Getting Lost in the Inscrutable “Cloud Atlas”

cloud atlas Tom Hanks & Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas (Warner Bros.)

The Wachowskis’ most polarizing film offers an emotional payoff — if you’re willing to invest the time & attention.

(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Since June is Pride Month, we’re taking a deep dive into the works of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, two of the most prominent – and fascinating – transgender filmmakers around. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of the Wachowskis here.)

I decided a couple years ago that I didn’t always need to understand what was happening in a movie or TV show to enjoy it. Initially I thought it was when I was watching Twin Peaks: the Return, but it was a little further back than that. It was during a viewing of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color when I had a revelation: I had no idea what was happening in it, and that was okay, it was still good anyway. I had the same realization during a rewatch of Lost Highway: the more time I spent trying to figure out what the Sam Hill was going on, the less I was able to just be absorbed by the imagery, and allow myself to be immersed in a different world for a little while.

It ultimately became a specific film and TV genre for me, one for which I made up a name: cinéma déroutant (“bewildering cinema”), and some of my favorite TV shows of recent years, including Westworld, Netflix’s Maniac, and the recently returned Legion, all fit under that category. If you were to ask me what happens in them, I’d most likely respond with a sheepish ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, but that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost in something for a little while, without trying to anticipate what’s going to happen next, and why. The WachowskisCloud Atlas might be the platonic idea of cinéma déroutant. It’s willfully, almost gleefully incomprehensible, but, if you have the patience, offers a moving and thoughtful reward.

Whatever you may think of Cloud Atlas, you have to admire the sheer audacity of it. At almost three hours long, it features six timelines spanning almost five hundred years, and stars the same actors playing multiple characters (sometimes as different races and genders, regrettably to the film’s detriment). Based on David Mitchell’s acclaimed (and thought to be unfilmable) novel of the same name, the timelines connect to each other in ways that are both significant and coincidental, as part of a greater message of reincarnation, love across the ages, and how the echo of a single act of kindness can be heard for generations.

Cloud Atlas somehow managed to end up at the top of both “best film” and “worst film” lists of 2012, and those who disliked it seem to take it personally, as if it was a self-indulgent joke played by filmmakers who were no longer interested in making accessible, audience-friendly films. That’s not to say that some of the criticisms weren’t valid. The timelines vary wildly in tone, from the poignant 1936 queer romance featuring Ben Whishaw as a down and out composer and James D’Arcy as his secret lover, to the slapstick comedy of the present, in which Jim Broadbent stages a breakout from a nursing home. One of the two futuristic timelines, set in Hawaii after some sort of unexplained apocalypse, features Tom Hanks as a settler and rHugo Weaving, playing a Satan-like character named “Mr. Georgie,” who evidently only Hanks can see.

The other futuristic timeline, while being the most gripping and visually dazzling, is also the most problematic. Set in “Neo-Seoul” in 2144, it stars Doona Bae as Sonmi, a human clone designed for labor, who is rescued and groomed to lead a rebellion (we eventually learn that she is the goddess the villagers in the Hawaii timeline worship, two hundred years later). Unfortunately, a fascinating concept is derailed when Weaving, D’Arcy, Hugh Grant, and several other white actors appear in yellowface. It makes sense in the context of these characters essentially being the same people reincarnated in different places and times, but it never becomes easy to look past.

Because I’m so white my 23 and Me report was just a picture of a jar of mayonnaise, I’m not qualified to determine whether Jim Sturgess playing a character named Hae-Joo Chang is or isn’t offensive. I’ll take the coward’s way out and say that I don’t think that was the Wachowskis’ intention, but I also obviously understand why it would turn someone off to watching it. It’s a good reason not to watch Cloud Atlas. Because it’s too long, or because you heard it was too hard to understand, that’s not a good reason. The overarching message of being a light in the darkness is not difficult to understand, it’s just a dense and winding journey to get there.

Let’s consider another movie with a similar premise, 2000’s Pay It Forward. In that film, a poor boy, inspired by a school assignment, devises a network in which someone does another person a good deed, and that person in turn does a good deed for three other people, and those people in turn–well, you get the idea. Everything seems to be going swell, until the boy, while defending a classmate from a switchblade-carrying bully (because middle schoolers are often known for carrying switchblades), is fatally stabbed. He collapses with his arms flung out in a Christ-like pose, and later dies, after which a candlelight vigil with hundreds of strangers who have all been touched by his network forms outside his house. Same basic message as Cloud Atlas, about as mawkish and with easy-to-understand-with-no-big-words as possible. You don’t get absorbed in a movie like Pay It Forward, you count the beats until the damaged teacher finds the courage to love again, or the tough single mom allows herself to be vulnerable, or the saintly child makes the ultimate sacrifice.

The overarching message of being a light in the darkness is not difficult to understand, it’s just a dense and winding journey to get there.

For all its faults, Cloud Atlas is willing to give the viewer the benefit of the doubt that they’re not stupid, and are willing to ride out each of these confounding, occasionally tedious storylines to get to the greater meaning behind them. The payoff is worthwhile and unexpectedly moving. Roger Ebert, in a four star review, wrote beautifully about the movie’s baffling but ultimately rewarding trajectory, stating that he hoped potential viewers wouldn’t be turned off by its complexity. The review was written just two months before Ebert was diagnosed with bone cancer, and six months before he passed away.

I have to imagine that the film’s notion of death not being an end, but merely the passage to another beginning, touched a chord with him. It did me, as well, mostly because I’m a sap with a soft spot for virtually any kind of media with themes of eternal love, and the great, endless time loop which brings us to the same people over and over, for good and bad. There are plenty of justifiable reasons to avoid Cloud Atlas, but thinking you won’t get it or will be bored by it aren’t among them. It’s a simple message merely told in a convoluted fashion: we’ll meet again, our paths lit by the warmth of human kindness.

Cloud Atlas Trailer:

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