Cloud Atlas: What a Goddam Movie!!

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David Mitchell is an original and virtuosic writer about whom I've rhapsodized on this site already. Andy & Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer's film adaptation of Cloud Atlas isn't quiiiiiiiite as good as the book, but it's incredibly powerful, moving, intellectually stimulating, creative and visceral, a passion project I wish was more common in big budget filmmaking. It's also incredibly postmodern.


cloud atlas poster


Postmodern? How so?


-It tells six stories instead of one. 

-each takes place in a different time period

-each takes place in a different country

-each is in a different genre (sea story, science fiction, farcical comedy, post-apocalyptic fantasy, mystery/suspense)

-each protagonist is from a different demographic

-the stories are woven in intertwining threads. As a viewer you just have to go along with sudden jumps between stories/time periods/genres


-It's conscious of itself as a work of art

-all of the lead actors are cast in all six stories. As a viewer you can't help but notice this as they appear, and it takes you out of the reality of each story, ever so briefly. Sometimes you can't identify them until well into the movie. Sometimes you never do (there were sounds of astonishment from the audience as the credits rolled)


cloud atlas actors in different roles


-each story appears in some form as a work of art in another story (the journal entries that comprise the sea story are read in a bound volume by a character in another time period, the adventures of one character in present day are seen recreated as a movie in the science fiction story)

-as mentioned, we jump from story to story in no set pattern. There are similar plot points in each story that happen in succession, edited so that you can't help but notice the mechanics of each story in motion. 

-the stories all have the same theme, which is also quite evident in the movie's construction as well.


-Its theme is very postmodern

-one character phrases his philosophy "The weak are meat, and the strong eat." The movie looks at the prevalence of this perspective (which is very modern), and spotlights the impulse to turn it upside-down. Compassion for the downtrodden awakens, and flowers, and attempts to eke out ground amidst the brutality of the strong enslaving, preying upon, slitting the throats of, blowing up, shooting, imprisoning, or otherwise dominating the less powerful. 


Hugo Weaving as Nurse NoakesThe movie has post-postmodern elements going for it too.

-the action scenes aren't presented ironically, or as a statement on the horrifying nature of violence - they're genuinely thrilling. And they make violence seem horrible too. 

-actors in some stories are cross-cast racially, and sexually. Halle Berry plays a Jewish woman. A white guy plays a Korean guy. An Asian woman plays a Mexican. A black guy plays a New Zealand aboriginal. Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in the Matrix movies) plays a big, cruel (female) nurse. Any fears of offending the politically correct were eschewed in favour of this decision. 


Ultimately, the movie chronicles how, in spite of modernist power that seeks to stay in control through the rule of muscle, fist, bullet, blade and institutional structures, something emerges in the cloud atlas scenehuman spirit and spreads. Compassion. Equanimity. Empathy. A desire to protect those whom fortune did not bless with superior amounts of muscles, technology and money. And this becomes evident in the actions people take in their interpersonal relations, in their political actions, and in the works of art they create that not only present these themes, but do so in innovative, challenging, accessible ways that make your brain and your soul feel like branches within that had been barren, dry sticks are spontaneously blossoming with bright purple orchids of a beauty and intricacy you'd never considered possible until you suddenly find them abundant, real and divine. 

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  • Comment Link Vanessa D. Fisher Thursday, 22 November 2012 22:14 posted by Vanessa D. Fisher

    I must admit, every time I read a review of Cloud Atlas in the integral spaces, I feel like I was at a totally different movie :)

    No offense to the Wachowski's, as I loved the Matrix Trilogy, and I love them, but I was personally surprisingly unmoved by Cloud Atlas.

    No doubt it was epic, but it left me pretty cold. I didn't feel an emotional connection to any of the characters (perhaps too many storylines) and the spiritual sentiments felt really obvious and almost implanted. I didn't feel the nuance of spiritual and philosophical depth that I felt in the Matrix.

    Anyways, not to be a downer. I'm glad others liked it. For me it fell flat.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Saturday, 24 November 2012 01:22 posted by TJ Dawe

    Fair enough. Something I've been thinking about in terms of the movie in terms of casting of the same actors in each story - doing so is an unconventional choice (although the movie's so different from a conventional movie, simply in its structure, I don't know that there are precedents to adhere to in the first place), it really makes it easier to keep track of who's who in each story. Whenever I start watching a new serial TV show, there's always a period in which, whenever the scene changes, I find myself asking "and who's this again?" Whereas in Cloud Atlas, Tom Hanks is the corrupt doctor in this one, he's the tattooed apocalypse survivor, he's the roughneck London thug writer, etc. Got it. (mind you, I'd already read the book)(have you read the book?)(damn amazing book). With a TV show there's more time to get engaged, but in a movie it's gotta happen quickly. But doing this can have the adverse effect of distancing the viewer from emotional involvement in the story. You see the characters as costumes the actors are wearing, you never really believe the characters 100%, since you see the same actors playing different characters in intercut scenes. This is something Bertolt Brecht did on stage, for the exact desired effect of focusing the audience's attention on the message.

    Reading the novel, this doesn't happen (obviously). The stories aren't intercut, they're presented independently. I read the novel a few years ago, and was so taken with it that I read all of Mitchell's work, and am just in love with the damn guy. So admittedly I was predisposed to like this movie. I'm also a sucker for daring experiments with story structure that don't leave the viewer behind - largely because that's what I do in the plays I write, and what I've seen many times on stage in fringe theatre festivals. It's part of a larger wave of postmodern story experimentation - something written about in the NY Times here:

    But if the spiritual sentiments seemed obvious and lacking depth, well, I guess that's that. It very much worked for me.

  • Comment Link Simon Stella Saturday, 24 November 2012 02:24 posted by Simon Stella

    Cloud Atlas moved me in so many unsuspected ways. "Why are they speaking in a lingo I barely comprehend". And then I'm totally engrossed in the cross-references. The final scene did me in! tears pouring out, unable to stop them. Was I an observer or a participant? I must get me a copy of the book, read it thoroughly and return to the theatre ASAP! I loved this movie!

  • Comment Link Vanessa D. Fisher Saturday, 24 November 2012 23:12 posted by Vanessa D. Fisher

    Thanks for your elaboration on it TJ. I haven't read the book, so that might make a difference on how we experienced it.

    I can definitely appreciate the experiment of the whole thing, but yeah, just wasn't for me. I felt the spiritual elements catered more to a mass audience, which I guess is fine for what it is, but didn't pull me in.

    I may try to read the book at some point.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Monday, 26 November 2012 04:57 posted by TJ Dawe

    Simon - yes indeed - get the book! and I intend to return to the theatre too. I'd love to have the experience you had, not knowing the story or the structure, but I can't. But I did have something analogous reading the book, and my heart almost stopped as I figured out what was going on.

    Vanessa - get the book! read it! I do believe David Mitchell is listed on wikipedia as fiction writer who's been described as post-postmodern. It's interesting, his novels are very experimental in structure... right up until his most recent one: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Single story. Chronologically told. No meta-elements. Historical setting, meticulously researched. Powerful and moving - to me, at least. This book might work better for you than Cloud Atlas, perhaps.

  • Comment Link Caitlyn Wednesday, 05 December 2012 06:50 posted by Caitlyn

    I haven't made time to see the movie. I've been afraid because the book is so epic and spiritually important in ways that I can't describe and seem wrong because there are "explosions" (my family's usual shorthand for action movie that doesn't make you think.)

    Those who haven't read the book, find time, make time, stick with it. It is awe-inspiring.

    I, too, fell in love with David Mitchell and read everything I could that his mind had touched.

    And, now, TJ, I will be brave enough to go see the movie.

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 05 December 2012 18:54 posted by TJ Dawe

    Caitlyn, - really eager to hear your take on the movie. Even though it doesn't match the book, it's clearly made with reverence for the book, by artists who loved the book.

    Wondering if you've read any Murakami? He's referred to outright in Number9Dream, and I've seen him listed as a big influence on Mitchell. I'm a big fan of his too. And I love that literature this good is out there, and still being written. Making waves. Sending ideas leaping across brains.

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