Cloud Atlas is the sort of film that I must applaud on general principles in pursuing a vision that is so creative and off the beaten path that it is truly like nothing I have ever seen before. For these things alone I would be tempted to recommend it even if I didn’t like the characters, story, or direction. However I did in fact enjoy all three.
This picture is essentially a science fiction tale that is built upon a metaphysical premise: we are born again and again into lifetimes in which our souls are tied to others through similar themes that recur in different variations. It is about reincarnation. The film makes an analogy with musical composition, in which variation upon key musical themes and motifs intertwine and coalesce to create the greater whole of the musical piece. One of the characters is a musical composer who during his short life produces his opus, the Cloud Atlas Sextet.
The film enters science fiction territory with the final two chapters which are set in the future. The CGI is quite good for the futuristic elements.
The style of narrative for this film will be challenging to some. Six stories are told in which two principal characters are bound either as lovers or close friends, and sometimes the other characters appear as supporting characters or villains. I will not spoil the reader about the specifics of these stories. But the viewer will soon notice that the same characters recur in different lifetimes, often playing very similar roles (though not always). There are thirteen souls that intertwine through the six time settings. Those time periods/places are:
- Pacific Islands, 1849
- Cambridge/Edinburgh, 1936
- San Francisco, 1973
- London, 2012
- Neo Seoul, 2144
- Big Isle, 106 winters after The Fall
The theatrical and prosthetic makeup is well done on the whole, so you may not immediately recognize the actor at first sight. In fact, in some cases it is virtually impossible to tell that it is the same actor. This all should flow effortlessly for the viewer, so in my opinion it’s best the first time to just innocently experience it. I will say, though, that for a second viewing I intend to use this Wikipedia chart and this wiki on my iPad as I watch to keep track of how the same souls apparently reincarnate and interrelate.
There are varying degrees to which the characters evolve from one lifetime to the next in terms of developing virtue or becoming more evil. Some are evidently on an increasingly virtuous trajectory through the succession of incarnations. Sometimes a character backslides in one incarnation but gets on track again in the next. At least one becomes progressively more evil to eventually devolve into what appears to be a kind of rakshasa that haunts another character’s mind psychically. Some start out fearful to aid their fellow human being, but eventually are healed and reformed into braver, more prosocial persons (a supportive mate seems to help here). At least one character moves in exactly the opposite direction, i.e., from brave to fearful (yet we may remain hopeful for him). One even becomes an archetypal figure who is eventually worshiped by the masses.
The film mentions, but shows more than says, the experience of a kind of ‘soul-binding’ that takes place between two souls due to reincarnation, which has people feel instant attractions and affinities, and even the stunning experience of love at first sight. I have resigned myself that this is something that is fated to be one of life’s many mysteries. But if reincarnation is something that is real, and we’re ultimately evolving toward more sophisticated knowledge and awareness of life, it would sure be nice if one day we could ever get a clear answer as to why such ‘soul-binding’ happens!
The actors are all great. Everyone is wonderful, but standouts include Doona Bae, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, and Ben Winshaw.
Anyway, this is a film that cannot be fully appreciated in a single viewing. I will have to watch it again at least once. The movie is a long one, by the way–it lasts about three hours. Hopefully I will get in another viewing over my upcoming quarter break from school.
Just as the characters in the film are haunted by the Cloud Atlas Sextet (several of them upon hearing it “know they have heard it somewhere before”), I admit that I am somewhat haunted by this film.