Six stories, three directors, one Cloud Atlas
The film adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel is a must-see this year
Directed by Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant
Once in a while, a film transcends its medium and stands alone as a work of art. Cloud Atlas is such a masterpiece. Of course there are details that can be critiqued, but it is useless to scrutinize these details because they are insignificant in comparison to the important message the film relays.
When the trailers were first released, I knew that the movie would be epic. But when I tried to describe why I was so excited about it, I couldn’t. The directors (Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Twyker) released a short video introduction of the film where they explained what the film meant to them, how it was made, and what it is. They each said a few words at a time, finishing each other’s sentences and thoughts.
This video is a perfect analogy for the film. The directors had such respect for David Mitchell’s novel that they decided to make the film only if Mitchell approved. Fortunately, he did. The most poignant statement in this short video is when the directors explain why the film was not immediately picked up by a studio and is an independent production: “It’s hard to sell because it’s hard to describe. It’s hard to reduce.” And with that, I will attempt to reduce the film into a few points I believe are the most compelling.
What astounded me most was how the filmmakers were able to make six disparate stories flow together to tell one story and have one message. Each story has a different genre and takes place in a different time. At first, it seems that the spread of genres would detract from the overall effect of each story, but they actually enhance each others’ effects. Filmgoers are able to see adventure, romance, mystery, comedy, science fiction, and post-apocalypse all in three hours, and how the stories blend and affect each other is incredible. This unity speaks to the film’s overall theme that we are all connected.
The genius of the directors comes from the fact that they came up with idea themselves for actors to play characters in each of the stories and have them transform into different ages, races, and even genders. However, the genius of the novelist is that he uses unique ways to connect each story in a way such that each story is affected by those before. The colonial adventure is told to the romance through a memoir of one of the colonial characters; the romance is told in a series of letters between the two lovers to a journalist in the mystery, whose story is told in a mystery novel written by a kid who follows the journalist around to the writer in the comedy; the writer’s story is told by a film adaptation of his life that the main character of the science-fiction plot watches; and finally, the manifesto of this sci-fi character is propagated and becomes a religion for the people of the post-apocalyptic tale. However, instead of occurring in chronological order, they are often shown in montages: All of the stories’ plots move together.
Tom Hanks takes on the most characters and is able to play each convincingly, from a Scottish thug to a nerdy scientist. Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant split up the villain roles in many of the stories, and each is terrifyingly fantastic. The most haunting characters are in the post-apocalyptic story, in which Weaving plays a devil figure in Hanks’s character’s mind and Grant is a cannibal ravaging the villages. Not unexpectedly, the violence is beyond gruesome, as the Wachowskis take on the three more violent stories. In the dystopian science-fiction story, we see waitresses lured into a room where they believe they will achieve “exultation” but are actually killed, dismembered, and used as a fuel source. Along with the graphic violence are, however, beautiful graphics. In the same story, we see the main character ascend in an elevator from captivity to Neo-Seoul for the first time, and the view is breathtaking.
What I appreciated the most about the film was its approach to race. Having just written an essay on racism against Asian-Americans in the American entertainment industry for a class, I was pleased to see the first American media product (we can disregard that the film was mostly backed by German production companies) that conveyed race in a not only unprejudiced but also supportive way. Although the story that takes place in Neo-Seoul has Caucasian actors wearing eye prosthetics, this story is not a separate one that regards Asians as a separate, alien culture. Rather it is one that is arguably the most important of the six in that it continually reminds us of the importance of connectivity through its dialogue. We are also introduced to the niece of one of the Caucasian characters in the mystery story, an Asian-American who speaks English fluently, which elegantly implies that race is just a characteristic — not a barrier. There is the argument that putting characters in “yellow-face” is offensive, but this is just an example of the directors casting each actor in several roles—in one story Doona Bae, a South Korean actress, plays a Hispanic woman and in another, Halle Berry plays a Caucasian woman.
Overall, Cloud Atlas cannot be analyzed by the depth of its actors or the sharpness of its dialogue. It is a story that needs to be told, and it does so successfully. The film is complicated and might not be for the masses, a reason why production companies were hesitant to pick it up. However, it is thought-provoking and transcendent. Go watch it.