A nice piece of symbolism in a movie full of exactly that.

Cloud Atlas is a bold movie and it isn’t apologizing. I had to see it twice before I felt like I was ready to write anything about it. I think the first time, I was mostly running a checklist of stuff they changed from the novel. I will talk a bit about how Cloud Atlas works as an adaptation but I didn’t want to write an entire review around that.

In the days after I first saw it, I realized I’d also been running another kind of checklist. Shortly before it was released, Cloud Atlas took some heat for having white actors playing Asian characters. Of course, it was also noted that this goes in other directions. Asian actors play white characters, and Halle Berry seems to play a little bit of everything. When I was watching the movie that first time, I was focused on how this element worked. Was it actually something that people should be offended with? Was the justification for it a good one? And so on. When I wasn’t thinking about that, I was trying to engage with it as an adaptation.

Suffice it to say, it has taken a second viewing for me to fully appreciate the movie. And to derive some hopefully worthwhile things to say about it. In terms of analysis, there’s a lot of stuff going on here on narrative and technical levels. In terms of emotional and intellectual impact, Cloud Atlas is profoundly humanist and will move you if you let it.

For it’s big themes, the film is usually very intimate. Occasionally, though, it goes for the majesty shot.

Cloud Atlas is a powerful film. On every level it is working toward a rhythm in pursuant to a philosophical theme of transcendence. Rather than being esoteric or preachy, the film explores this theme via identifiable prisms of character and context. From the way we treat our elderly to the misguided notions of race, every bit of Hegel or humanism in the film flows out of its characters and stories resulting in an anthology of human experience. Cloud Atlas wraps emotional authenticity in heightened narratives to give us a taste of both fantasy and reality, which is itself a profound statement of the importance of imagination in the development of what is good in us.

While not a puzzle film, Cloud Atlas can be a bit tricky to follow. It is of use to break down how it works in mechanical terms in order to clarify parts of my analysis. This may also be helpful to anyone reading who found it difficult to understand. It’s not that Cloud Atlas is extremely cerebral. If anything, the emotional content simplifies the intellectual so that the movie’s themes become extremely accessible. The trouble is in figuring out how one story affects the next and where each one has its place in the greater context of the whole.

One of the first things to note is that while each of the six storylines has its own plot, they are different mostly on the level of details. What matters is the theme. In each story, two people become connected in spite of major obstacles. Though we don’t always move through these stories chronologically, it seems simplest to break them down in chronological terms.

Autua and Ewing’s friendship is the simplest of the important relationships in the film. This also makes it one of the purest and most affecting.

In the first story, 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is a sick man in Southeast Asia. About to settle a slave trade deal, he befriends a Moraori slave Autua (David Gyasi). Ewing’s caretaker, Dr. Goose (Tom Hanks) may not be as friendly as he seems. Intermixed into these more intimate details, Ewing’s story contains some discussion about the “natural order” as it is taken for granted by powerful white men. Autua’s situation shows that this “order” is not limited to whites, but represents the prevalent human evil of slavery and exploitation. Every possible barrier exists between Ewing and Autua’s friendship, not least of all Ewing’s health. Autua tells him in a gesture all that is required to foster friendship is connection. This is the building block for every other transgressive relationship in the film, and the first stitch in the tapestry of the self recognizing the other. This is a major Hegellian theme and one the Wachowskis love to play with and it’s presence is greatly felt in Cloud Atlas. In fact, this film has an unlikely connection to The Master as a result of how important Hegel is to both.

When Ewing’s time with Autua ends, the story briefly touches (for the second time) on the role of women in 19th century society. Tilda (Doona Bae) is expected to do as her father wishes and would out of fear if not for the liberating love of her husband. Ewing’s new-found conviction to help end slavery is shared by her and we see that oppression is a monolithic force, affecting the lives of many people and combated both on the grander stage of the abolition movement and in the more intimate setting of a father’s house.

Whishaw’s strong voice is a reliable companion in this film.

In the second story, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is a 1930’s bisexual would-be composer with “loose morals”. He fakes his way into the service of Vivian Ayres (Jim Broadbent), a great composer entering his last phase of life. Frobisher writes letters to his lover Robert Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) about his experiences with Ayres and his wife Jocasta (Halle Berry). Though Frobisher’s story seems to be about the dominance of the employer, it is also about the politics of sexual orientation. Frobisher has a bad reptuation which Ayres can use to manipulate him, even as Frobisher feels an intense connection to Ayres which manifests as a potential physical love.

This connection arises out of their music, a work Frobisher calls the Cloud Atlas Sextet. The music of the Sextet plays throughout the film and is one of its best features. That they managed to make this work is wonderful because so much of the rhythm of the film would not work without a Sextet that actually feels like a great work. It may not actually be one, that’s for musical people in the audience to grapple with, but it does feel authentic and that’s what matters the most. Frobisher writes to Sixsmith and keeps their connection alive and this is affected by his own reading of Adam Ewing’s journal. It’s Ewing’s tale of a bond in an unlikely place that inspires what Frobisher looks for in Ayres and what he truly has in Sixsmith.

More than the others, Frobisher’s journey eventually becomes about something more abstract and profound than the more grounded experiences of the other characters in the film. At the edge of his life, Frobisher has many insights into the truth about his situation and the transience of our life states. He’s the one who puts to words many of the core thematic ideas in the film. It’s therefore appropriate that he is also the character who captures those same things, feelings and all, in his music.

Speaking of the music. Fuck, man. One of the most beautiful and captivating themes in a movie ever. It manages to evoke the spirit of the film, and each story, in a way that is mesmerizing. Apparently we can thank Tykwer for much of this.

James D’Arcy takes quite well to the dramatic transformations required in the film.

Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is the third main protagonist. She’s an investigative reporter in the 70’s whose story most generally deals with trust and our obligations to others. In large terms, Luisa feels a general sense of responsibility for people and crusades for the truth wherever she thinks it will help them. In smaller terms, she forges fast bonds with people who help her toward this truth, who she changes and who change her. There’s a running theme of choice (of course) in the film, and how encounters with others can radically redirect our lives. This segment comments directly on how these little ripples go on to have profound effects on our lives. An older Sixsmith gets Luisa embroiled in a dark plot to keep America oil-dependent. From him, she gets his letters and connects to the man’s past. Like Frobisher, she is inspired to stay with the path she finds herself on. More ripples put her in danger and get her out again.

Condensed as it is, Luisa’s story somehow emerges feeling a bit topical. The dependency on oil is a huge issue of our time and this segment is in some ways a fantasy of the lone heroine poised against the forces that keep us dependent on oil when other options exist. For all that it’s fantasy, Luisa’s story maintains a higher level of grit and realism than some of the others. At the center of it, though, is a quest for truth and a very tangible model of truth’s potential to help people and set them free. This segment therefore grounds some of the esoteric philosophy present in the film and makes it something you can touch while keeping it just as vital to the intangibles as Frobisher’s quest for spiritual transcendence via art.

Susan Sarandon makes everything 28% better than it would be without her.

In 2012, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is a self-possessed book publisher who gets some comeuppance for his personality flaws. His brother (Hugh Grant) gets him put in a home where he is menaced by Nurse Doakes (Hugo Weaving) and kept against his will. While this segment comments on how we treat our elderly, it also gets at the sort of vicious cycle of missed opportunities. While he’s stuck paying for the mistakes of his past and wondering what he could have done differently, Cavendish reads about Luisa Rey in the form of fiction. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how her story affects him, but in the film it is clear that the ripple effect of human interaction affects him much more subtly than her. Luisa’s story feels like a fiction and it is appropriately contrived. Cavendish, on the other hand, is experiencing something a lot closer to home for most people. While his segment is lighter than others, it nontheless explores another facet of human experience. Cavendish is the ultimate self and it’s this quality that has cut him off. His experiences get him to finally evolve past this and the dramatization of them helps to inspire the next character in her own struggles.

Taking some of the grounded quality of Luisa Rey’s story, the Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish also moves Cloud Atlas into the territory of the comedic. The film never goes too far in any possible tonal direction, but maintains a steady flirtation with comedy, horror, visceral, and cerebral undertones. That said, Cavendish’s story is hilarious and so self-contained it verges on feeling out of place.

Cloud Atlas both fetishizes and deconstructs those trappings of Far East culture that so often are a source of curiosity, mockery, celebration, and alienation.

Sonmi-451 (Donna Bae) is a fabricant (a genetically engineered slave) existing some time in our future. In Korea, a caste system has been established which puts natural “pureblood” humans above the slave race of fabricants. This is justified through the fiction that fabricants can’t think for themselves. Sonmi-451 is the proof that this isn’t the case and she is exactly the heroine that the Union Rebellion requires to overthrow the Unanimity of Corpocrats which controls society on the back of this fiction. The “future Korea” story is a bit tricky to follow as it tosses a pile of concepts and terms at us which are not present anywhere else in the film. Because it’s been so condensed compared to the book version, a lot of detail gets left by the wayside and Sonmi’s story is a refined essentialist version of what it is in the novel. It might be useful to use the book to explain some of what’s going on. New Seoul is a cyberpunk dystopia where corporations run everthing, citizens are called “consumers” and fabricants are exploited horrifically to keep the whole thing running in the face of global ecological disaster (flooding being the specific case for New Seoul). The whole thing has been massaged a bit for the film in order to comment on the current tension between the ultrarich and everyone else, with the diastrous early stages of climate change as a backdrop for the protests and recessions. Sonmi’s story takes place in an extremely negative version of where we could possibly be headed.

This portion of the film is the biggest in scope, with Sonmi being rescued by Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess), a skilled soldier fighting for the Union. The Union was born among the poor, right on the streets. Parallels, guys. Anyway, there’s a lot of action and big set pieces in the Future Korea stuff but what matters more is that Sonmi’s struggle to transcend boundaries is taking place at the highest of stakes. She is the representative of both the most dramatic lows of our potential to enslave and exploit each other while also being the representative of the greatest heights we can soar as free thinkers capable of enacting change for the better. Centuries after the world rots, she remains a messianic figure to the pockets of humanity that remain.

Tom Hanks is a joy to watch in this film. Working on it seems to have revitalized him, he looks 10 years younger and immediately recaptures the vitality and earnest charm that he is so well known for.

One of those pockets is called the Valley. There, a goatherder named Zachry (Tom Hanks) deals with his guilt over the death of his brother-in-law Adam (Jim Sturgess). The Valleysmen are under constant threat by the Kona, a tribe of savage cannibals. Every so often, a Prescient ship will come for trade or study. The Prescients are all that remains of the futuristic society Sonmi-451 freed. They understand her as a historical figure while the more primitive Valleysmen worship her as a deity. Zachry’s journey is as symbolic as it is highly personal to him. He’s so human it hurts. He was afraid of the Kona and let his relatives die in front of him and that guilt manifests as a semi-delusional haunting by the Satanic figure of Ol’ Georgie (Hugo Weaving), a green-skinned monster who taunts him with his own darkest thoughts.

When Meronym (Halle Berry) comes to the Valley in a last-ditch effort to save her people by contacting the Offworld Colonies, it is Zachry who both houses her and guides her. At first it’s against his will, but mysticism and real mystery blend together to propel him down a different path. Like most of the stories in the film, Zachry’s is very philosophical. His conflict is just as much about trust and recognition of the other, but it manifests almost like a fable. This is in part due to the exotic setting, but also because it is structured much like the Allegory of the Cave (even the older, grizzled Zachry resembles Socrates or Plato). Moreover, the tension between superstitious fear and the liberty of reason is pretty much the generator of philosophy from the first place. It is incredibly appropriate to fall back on Plato/Socrates as touchstones for this story.

Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae twice play lovers connected by the struggle for equality.

Now from the above summary, you’ll have noticed a couple of things if they weren’t already apparent while watching the film. For starters, there are through-lines in the way the roles are cast. Hugo Weaving, for example, always plays villainous characters. Halle Berry and Tom Hanks play roles that are sometimes connected to each other. Either this is the core relationship, as in Zachry’s story, or it’s as subtle as a glance as in Cavendish’s story. More central to the theme of romantic love are Sturgess and Bae who play lovers both in 1849 and in Neo Seoul.

Most of the secondary characters are played continually by actors that pop up in other stories, usually in more central roles. Sometimes the thematic import is obvious, as with how Sturgess and Bae are used, but other times this casting is purely for fun. I think a lot of people miss this. Sturgess playing the Scottish soccer hooligan in 2012 isn’t important, it’s just fun. That said, there are definitely subtle nods to continuation of relationships and themes in even the tertiary characters in some of the stories. Whishaw and Broadbent, for example, show up together in 1849 as a cabin boy and the captain of the ship most of Ewing’s story happens on. I think in the book there was a subplot about the captain taking sexual advantage of his cabin boy. In one exchange, a power dynamic between the two is completely visible and totally reflective of how Ayres uses Frobisher. More than just being reflective, this moment actually informs the more developed relationship these actors play out in more prominent roles. Interestingly, Whishaw also plays Georgette the wife of Cavendish’s brother with whom he had an affair (which prompted him to take revenge on poor Tim Cavendish). Not only is the reoccuring relationship one of power dynamics but also one with a sexual undertone.

So the use of the same actors in a multitude of roles is stunt casting except when it isn’t.

Weaving looking like an angry Vulcan blinded by the sun.

The most noticeable stunt casting done in the film is the “race bending”. Weaving, Grant, D’Arcy, and Sturgess all prominently play pseudo-Korean (there’s some evidence that the “pure bloods” are mixed-race but the eyelid folding is too prominent to ignore). The makeup effects run from great (D’Arcy) to not bad (Sturgess) to fucking awful (Grant and Weaving). The complaints of “yellow face” traditionally associate to some kind of mockery of ethnic stereotypes. In Cloud Atlas, the only stereotype is that Asians have folded eyelids and dark hair. There’s nothing culturally specific enough that you couldn’t have Neo Seoul be Neo Boston or Neo Rio de Janeiro. All the trappings of Asian culture are superficial, just like the makeup effects.

There’s an argument that mixed-race actors could have been found to fill roles which required both caucasian and Asian persuasions. The truth is that, logistically, it would have been difficult to do this. Cloud Atlas is one of the most expensive “independent” films ever made and both its form and content are off-beat enough that it would always have been an uphill battle to find an audience and make that money back for the investors. To secure the funding, “names” had to be cast and it is to the production’s credit that such great actors were found. To their credit, too, that they were willing to court controversy for this project. A more damning truth is that there simply aren’t many prominent American actors who are Asian or mixed-race (like Keanu Reeves is and he was likely approached and just as likely unavailable). There is racism involved with why there aren’t more “bankable” Asian or mixed-race leads, and Cloud Atlas might bear some of the brunt of consequence in that. However, it is hardly something that you can use to sink the movie.

Sturgess actually handles the makeup well. He looks like he’s an ethnic hodge-podge with a couple of identifiably “Asian” features.

Moreover, there’s also the argument that quibbling about the casting misses the point. On one hand, there’s that Cloud Atlas directly engages the convention of race and seeks to remind us that it’s a barrier against connection. This is easy for white people to say and might seem condescendingly “post-racial” to people who aren’t white and have to deal with real and unfortunate consequences of white privelege. In fact, it’s difficult being a white guy and discussing this at all but I want to try because I think that Cloud Atlas deserves a fair shake and that it shouldn’t be dismissed for being racially problematic.

So anyways, it’s also worth noting that nonwhite actors also play other races. Halle Berry’s transformation as Jocasta is a stunning bit of makeup. She also plays Korean and Maori. Other actors, like Korean Doona Bae and Chinese Xun Zhou play Caucasian, Hispanic, etc. Actors of African descent like Keith David and David Gyasi play Polynesians as well. The question then becomes whether or not it’s even fair to criticize a movie that does this. To me it speaks to an attempt to overcome the shortcomings of the film industry shortcomings in terms of available actors and casting traditions. That the film both is and tries to be even-handed should count for something.

The exceptional work done for Berry as Jocasta. Or what I call the “Madonna Effect”.

Of course, one of the problems is derived from the superficial but understandably so. The makeup doesn’t always work. Hugo Weaving looks atrocious in his Korean role. Because the makeup is so often good elsewhere, but occasionally really noticeable (bad), it seems like this was probably intentional (even if misguided).The idea might have been to keep the actors from disappearing too far into the roles, to make sure audiences could still recognize them and therefore trace the lines between these characters and access the themes some of the casting works for. You can’t look at Weaving and not think they stumbled some, though. His makeup as Nurse Doakes is also bad, but in a Mrs. Doubtfire comical way that seems more appropriate to the Cavendish story. Grant likewise suffers some of the bad makeup but also disappears almost entirely as Kona tribesman. The dramatic differences in some of the makeup suggests intention because the obvious question is, if they did it this good over here what stopped them from matching that over there.

Now all of this may not really save Cloud Atlas from at least being symptomatic of the systemic race issues in the entertainment industry. I don’t think the film is complicit as it has been accused of, but that might simply be a cute distinction to people who aren’t white. I really can’t feel too sure of my position here and anyone who is probably is also an asshole. It’s a tough spot to be in but I actually think that Cloud Atlas is to be praised for making us think about this stuff and especially along uncomfortable lines.

So yeah, lotta words cast at a problem I doubt I’m in any way capable of or qualified to resolve but hopefully it was interesting to read.

The Wachowskis are fans of romantic love as a catalyst for human connection and responsibility to the Other (see Neo and Trinity in The Matrix) and reuse this device in Cloud Atlas to help refine and condense the Sonmi storyline.

Summarizing the film also reveals a flaw in the context of adaptation. A lot of the setting details are lost on the viewer with the emotional narrative doing all the heavy lifting in keeping people invested. There’s an action sequence or a beautiful shot here and there to shore it up, but you’re not going to derive a lot of satisfaction if you like exposition and expository world-building. All the world-building in Cloud Atlas is visual or impressionistic.

That said, Cloud Atlas may be one of the greatest examples of essentials as an operative priority in the project of adapting a book. Even though the details are blurrier and more complex relationships are refined into romances (as with Sonmi and Hae-Joo or Zachry and Meronym), the film never feels like a dumbed down version. It feels like an essentialist version. It gets at the essence of each working part of Cloud Atlas and puts that up on screen. Moreover, it reacts to these essences not with slavish devotion to the book, but on its own tangents and thematic exercises.

Hanks and Berry get a few more echoes than the other actors. This allows Hanks’ series of characters to tell one big story. I’m a bit shakier on whether or not there’s a similar continuum for Berry but would love to hear theories about it.

For example, the book is far less preoccupied with the idea of reoccurence. There, the comet birthmarks and the idea of reoccuring events, personalities, or souls is more subtle and less mystical. In the film, they are playing far more earnestly with the idea that these similar faces and similar people evince a grand karmic wheel that can only stop spinning when people learn to be better. This allows the Wachowskis and Tykwer to be both less and more ambitious than David Mitchell was when he wrote the book, and in entirely different terms.

In the book, each segment is a literary exercise. Ewing’s story is written as an epistolary novel. Luisa Rey’s is a mystery book with a little hard boiled noir thrown in. The language and form change to suit the story, commenting on literary tradition as well as human experience.

The film doesn’t quite do the cinematic equivalent. The style and tone of the images feel consistent segment-to-segment, rather than each being a mini-movie reflecting the mini-novel style of Mitchell’s book. Instead, themes are explored by connecting the roles in different segments using the actors playing them. I touched on this before when I mentioned the Ben Whishaw/Jim Broadbent connection. More resonant to me is how Tom Hanks plays characters along a trajectory of self awareness and moral redemption. His characters in 1849, the 30’s and 2012 are all repugnant, base, and even murderous. In Luisa’s story, Isaac Sachs might represent a chance for this soul to find some connection and redeem itself. The chance is aborted, though, when Sachs is murdered shortly after meeting Luisa. The connection is never acknowledged past rumination and therefore never fully realized. It’s in Zachry, the spiritual narrator of the entire film, that the journey of this soul is completed. It is also where the selfishness, cowardice, and greed (the continuous motif of the jeweled button Dr. Goose pries from Ewing’s clothes) of his earlier iterations are challenged by basic goodness, found inner strength, and most importantly connection with another person. It’s Meronym that brings out the best in Zachry and she does this by inspiring him with her selflessness and courage.

Their “you fall, I catch you” moment climbing the Mount of Souls is my favorite moment in the film, for whatever that’s worth. Hanks and Berry have great chemistry and that helps too.

As I said, the idea that these are souls being reborn over time is a more powerful one in the film. I think the mechanics of this are incredibly unimportant but people will probably get a bit hung up on it anyway. The comet birthmark is the signifier that each of the main characters is connected in some way. Thematically, they are connected by their struggle. Each one experiences both the good and bad humans are capable of.

In the book, it seems like maybe it’s the same soul being born over and over. Like Ewing, Frobisher, Rey, Cavendish, and Zachry are all part of the same continuum of experience.  In the movie, the presence of the same actors throughout the segments means that there’s an idea that each character is a reoccurence but that it follows along the pathways made by the actors. This is beautifully rendered between Hugo Weaving and Tom Hanks, as I Pointed out. Hanks is the weak man who needs to connect to be redeemed and Weaving is always the villain, the manifestation of the oppression, fear, and failings of human beings. So instead of being about one continuum of human experience that contains many participles, the film focuses on the continuum of its humanist themes.

Something so perfectly predictable and satisfying about Weaving sending up his own tendency toward being cast as a villain by playing a bevy of ’em.

One more time: recognizing the other is the only way to find ourselves, to live full lives freed from the things that make us petty, cruel, greedy, and wicked. To recognize the other, we have to overcome the barriers we erect, usually because of fear but often for more complicated reasons (superiority complexes, expedience, etc). Overcoming these barriers is a matter of being able to conceptualize past them. To do that, we need others. It’s nice and symmetrical.

This idea of reoccurence, on the other hand, has a soft touch. There’s no cosmic truth to be derived from how it’s used, except the idea of interconnectivity between people and what they do both for and to each other.

Cloud Atlas is an eminently positive, optimistic film. It is vulnerable to knee-jerk cynicism and the general death of sentiment that afflicts Western culture. I’ve been learning lately that sometimes it’s appropriate and maybe even crucial to let the sentiment sink in, to let yourself feel stuff even though your rational defenses are throwing up red flags. Understood correctly, Cloud Atlas does not ask you to compromise with your reason to be moved by it. I think I’ve argued for that in this review so it’s not like I’m saying “people, don’t be critical”.

I’d never say that.

No accident that there’s so many shots of a character looking out, contemplative, surrounded by beauty.

Be critical. Notice the gaps in the plot. Cringe at the fine line walked by the makeup effects. Fail to understand anything Zachry says.

But don’t reject this movie just because it is feels. You are feels. The person sitting beside you is feels. Unless they are on their phone. If they are on their phone, they need to be destroyed.

Otherwise, they are feels. See that they are feels and recognize that you are feels. Everybody can be feels together. Fearing the feels is what makes you mock the feels. Don’t fear them because the feels will set you free. There’s nothing so liberating as being moved by art. Even art that risks being schmaltzy. Cloud Atlas is art. Imagine yourself being moved by it and it’ll be so.

Feels. True-true.