David Mitchell, author of CLOUD ATLAS, is apparently happy with how the movie turned out. He should be. The movie—faithful in spirit but unfaithful in many details—does something I would have sworn was impossible: it soars like the book.
Film critic Roger Ebert wrote:
Enjoy the humor, the witty visual transitions, and the glorious writing. Savor the Sonmi-451 narrative—the strongest of the six—which is beautiful, stunning, and powerful (it is in the book, too). Stay for the credits to find out which actors played which roles. I was astonished to see who did what.
The key: life itself
To understand CLOUD ATLAS, look at life. Helpful or harmful actions birth other helpful or harmful actions, which birth other actions, and so on forever. Some you know about; most you will never know.
A casual encounter turns out to be life-altering. A job falls out of the sky. A song gets to you. Some would call these chance encounters. Neither the filmmakers, David Mitchell, nor I would call them chance, but whatever they are, life runs by them.
In the movie, connections go forward, backward, and sideways (this is what drives some viewers crazy). Past acts reverberate in the future. Music sounds familiar to a character who could not have heard it before. An act of kindness or cruelty changes the direction of someone’s life forever, which changes another person’s life forever, and so on. As the movie’s trailer says: “everything is connected.”
The individual CLOUD ATLAS stories move in one direction: forward. But they interlock in ways that sometimes suggest reincarnation and sometimes the simple truth that the present is connected to both the past and the future. Everything matters, which leads to the next point:
Actions matter forever
The central conflict between selfishness/predation and love is a little more obvious in the novel, because Mitchell is explicit about it, but it is fairly straightforward in the movie, too.
The common ground of all six narratives is exploitation of some people by others. All six narratives make the same turn, too: the exploited ones break their chains and reach toward something good (freedom, justice, truth, God, their beloved). They head out into a future either happy or dangerous, but in every case allied with good. For this reason CLOUD ATLAS is a buoyant, hopeful movie.
“If I had remained invisible,” Sonmi-451 says shortly before her death, “the truth would have remained hidden. I couldn’t allow that.”
I love it that Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski made this movie. They must have known from the beginning it was going to ask everything of them and not necessarily pay them back. Their work is heroic that way.
One last bit of advice
If you can bring a drink into the theater, do so. Alcohol will loosen your grip on narrative expectations.
Lindsay Edmunds blogs about robots, writing, life in southwestern Pennsylvania, and sometimes books and movies at Writer’s Rest. She is the author of a novel about love in the age of artificial intelligence: Cel & Anna.