Six stories through time are all connected in small ways. Little decisions, often made out of love, impact the future in surprising ways.
I guess that is the summary of the message of this movie: acts of today have an impact on the future, and acts in the past have shaped the present; and if those acts are made out of love, then love sort of connects all of humanity together into a tapestry. It isn’t particularly mind-blowing or earth-shattering as a message, but it is nice. The movie, though, takes a very roundabout way of making this point.
Cloud Atlas, originally written as a book by David Mitchell, got adapted to the big screen by the Wachowski brothers. The Wachowskis like nothing more than bold, ambitious projects, and they went on to make Jupiter Ascending. And while Jupiter Ascending became an incoherent jumble of story elements, Cloud Atlas at least existed as a book to guide the plotlines.
To communicate the message, six storylines were invented: in the Pacific islands 1849, in Edinburgh 1936, in San Francisco 1973, in London 2012, in New Seoul 2144, and Hawaii, far future. What Mitchell’s book did in a masterful way was to change the narrative voice for every segment. So, the pacific islands story set in 1849 is written as a series of diary entries in archaic English. San Francisco in 1973 is a mystery thriller, London in 2012 is comedic in tone. The final two segments are science fiction with future speak.
The Wachowskis tried to stay true to these changes in narrative tone in the movie, and they succeed well. Two-plus hours is a very short time however to really flesh out six different storylines, and Cloud Atlas as a movie gets quite confusing at times. It’s a challenging movie to keep all the stories in your head at the same time, and especially in the first 15 minutes, snippets of all six stories go past rapidly to introduce everything at the same time and if you just miss a few seconds, you’ll feel lost already.
If this wasn’t confusing enough, the story also toys with the idea of a reincarnation of souls. The stories are linked not only through time, but the same actors play different characters in each segment. And so, for example, the characters played by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry fall in love in one segment, and the same thing happens in another future segment in which they play two other characters, as if they are the same souls. Hugo Weaving plays a villain in almost every segment.
All this confusion hints towards a bigger message, but the message isn’t that big, really. You might ask yourself: what was the point of it all? Well, don’t search too hard because there isn’t that much depth. It is a very beautiful movie though. The stories are interesting in themselves, the acting and the locations and the music and the special effects, it is all quite well done. Beautiful is the best way to describe the movie, and also ambitious.
Both the book and the movie stumble a bit in their ambition but I can’t help liking them for it. It is one of the better movies of 2012 in sheer beauty and richness of storytelling.