In This Together, by David Bax
To attempt the adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, with its formally inventive methodology of delivering six stories that have nothing and everything to do with one another, is a daring act in and of itself. Directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski have met and exceeded that daunting task by remaining true to the nature of the source as best they could as well as inventing ways of expressing its themes that could only be achieved cinematically.
As mentioned, there are six separate stories being told. In 1849, an aristocratic lawyer travels by boat from a remote Pacific isle to San Francisco. In 1931, an aspiring but destitute composer takes a job interpreting the work of an aging legend in the field who is losing his eyesight. In 1975, a young reporter tries to uncover corruption and malfeasance at a California nuclear power plant. In the modern day, a smalltime book publisher attempts to outrun his debts to some unsavory folk. In the near-ish future, a fabricated human learns about the world outside the restaurant in which she was “genomed” to work and live her entire life. And in the distant future, a member of one of many agricultural tribes befriends one of the last humans with access to technology and higher learning.
These stories are all told concurrently (editor Alexander Berner deserves a hearty congratulations for his complex but fluid work) but they are also each being told inside one another. The journal of the sea-faring aristocrat is read by the young composer. The composer’s letters are read by the reporter. The reporter’s tale is told in a novel submitted to the book publisher. And on it goes. This is more than a clever gimmick, however. Much like (and more successfully than) Ben Affleck’s Argo, Cloud Atlas demonstrates the power of storytelling itself – beyond the elements of the story being told – to change hearts and minds. A passage in Mitchell’s novel explores the difference between the actual past and the virtual past – the facts of the thing that happened and those of the story that is told of the thing that happened. Tykwer and the Wachowskis translate that by adopting a generally heightened and somewhat artificial tone, opting to present their stories as fables rather than to attempt verisimilitude. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is famous for the line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In that case, the sentiment carries a strong undercurrent of cynicism. Alternately, Cloud Atlas asks us to consider that, when wielded correctly, it’s the legend more than the truth that has the power to inspire positive change in people.
Of course, as we can see in the current and very close presidential race, there exist differing notions of what constitutes positive change. Cloud Atlas is unquestionably a leftist film. In a superficial way, that much should be clear from the basic plot description of the future-set stories. In one, the working class are literally controlled from birth to death (or “womb to tomb,” as the film would have it) by their corporate overlords. In another, mankind’s bottomless greed has set civilization back thousands of years. Beneath that, though, there are deeper roots of leftwing thinking. Namely, the film makes the case that no person’s life is solely her or his own. We are all bound to each other in ways great and small. Our individual decisions and actions have consequences on others, not only in our immediate circle but worldwide; not only in our present day but on down the line into the future. No one man can sail a mighty ship by himself. No one idealist can start a revolution solely on the passion of the ideas in her head. In short, we are all in this together.
It follows, then, that the only way to get anything worthwhile done is by working with each other. There is a motif of imprisonment and isolation in Cloud Atlas. Some of it is self-imposed, as in the way Tom Hanks’ distant-future goat herder keeps himself at an emotional remove from his tribesman because of a shameful secret that plagues him. Some of it is very literal, such as when Jim Broadbent’s book publisher is interred in a locked-from-the-outside retirement community against his will. In every case, the protagonist cannot extricate her- or himself from her or his plight unilaterally. Be it by the aid of a slave who was once done a small kindness or by the setting aside of relatively petty differences in the interest of larger concerns, no one goes it alone. The only other option is sacrifice, or martyrdom for the cause of humanity.
Tykwer and the Wachowskis illustrate the irremovable ties among all people at all times chiefly by casting the same actors in different roles for each of the six tales. The performers are repeatedly tasked with portraying different ages, different accents, even different races and genders. The effect is not a subtle one, nor should it be. We the audience are meant to recognize that Hugh Grant is playing both the slimy nuclear energy CEO and the successful brother of the book publisher or that the Korean fabricant cafeteria worker is also the Caucasian wife of the aristocrat. It becomes apparent that we are watching as a small company of players don costumes from a trunk and put on a show for us. That quaint show just happens to also contain tens of millions of dollars’ worth of sets, visual effect, pyrotechnics.
Another benefit of the repeated recasting is that it allows us to more easily compare the characters in different eras to one another. Should we decide to entertain the idea that the character played by James D’Arcy in one story is the reincarnation of his character from the previous chronological tale, we can further reflect on the persistent theme that people are capable of change. It’s immediately clear that some actors remain malevolent throughout (such as Hugo Weaving) and some benevolent (Doona Bae). Others, however, particularly those we would call our leads (Hanks, Halle Berry, Broadbent) evolve, some of them on a clear and straightforward path and others (Hanks especially) in a fluctuating dance between good and evil. The juxtapositions of roles by the same actor also allow us to consider how the expressions of good and bad have changed through time and, more importantly, how they have not. There is a tellingly unsubtle repetition of references and allusions to persecution. From black people to Jewish people to women to fabricants, the subjects of oppression by the ruling sect may change but the nature of it does not.
Sometimes an unconventional undertaking requires an unconventional approach. Perhaps it was only with three directors that a film as great as this one is in the traditional sense could be as great as it is in the other sense. More than that, they all had to be absolutely tapped in to the right wavelength to make a film that looks and feels so of a piece with itself. Well, they were and they did and so we may enjoy Cloud Atlas, one of the best films of the year.