That’s only the most recent movie I’ve seen in a wave of movies from the past week, but it’s sticking out in my mind at the moment as I try to mull over what the film was trying to do.
I thought it was very good, and if you’ve not yet seen it, I’d say that it’s worth three hours of your time (possibly a bit more, as I found it helpful to pause the film occasionally to talk with Rachael about what was going on in the story).
To try to explain in brief what this film’s about strikes me as futile at the moment, as it’s essentially a collection of six very loosely connected stories that span from the mid-1800s well into the future to a point that’s marked with a calendar system that begins following some great collapse of civilization. I can’t say who the central protagonist is, because each story focuses on the soul of one of the six primary players, with their individual arcs seeming to culminate with the events of that particular incarnation. Every tale is connected with the next through the transmission of some document that both relays the previous protagonist’s story and acts as inspiration for their successor. In the 1800s, the lawyer Adam Ewing keeps a journal of his travels from a plantation where he’s gone to secure a contract with a slave trader for his father-in-law. This journal later gets published and read by Robert Frobisher, an aspiring composer in 1930s England, who writes correspondence to his lover Rufus Sixsmith. In the 1970s, after Sixsmith is assassinated for his knowledge of a plot to cause a nuclear meltdown and force America to maintain its reliance on oil for energy, Frobisher’s correspondence falls into the hands of Luisa Rey, a journalist who takes her experiences uncovering the conspiracy and writes a novel based on them. The manuscript for that book winds up in the lap of Timothy Cavendish in 2012 while he’s on the run from a gang of thugs who demand he pay them 50000 pounds for profiting on their brother’s novel, which becomes an overnight bestseller after he kills a critic at a publisher’s party. Cavendish’s experiences on the run (which involve being imprisoned in a corrupt retirement home that’s owned and operated by his brother) are eventually turned into a film that the fabricant Sonmi-451 sees in 2144 after she’s liberated from her life of servitude. Sonmi goes on to become the figurehead of a movement to end the abuse and enslavement of cloned fabricants. Her final words recorded before she is captured by the ruling government of Neo Seoul become the foundation of a new religion that is practiced by a tribe of primitive people living about one hundred years after some kind of worldwide cataclysm. One of these tribespeople, Zachry, has to help a woman from the far more advanced society of Prescients reach a sacred location on his tribe’s island.
All of this is told non-linearly, so don’t expect for all of the connections to be immediately apparent.
The broad themes of the film appear to be about interconnectedness and the effect small actions can have over the course of long periods of time. That our central cast is the same in every story highlights the continuity of the entire plot, and shows how one soul grows and changes through generations (reincarnation is an implicit assumption in the story, and it’s necessary to reach the truly satisfying bits of character growth that begin in an earlier story and then leave off unfinished until later narratives). There’s also a lot of stuff about slavery, racism, and mass oppression that carries through in interesting ways (my and Rachael’s favorite observation about the far future story was the conceit that white people have become primitive while the advanced Prescients are predominantly black).
What’s interesting is the way the rather large cast seems to be split into two categories. There are the protagonists, whose souls feature in virtually every story in some way, though usually as minor characters that reflect the specific soul’s general personality and allow for the tracing of a trajectory of character growth (Tom Hanks’s characters have the clearest arc as he transitions from a greedy quack doctor in the earliest story to the hero of the latest one), and there are the villains (Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant fill this role most prominently) who seem to be souls that always want to maintain the status quo in each story no matter what (they’re also always characters who are empowered by the system in which they’re operating). It raises some interesting questions about the nature of the souls who always end up being the villains, because everyone else seems to float along rather randomly, being either neutral toward each plot’s protagonist or beneficial in some way. Is it suggesting that within the Cloud Atlas universe, there are some souls who are just always going to be wrong about how things should work? That idea kind of sucks when you have other characters who are examples of long term redemption, although I suppose given the scope of the story, the point may be that these souls who are villains in these particular stories just haven’t encountered that small inciting incident that puts them on the path towards growth.
It’s a really complicated film, and there may be more things I could say about it, but that seems like enough for now. I’d say it’s worth a watch, even though it’s quite obviously aiming to be a movie about Important Things. It’s well-structured enough that I don’t think that kind of ambition detracts from the overall experience.