The Hollywood formula we’ve come to expect depends upon singularity: good guys and bad guys, romantic complications, rising action, a breathtaking climax and clever dénouement. It takes epic films like Cloud Atlas, multistoried events that are fields-long and skyscrapers-high, to help us think differently about the complicated condition in which we all find ourselves.
If we’re to get at what the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer are trying to accomplish in Cloud Atlas, we’ll need to look at historical ensemble-storytelling across genres and over time. There are Homeric heroes, Achilles- or Odysseus-types that form the backbone of Western literature. Backed by pantheons, that motley catalog of protagonists personified the most disparate aspects of the human condition.
If we take a right at Chaucer’s road, we find storytelling on the way to Canterbury: Many travelers, many tales, each enlivening and enriching the others’ understanding of reality.
Before James Joyce sounded the morning bell on Bloomsday, he was writing about Dubliners, all disconnected yet strangely synchronized. In the lives of the old and the young, the sickly and succeeding, there was an odd claustrophobia permeating his birthplace that couldn’t have been captured except by a collection of seemingly unrelated narratives.
Steinbeck’s East of Eden stands as perhaps the best display of the same approach, both place and time. Steinbeck’s stories never create a hodgepodge of grey, but an array of color that can’t be seen before it’s given his many-heroed, many-villained treatment.
And now Cloud Atlas reinvents and invigorates a cinematic mode that employs the same technique. Atlas feels like an attempt to make P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia stretch across centuries and continents. Its presence in theaters has perturbed or overjoyed fans and critics alike. There’s no denying the confusion it causes, its strange structure or visual dynamics: the question lies in whether these qualities make it good or bad, a creative triumph or mess of a movie.
Six narratives and six sets of characters, played by the same troupe of actors keep cinematic the wheels turning. Starting in the mid-1800’s and ending up in a post-apocalyptic 2300’s, it’s a movie of ambitious scope. There is a slave narrative, a gay romance set to classical music, a thriller surrounding nuclear power in the 1970s, a comedic tale about an old publisher checked into a nursing home more akin to an internment camp, an Orwellian clone story and a Mad Max-style voyage into futuristic primitivism. Each camera angle, each reappearance by an actor in a different guise, each turn of phrase raises another question. When the credits roll, the answers on the test have been left blank. We have the film’s tagline to reassure us “Everything is Connected,” but it is left to our own feeble brains to figure out how.
Atlas really is a thoroughly postmodern approach to the Steinbeck methodology of storytelling. Mitchell’s novel and, by extension, the Wachowskis’ and Tykwer’s film decides to take the entire known universe as its Salinas Valley and the whole of the human race for its Trasks.
Everything is connected here but not in the way we have been taught. The film seems to suggest, by way of reoccurring birthmarks and actors in different wardrobes, that great good and great evil is possible in each human life. As the cycle turns around and around, there’s no telling which side will triumph. Tom Hanks’ characters are different depending on the century, but, more importantly, each viewer of the film can be different depending on the day.
Cloud Atlas is so ambitious that it occasionally missteps. To encapsulate the human condition, namely, by not encapsulating it at all is a daunting and mostly insurmountable task. Ensemble storytelling does not allow for the succinct resolutions that less experimental forms of narrative do. It can easily derail into a mess but can also happen upon deeper beauty.
Atlas is confusing but rarely boring. It left Roger Ebert rating it highly but admitting he had no idea what was going on. Is this twenty-first century update of the ensemble format of storytelling a worthy evolutionary step for the genre? Certainly, but that doesn’t mean its worthy of being canonized. It’s sometimes Raphael’s School of Athens and other times Picasso’s Guernica, reaching the heights of inspiration or the depths of despair, but with a many-personed canvas regardless. The film’s execution is the next step the Joyce of Dubliners or the Faulkner of As I Lay Dying would have taken, had they lived a little longer. By letting people and times and places speak for themselves, confuse us with their perplexities, we come to terms with how deeply complex we are as individuals.
From our births, we are involved in relationship before we have even established individuality. We are a mother and father’s son or daughter before we are anyone else, born into a genetic code of ancestry as well as a culture that will come to define us. For all our culture’s emphasis on self-actualization, we need others to help us truly understand individuality in the first place. Cloud Atlas makes us wonder if our incoherence, internally and socially, is actually coherence waiting to happen. Perhaps a tapestry is being woven without our knowing. As one of Hugo Weaving’s characters warns Sturgess’s nineteenth century incarnation, his life will be “no more than one drop in a limitless ocean.” To which is replied the old cliché, never truer: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”