THERE is a moment of confrontation in Cloud Atlas when Jim Sturgess, playing the role of a 19th-century British lawyer, returns from an arduous voyage to the South Pacific to tell his pompous father-in-law (Hugo Weaving) that, having seen slavery in action, he is joining the Abolitionists.
The older man is both furious and curdled with contempt. Nothing this young upstart does will make a blind bit of difference, he says, adding, ”You are just a drop in a limitless ocean!” Sturgess pauses. ”Yes,” he replies, ”but what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”
This is possibly the key line in Cloud Atlas, an epic that mingles six stories ranging from the 1849 shipboard drama to an end-of-days adventure set on a devastated Earth in 2346. From one era to the next, characters struggle towards finding truths or freeing themselves from oppression.
”It is a beautiful thought,” says co-director Tom Tykwer, ”that decisions we take and actions we do have consequences. But we are not in a position to judge how big or small those consequences are, which gives our deeds more gravitas and more relevance. We have a responsibility with everything we do.”
Cloud Atlas is based on the Booker-nominated novel by David Mitchell, who adapted it with the three directors, Andy and Lana Wachowski – directors of the Matrix films – and the German director Tykwer, whose earlier films include Run, Lola, Run and Heaven. Tykwer took on the film’s more naturalistic stories: a young gay composer working for a mentor in 1936, a crusading journalist fighting plans for a nuclear reactor in 1973 and the comic story of an ageing London publisher monstered by a thuggish author in 2012. The Wachowskis handled the voyage, the 24th-century Armageddon and, playing to their strengths as sci-fi supremos, an extraordinary view of 22nd-century dystopia called Neo-Seoul, where service roles are filled by pneumatic clones.
These stories are told sequentially in the novel. The film cuts them all together. Some scenes run only for a few seconds before they shift to another place and time, the idea being that the viewer’s brain will sort out these small gems to create a vast mosaic in which, inevitably, every story echoes inside everything else.
This interweaving of character and theme is further underlined by the redeployment of the film’s starry cast – which includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant – in different guises, usually still recognisable but clearly living another life altogether. It is up to the viewer whether to treat their reappearances as evidence of the transmigration of souls, as a twist on modern genetics or merely as metaphor.
Tykwer certainly isn’t a reincarnation man, but he is sure that each of us presents something remarkable. ”I had a son born a few years ago,” he muses. ”I looked at him coming out and he looked at me and I knew there was somebody already there; I could really see a character and it was proven right: he is that character now.” He has no idea where that character was formed; perhaps it was in some parallel life, as Cloud Atlas might suggest. ”But one of the beautiful things about the novel is that you can both read it as a spiritual or secular tale,” Tykwer continues. ”It allows every perspective on it. Some actors I would ask, because it seemed appropriate, ‘Where are we now in your soul’s development?’ Other days you would say, ‘Inside your genetic string, what is your situation?’
”The movie in a way is an investigation of progress as a subject in general related to humanity,” Tykwer says. ”Is progress happening? Is it even a possibility? We are so talented and so gifted … we can build the most incredible bomb imaginable, but then in the end we can’t resist throwing it at ourselves. No other species would ever do that.”
But no other species can imagine itself, either. In that sense, the wild, tumbling fantasy of Cloud Atlas is absolutely human.
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