When it comes to literature, my interest is especially character driven ideas and perspectives rather than plot driven styles that move in only one direction. I like a frame story - one where the story is divided into parts by different narrators, which serves to create a fuller world, one more real and complex than it seems at the outset.
These leaps from narrative to narrative, from story to story, help keep my interest and challenge me to try to piece the narrative together from the myriad, sometimes seemingly unrelated parts. Cloud Atlas is a frame story that crosses generations – one that successfully pulled me in and kept my interest, despite a nearly 3 hour running time. I was at no point lost, because the structure forced me to pay close attention and keep track of six different stories at the same time. It also kept me thinking about the way these stories connected. I want to see the film again, looking for strands that were too subtle to notice the first time, which speaks volumes for the quality of the film. I would happily invest another three hours to dissect and understand the story more completely.
It’s hard to summarize the plot to a film of this scope. The stories are interconnected, the people reincarnations of previous lives, beginning in the South Pacific in the 1700s and concluding in the distant future. But it jumps from time period to time period, depending on certain aspects of each life. These characters are all marked by shooting star birthmark, indicating their special nature and connections. The story moves from person to person, from time to time, from story to story seamlessly. A lesser film would make the material impossibly difficult to follow – I was particularly worried before saw it that I might be lost for most of the film. But the Wachowski siblings handled the story with care, adapting the novel by David Mitchell in a way that works, creating a dynamic flow that pulls the audience in without excessive exposition or explanation. Each story stands alone – the connections between them are tertiary at best. While occasionally the film errs on the side of convenient coincidence, each story is well developed.
The themes of the film deal with the powerful connections found in humanity and the idea that love is eternal. Some people are bound to each other. They will find one another, across all boundaries, sometimes for the briefest of moments. It’s a nice idea, I suppose. Given the vast amount of time covered in the film, it reasons that there are generations where these people are lost, not crossing paths and leading simple, conventional lives. When they do encounter each other, they instantly recognize the importance of the moment without fully understanding it. The film posits that in significant moments, the same souls are connected at all times. I enjoyed the way reincarnation was handled – each life is different than the previous, each person making different decisions, having varied personalities and complicated moralities. It makes the argument that the actions of people vary widely, always dependent on circumstance and culture. They are products of their environment, capable to both evil and good.
The technical details of the film are excellent, as would be expected of the Wachowskis. They were responsible for the Matrix films, singlehandedly creating the technique known as bullet-time, which changed action films forever. Here, they don’t break any barriers technologically. Instead, they focused on story. I prefer Cloud Atlas to the Matrix trilogy for that reason. The film uses the same actors in each story, portraying different characters and, at times, different genders. Some of these are more successful than others – obviously make up is a challenge and evidently it is less challenging to make a white actor look Asian than making an Asian actor appear Irish.
I’m not the type of person that finds reincarnation plausible. Human populations are endlessly increasing – there are too many new people for everyone to have been Hannibal or Cleopatra or even a nameless Civil War soldier at one point in their lives. It might, however, explain the curious occurrence of time travelling celebrities (try Googling that – strange indeed.) Like most religious belief, I think the idea of endless rebirth is comforting to a lot of people. We all want to have another chance at life. Death is too final for us to fully comprehend. We want to be part of both the future and the past, so that our lives seem meaningful rather than random. While I don’t know about the truths proposed in Cloud Atlas, I can say with certainty they make for good stories. My time was not wasted.