Review: Cloud Atlas

“We are only what we know, and I wished to be more than I was, sorely.” ~ Sonmi-451

If you’ve made your way to this article, then I assume you’ve either watched the film or read the novel, in which case you require no explanation in terms of plot. If not, then what are you waiting for!? Grab a friend and head to the theaters, or make some coffee and start reading the book!

Come back when you’re finished.

Done? Okay. So this review will focus primarily on the film, with some mentions to the novel when necessary, and as you may have realized while watching Cloud Atlas, it is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill movie. In fact, I believe it tries to break the mold in almost every way possible, becoming nothing short of extraordinary. Of course, “extraordinary” does not imply that everyone will think this film is amazing or spectacular. In fact, reviews for Cloud Atlas are as polarizing as they come. Regardless of whether one thinks this work is “good” or “bad” based on one’s own subjective scale of quality and preconceived perceptions, it’s quite difficult to argue against the importance of Cloud Atlas.

“What happens in a minute’s time is made by what you do. Maybe the answer is not a function of metaphysics but one, simply, of power.” ~ Luisa Rey

Cinematic commercialism. This is a term I just made up to explain phenomena such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and Part II, Paranormal Activity 5, a third Star Wars trilogy, with the list growing exponentially with the passing of time. But it’s basic economics, really. High reward along with virtually no risk is irresistible to anyone with a lick of common sense and a bit of financial know-how. However, the directors of Cloud Atlas took one of largest risks in the history of the modern film industry by investing over $100 million to, in essence, adapt the un-adaptable. For them, there was something else on the table besides simply making money: the passion and excitement that comes with film-making. With a slow start at the box office, only time will tell if Cloud Atlas will have a lasting effect on the direction of the industry because as far as I see it, with each rehashed sequel and reboot, the pools of creativity drain further and deeper into oblivion.

“What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.” ~ Timothy Cavendish

Each of the main actors were charged with the difficult task of playing multiple characters in completely different, yet interrelated stories. While playing one character, the actors had to keep in mind the attributes of their other characters and how they stretched across space and time. All of the actors were fantastic in each of their iterations, from the delightfully unfortunate Timothy Cavendish by Jim Broadbent to the anguished composer Robert Frobisher by Ben Whishaw. Personally, Tom Hanks is one of my favorite actors, but his performances seemed more reserved this time around, perhaps because the rest of the actors filled their respective roles so well. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed his role as the scheming Dr. Henry Goose, as we rarely see Tom Hanks play a villain and yet he pulls it off so well. Many people complain about the use of actors across different racial boundaries, and I think this point deserves only a brief counterargument. There are certain connections that the author and the directors wanted the audience to make, and these would not have been possible if different actors had been used to fit those particular races. I am an Asian-American, and I am well aware of the gross under-representation of Asians in serious film roles, but must we forget that one of the most pivotal roles in Cloud Atlas was given to Doona Bae? The creators are delivering a message that goes beyond the purely physical because after all souls, like clouds, are amorphous, fluid, and should be uninhibited by our man-made perceptions and conventions.

“All boundaries are conventions, national ones too. One may transcend any convention, if only one can first conceive of doing so.” ~ Robert Frobisher

In terms of adaptations, Cloud Atlas makes spectacular use of its creative liberties by rearranging the six stories in a way that not only works well, but is perhaps more effective than the order presented in the novel itself. According to director Lana Wachowski, after reading Cloud Atlas the mind tries to process the events that transpired throughout the span of the novel and attempts to draw the lines between the six tales. The way in which the team directors decided on the order of scenes merely reflects one of the many interpretations possible, one of many solutions to the puzzle. The parallels, both visual and auditory, are drawn between each age to help establish continuity, adding a certain level of depth that one misses if only reading the novel. One connection that I happened to make is one that would have been impossible without both watching the film and reading the novel. It involves Robert Frobisher, the composer, and Rafael, a cabin boy on the good ship Prophetess who appears onscreen for about five seconds. As we know, Frobisher is secretly homosexual and ends up committing suicide, but what you may not know is that the cabin boy Rafael is also hinted to be homosexual in the novel. It is suggested that he was sexually abused by one of the first mates, causing him to hang himself from the ship. See the connection? Well, the directors sure did, which is why both characters are played by Ben Whishaw.

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul.” ~ Zachry Bailey

Something that really frustrates me is when somebody finishes a certain work and says “I don’t get it” or “I’m so confused” because that just tells me that he or she didn’t put in the effort to try to understand. A reason why I love Cloud Atlas is that the film doesn’t insult your intelligence by spelling everything out for you, but rather cordially invites you to explore its recesses for all its subtle nuances. We shouldn’t expect everything to just be handed to us on a silver platter because life is, unfortunately, never so kind. To get the most out of Cloud Atlas, and many other films,  an active participation is encouraged, perhaps even necessary. In a sense, the viewer is granted the power to fill in the gaps and to create a unique personal experience for herself. As Lana Wachowski says, “there are connections only available if you brought your own agencies in it.” No two people will look at this film the same way because we all come from different backgrounds and have different systems of belief. Cloud Atlas piques the interests of both those who believe in a religious reincarnation and those who prefer a more secular explanation of human consequence and fallacy. It’s a lot like looking at clouds floating in the sky, for if I said I see a cloud shaped like a horse, you may not necessarily concur. By projecting my own thoughts onto the world, stemming from my personal beliefs and experiences, I allow myself to create my own constructs of meaning.

“What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts and virtuous acts. What precipitates acts? Beliefs. Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind and in the mind’s mirror, the world.” ~ Adam Ewing

For me, a film that gets better with each viewing deserves to be called a masterpiece because it shows that the creators took the time and the effort to include a tremendous amount of detail, so much so that it is impossible to get everything out of it on your first run-through. Cloud Atlas is more than a movie, it’s an experience, a journey, and each individual has his or her own destination. It’s not so often that I get the urge to watch a film, immediately after I finish it, but I absolutely love that feeling, and the more I think about it, the more I believe that Cloud Atlas deserves the title of “masterpiece.”

Sunt lacrimae rerum.

B.W.

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