The best way I can relate my experience watching Cloud Atlas is to compare it to a one night stand. The movie is like a friendly person who is pretty plain, not unattractive, but not the best you think you can do for yourself. You go home with them because of your own desire to have company more than because of anything compelling about them. Then, when the lights are out and things get going, you find out they’re absolutely amazing in bed. For me Cloud Atlas was an unexpectedly great mental shag.
There’s a reason I’m starting out like this. This is a movie that needs to be experienced rather than described. Don’t believe anyone who claims to reduce it to a pile of words. The best I can hope to do is to provide a sense of what that experience is like, and so motivate you to see it for yourself.
Cloud Atlas contains six stories: an historical fiction, a romantic drama, a mystery thriller, a farcical comedy, and two different dystopian futures. Each occupies, in that order, a different period in the arc of world history. They are told in parallel, which highlights character types, relationships, and conflicts that are shared across the plots. Throw in musings by characters and narrators about reincarnation and déjà vu, and you start to see that all the different stories are telling the same meta-story, with a cast of recurring meta-characters engaging in roughly similar meta-conflicts. It’s all very meta. I’m joking around with the concept, but it is actually very well done. The situations and outcomes in the stories differ in ways significant and subtle, drawing the mind to question what the writer is trying to say with this one versus with that. Actors recognizable in the different scenes take on roles that are sometimes similar, sometimes opposing. Figuring out what the relationships are among the narratives is a fun puzzle and it keeps you on your toes.
It’s not necessary to unravel it to enjoy it, however. The effects, the scenery, the acting, and the score are all very engaging. I wept with the character who cradled his dead lover in his arms. I laughed with the mismatched band of old coots as they escaped from the institution their families committed them to. I marveled at the views of abandoned, decayed cities rising out of forests. I feel like I want to watch it again just to let it wash over me, so that I can appreciate all the little things I missed while distracted by analyzing it.
These are all things the movie contains, but they are not what the movie is about. I chose my words carefully. Understand the difference I’m referring to, and I think you’ll understand where the critics start to differ.
I haven’t read the critics yet, but I imagine some of them pan it for being too derivative. In terms of plot elements or individual characters there’s not much that’s original, and there are several obvious references to classics in the represented genres. Some might find it too unwieldy. Weaving six stories into one results in stories and characters that are somewhat underdeveloped and simultaneously a film that is quite long. The length, the frequent flashing forwards and back, the weirdly interlocking decoder ring of characters and actors and roles — these are all hurdles to be jumped to get into the movie.
If you can get past all that, though, you can get to the real prize. You see, like in every truly worthwhile story, the real centerpiece of Cloud Atlas is humanity. Friends and lovers unite in defiance of the “natural order” that would keep them apart. Revolutionaries persist in their dream of a better world in the face of their imminent defeat, and achieve a lasting impact their adversaries could never anticipate. Romantics embrace an authentic life over the tyrannies of comfort and certainty. Characters in different stories interact, inspiring each other in a conversation on grand and universal ideas. Freedom is worth dying for. Separation is an illusion. Love is eternal. It’s all there in the surprising facets of Cloud Atlas.
The film is very postmodern. The best commonality I can find to tie all six stories together is the struggle each protagonist faces to confront and dismantle the conventions and myths of power and privilege in his or her day. The narrators hold monologues about their revelations, in which they reject black and white views in favor of truths that are organic and relational. As a proud postmodern myself who grew up in a family with a modern worldview, I can see how moderns might find all this unfocused and wishy-washy. I’m willing to bet that if someone dislikes the film, their worldview is modern, and if someone finds it resonates with them deeply, that person has a more postmodern perspective.
This is especially pointed in that many of the works and themes that are referenced, things such as exploration, technology, and progress, are hallmarks of modernism. Cloud Atlas takes the viewer on the postmodern’s journey to challenge the contradictions and injustices of modernism, and it does the work of reading postmodern values into the settings of the past, present, and future. Every generation does this sort of reinterpretation, and this work could have the potential to be a very important part of the process for ours. I already think it will be an important one for me.
Bottom line: Cloud Atlas is definitely worth seeing. I would place it above all the movies I’ve seen in the past two years at least. It will take you on a journey that’s intricate and timeless. You might have a different experience than I did, but that’s okay. That is, after all, what it’s all about.