If you listen closely to Cloud Atlas, you can you hear the sound of fortune-cookie wisdom crumbling. This ambitious film from directors Tom Tykwer, and Lana and Andy Wachowski is one that I really wanted to like, but it fizzles out in a narrative muddle of psycho-babble.
The plot consists of six stories in different time periods: a 19th century voyage following a young lawyer dealing in black slaves; in mid-20th century Edinburgh, a young musician composes the Cloud Atlas suite; in 1970s San Francisco, a journalist investigates corruption and murder at a nuclear power plant; in England, the present day, a bankrupt publisher is incarcerated in a care home; in the futuristic, fascist-run Neo-Seoul, a cloned fast-food waitress is given an opportunity to escape and start a revolution; and finally, on a post-apocalyptic Earth, an island of primitive tribal people are visited by more technologically-advanced members of the human race.
The film’s central message is that “everything is connected”, that one individual or action can make a difference across centuries. It’s the butterfly effect served up like a mug of hot chocolate to make you feel all warm inside. Various objects pop up in subsequent time periods, their existence assisting or provoking other individuals to take certain actions.
Another theme is that of being freed from slavery and the confines of a repressive society, even the confines of one’s own thoughts. All noble things, but the Wachowski’s fail to fit it all together, instead making broad brushstrokes with their massive existential paintbrush. Individually, the stories are entertaining and thrilling, but the critical problem with Cloud Atlas is that the collective whole does not pay off.
The VFX-created Neo-Seoul city looks incredible – the soaring skyways glowing with a neon blue energy and extreme skyscrapers – but there are lazy similarities to The Fifth Element and Blade Runner, from an escape scene to the now clichéd neo-punk pedestrians wandering under neon lights carrying transparent umbrellas. This story exists to present a focal point for the film’s message; during an interrogation scene of the cloned waitress Sonmi-351 (Doona Bae) by a Vulcan-like member of the “Unanimity” state, she is asked if she cares if the revolution will fail. She replies that it does not matter because she knows that she has changed the mind of one person, at least.
This idea is also alluded to in the 19th century story, when characters rebel against the authority of a father figure who says that their efforts would be “a drop in the ocean”. The reply, “What is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?” summarises the Wachowski’s optimistic ideal of a minority rising against a greater, oppressive force by the spreading a new ideology. Inspiring, but it’s contradicted by the rest of the film: how can individuals be liberated to change their present circumstances if their success is dependent on a chain of random events occurring over centuries? Are all our thoughts and actions slaves to the past? What exactly is it that the directors of Cloud Atlas want to say to us?
Another issue is the device of using actors to play multiple roles, but covered up by thick layers of striking prosthetics. I presume we are meant to recognise the same “souls” from one story to the next, but what happens is you end up spotting the actors themselves pop up in different guises, prompting a game of “Oh look, it’s him/her again,” which does distract from the story.
Nowhere is this more of a problem than in the Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) storyline set in modern England. He goes to visit his brother (Hugh Grant made up like a sun-crisped Roger Daltry) who tricks him into checking into a care home. The nurses are Hugo Weaving and James D’Arcy made up to bear an uncanny resemblance to Rupert Everett as the headmistress from the St Trinian’s films. Farce such as this works on the basis of a series of unplanned mishaps that culminate in a comedic pay-off, usually at the expense of the character that is the unwitting architect of his or her misfortune – the butterfly effect again. Unfortunately, in a sci-fi film, the incongruous inclusion of an episode of Waiting for God creates a genre schism.
The final story of tribe member Zachry (Tom Hanks) and Meronym (Halle Berry) could be the most interesting yet, but insists on crowbarring in yet another concept; the conflict between religious belief and science. Except it doesn’t really, because details are threadbare as to what the story is about, so it’s a waste of screen time.
Zachry is haunted by the vision of a voodoo character with painted face and dressed in tattered top hat and tails (think The League of Gentlemen’s Papa Lazarou, as I did with his every screen appearance), judging his actions and urging him to prevent the progress of Meronym’s scientific expedition. What she is trying to do, I don’t know, but it involved climbing a mountain to fire up some kind of machinery to some critical purpose. The characters speak in an evolved form of English that makes things even more incomprehensible.
There is something to be said for weaving a tale with just enough to set your audience’s minds alight with questions, but not so much so as to deny them the exaltation of discovering the meaning for themselves. It is a thin line that the Wachowski’s smudge, throwing too many disconnected philosophies at the screen without resolving them cohesively. More cloudiness than clarity, unfortunately.