It is difficult to write about CLOUD ATLAS, at least for me, without delving into personal aspects of my life. Earlier in the week, after coming out of that film, I was almost physically compelled to spit something out within an hour of seeing the movie, and I believe that to have been a mistake. I was so overwhelmed by the experience of it all that I couldn’t think rationally or critically about what I had seen.
It’s been several days since seeing CLOUD ATLAS, and I’m not sure that has changed at all. It has profoundly moved me in ways that I did not expect, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I know what the movie means to me, and certain scenes and lines play in my head like a broken record (vinyl, for those too young to remember), and CLOUD ATLAS doesn’t play to me so much like a movie as it does a kind of dream, or faded memory. It feels like lives lived in harmony and synchronicity, rather than just simple stories told. It has gotten under my skin and into my head in the way that the very best movies I have ever seen have done, and I’m convinced that CLOUD ATLAS will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Once in a while I’m asked what my favorite movies of all time are. That’s an incredibly loaded question to ask me because while I definitely have movies that I can rattle off the top of my head as my favorite, who knows what time and circumstance will hold? My favorite today may not be ten years from now, and that’s not even including the idea that I may see something in the meantime that will be “better.” I am not the same person I was ten years ago. Even five years ago. My sensibilities have changed. My values have shifted. When people change their minds or their outlook in politics, they are looked upon as weak, or fickle. That’s an idiotic way to look at things – I wouldn’t want to vote for someone who can’t look at things from a different perspective or viewpoint and come out unchanged in some way. We grow, we learn, and then we become intrinsically different, and that’s just how a life well-lived is supposed to be.
What does this have to do with what my favorite movies are? Well, again, I’m hard-pressed to say why some movies are personal favorites except that I can find those movies incredibly relevant to my life. If anyone wants to know what kind of teenager I was, I’d point to a film like RUSHMORE, which almost echoes my life in a very uncanny way, especially in my high school years. E.T. has always been a touchstone for me because of my childhood and my life experiences. And I can say, now, with finality, that CLOUD ATLAS enters that place amongst my very favorite films of all time, because its worldviews and themes coincide with my own. I am forever an optimist, forever in love, and forever tied to the people around me in inextricable yet binding ways. CLOUD ATLAS, through its multiple storylines, characters, and timelines, says everything I’ve always wanted to say about this world and my place in it. It is a spiritual experience, and I understand that like most spiritual experiences that it will not affect people in the same way. But for myself, I was profoundly moved, and CLOUD ATLAS brought me to a spiritual awareness that I have rarely experienced in my life, and certainly not through what most people would call religion. Movies have been my religion for as far as I can remember, and CLOUD ATLAS has confirmed to me where my true faith lies – in the power of art to transform, to change, and to make this world beautiful. From cave paintings to sonnets to operas to epic tales, these shared experiences are what bind us all, and they are the only place I find God.
This, of course, doesn’t really help the average Joe Moviegoer looking for a movie to watch on a Saturday night. CLOUD ATLAS certainly isn’t casual moviegoing. Its six storylines intertwine and loop back on themselves, and each scene that plays comments and complements the scene before it, so that the movie feels less like a movie and more of a symphony. The film has a rhythm to it that feels like we as an audience are riding the tides, helpless in the waves. The beginning of CLOUD ATLAS seems jarring, much like being thrown into the ocean, but once the currents resume their places, the moon pulls, the winds rise, and we are off.
These six stories each have their own build and emotional resonance, but they cannot be taken on their own. Together, they form the tapestry that is CLOUD ATLAS – a young man on a merchant ship (Jim Sturgess), writing a journal, which is being read by a young composer in the 1940s (Ben Whishaw) who writes letters to his best friend and lover (James D’Arcy). Those letters make their way to the hands of a reporter (Halle Berry) working on a story in the 1970s, but her story is itself a fiction read by an older publisher (Jim Broadbent) in the modern day. His story is recorded as a movie – or rather a 4D experience - watched by a Fabricant of Neo Seoul in 2144. That Fabricant, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), becomes the prophet and centerpiece of the people in the far future – in particular Valleysman Zachry (Tom Hanks), after The Fall. And the stories embrace each other like lovers, souls intertwined and destinies fulfilled across the fabric of time and space.
This is a movie that demands that you engage with it. It’s not a difficult movie to watch – the masterful directing of Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer keep everything balanced and flowing, and it’s not terribly difficult to follow. Each story has its own signature style and look, and we are never unaware of which story we are seeing. Their script, based off the novel by David Mitchell, is full of big cinematic moments as well as intimate quiet ones, and each moment informs the last. CLOUD ATLAS is a masterwork of editing – I’ve never seen a movie edited so well and effectively. Even if much of the work was done in the script, the work of Alexander Berner and Chris Wehlisch is absolutely flawless. It’s one of the best edited movies ever made.
Across the board, the performances of CLOUD ATLAS are some of the finest work these actors have ever done. All the actors play multiple characters – some villainous, some heroic, some cowardly, some brave – and they keep each character unique and noteworthy. No one is lost amid the makeup work or the setting. Special notice must be given to Jim Broadbent, who is fantastic in his various roles, but there are no bad performances in CLOUD ATLAS. Not a one. The makeup work may be a bit disconcerting, but the larger point is not lost, even in the many different races and sexes that the actors play in their various personas.
But it is the optimism of CLOUD ATLAS that I respond to the most – in this cynical, hateful world, where it is difficult not to despair, CLOUD ATLAS assures us that wonders lie ahead. It insists that people are ultimately good, and all the past prejudices, the past hatreds, will fall away and disappear. The joy and optimism of CLOUD ATLAS feels revolutionary. We are headed for greater things. We will see the stars. We will climb the highest mountains. We will tell the truth, and in that truth keep evil from happening. We will escape our bondage. We will find that great, life-defining love. The pettiness of our inhumanity to others will be forgotten like wisps of smoke from a campfire, as we listen to our oldest Grandpee tell us stories of majesty and wonder. The universe will rotate on, no longer indifferent to our fate. What CLOUD ATLAS says to me is simply, “We will.” We will.
CLOUD ATLAS is a masterpiece. It is one of the finest films I have ever seen, and it fills me with happiness and tears just thinking back on it. It is everything I have always wanted a film to be, and even if others do not take away the same things that I did, it does not matter. What I have taken from CLOUD ATLAS is without any measure, a rich experience that I will never forget. The only thing left is for me to share in its glory and beauty with others, and hopefully they’ll get from it the same things I took from it. It’s an earnest (perhaps too earnest for some), hopeful, joyous film, and it makes me feel new, and so happy to be alive. I hope you feel the same way when you see it. As Red's last words in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION assures us all, "I hope."