match its scope, but that scope, like its opening shot, is nothing short of the totality of our existence. So maybe it can be excused for keeping the message simple.