Unpacking 'Cloud Atlas'
In a video introduction available on the Internet, Cloud Atlas’ three directors (Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer) tell us that their new film was hard to make because it was hard to fund, and that it was hard to fund because it was hard to describe. I don’t want to spend the whole of this review trying to summarize even one of the six centuries-spanning interlocking plot lines that make up Cloud Atlas’ nearly three-hour running time, so let’s just say Cloud Atlas uses a small cast in multiple roles in multiple times to tell what must be one of the most daring and complex stories in movie history. The mammoth film is an adaption of a novel by David Mitchell, and everyone I know who’s read the book (namely two random guys I met standing outside the movie theater) says it’s really faithful. Roger Ebert has rightly called Cloud Atlas, “one of the most ambitious films ever made.”
Cloud Atlas is equal parts adventure film and philosophical essay. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that covers so much thematic ground. Love, death, sex, religion, commerce, politics, race, technology, age, gender, bad tattoos: it’s really all in there. Cloud Atlas’ threads are united by the overarching themes of karma and interconnectedness - the continuous ripple effect caused good and evil acts altering the lives of individuals throughout history. In lesser directorial hands a heavy ideological presence would likely derail a crowd-pleaser, but because Tykwer and Wachowskis have so expertly married their tenets with their technique, the mixture of popcorn and pop-philosophy is seamless and very satisfying.
Everything in the movie—the story, the editing, the camerawork, the locations—is blended to produce a movie that reinforces the filmmaker’s fluid-fate paradigm. Perhaps the clearest and bravest example of this blend is the decision to use the same actors to play different roles in each of the six stories. While every lead actor plays a primary role in their own skin, each member of the ensemble also appears in one way or another in the various stories, occasionally switching ethnicity and even gender to accommodate the needs of a given character. This works for three important reasons. 1) The actors really sink their teeth into their roles. The performances are big, bold, and perfectly in balance with the grand scale of the movie. 2) It’s a lot of fun—like a game of actor whack-a-mole. It’s a blast to watch Tom Hanks play a wise old commoner and an unstable ex-convict author and a shfity hotel manager. Hugo Weaving as a 19th-century aristocrat and a 21-st century female nurse? Yes, please. Not all of the transformations are invisible, but they’re not supposed to be. And that’s because 3) the role-shifting embeds the spiritual ideas of karmic continuity and eternal recurrence into the method of the movie. We can see that everyone is connected without having one of the actors look into the sky and say, “We’re all connected.” (Although that kind of happens, too. This is a movie by the guys who made The Matrix after all.)
Some early reviewers have already found the film’s philosophizing to be pretentious; but I didn’t. If I believe my beliefs and think they are worth incorporating into my art, why shouldn’t Tykwer and the Wachowskis be afforded the same courtesy? If movie reviews can be honestly written from a Christian perspective, than surely movies can be honestly made from an agnostic/Buddhist/mystical/anti-dualist perspective (or whatever it is). Avatar’s goofy grandstanding about environmentalism and the Iraq War: pretentious. Cloud Atlas’ un-angry, karmic worldview woven deep into both the fabric of the story and the method of the storytelling: not so much.
At 172 minutes, Cloud Atlas is long. And yet one can hardly fault a movie about “eternal recurrence” for not being short. In fact, the amount of momentum, clarity, excitement, emotion, and humor that is maintained in the movie’s six storylines is extremely impressive. It doesn’t build to a rousing Return of the King-style climax, but given the subject matter it really shouldn’t. Instead it honors its philosophical underpinnings by making sure the thrills (and the inevitable Wachowski meaning-of-life speeches) are spread out nicely throughout the entire film. The writer/director trio does an exceptional job of splitting the difference between existential musing and Hollywood extravaganza. Like The Matrix trilogy before it, Cloud Atlas is an Eastern philosophy course wrapped in a killer Western blockbuster. Given the filmmakers’ aims, I can’t imagine it turning out any better.
So from one perspective, Cloud Atlas is great movie bound to be a classic (cult or otherwise) and is therefore extremely easy to recommend. Go see it; it’s really entertaining. The question remaining for those of us approaching Cloud Atlas from a Christian worldview is what to do with the pervasively pan-religious posture of the film. It’s tricky because the film is certainly not an assault on any particular belief set, except when that belief set relies on might-makes-right social Darwinism or willful ignorance (the devil actually shows up a number of times, once to prevent Tom Hank’s commoner from learning facts that would alter his primitive religion). Cloud Atlas is not relativistic in every sense—good and evil are very clearly defined and are not interchangeable. In a few key lines, Cloud Atlas goes out of its way to include the possibility of ineffable phenomena like a savior coming down from heaven. There is a beautifully tragic moment that is clearly staged to remind the audience of the crucifixion. But the potential problem for many will be that Cloud Atlas does not insist on a savior for all mankind; it includes that savior alongside other options in a philosophical grab bag of cosmic possibilities. In this way, the movie’s pluralistic stance is more accepting of Christianity than modern Christianity classically would be towards Cloud Atlas’ pluralism. It’s tough spot to be in, because in all other accounts the movie is so spectacular. Should we chew up the meat and spit out the bones? Embrace it? Avoid it? Is it lukewarm and leavened, or is it an example of Truth craftily finding its way into the most unlikely of cinematic situations? I have no good advice in this regard, but I can say that these are the dilemmas that make thinking moviegoers glad to be both thinkers and moviegoers.
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