“Oh lonesome night, and babbits bawling, the wind biting the bone. Wind like this…full of voices…”
So begins a story of cosmic connections, love that spans multiple reincarnations, and the impact those unbreakable connections play in the shaping of the world. Released in 2012, the film took four years to produce and is one of the most expensive independent films ever made. The German government felt strongly enough about the message in the film to give $20 million to the effort. Another sweet oddity of the film is the method used to direct it – the Wachowski siblings filmed 3 of the time segments, while Tom Tykwer filmed the other 3, each using a completely separate crew, with not one person overlapping to work for both. The main cast consists of some wonderfully strong actors, including four Oscar winners – Hugo Weaving, Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Doona Bae, and the incomparable Keith David. Not a large cast, you say? Wait until you see how skillfully each actor plays multiple, nearly-unrecognizable roles, with the help of masterful makeup artists.
The project was the brainchild of Lana Wachowski, who adapted it for the screen after being given the novel penned by David Mitchell. Natalie Portman was the gift-giver, and she gave more than just Lana a gift that night. She gifted us all with the seeds for a most inspiring work of art in the visual medium.
At the beginning of the film, we are blessed with the ruminations of a publisher who bemoans the folly of flashbacks and flash-forwards – something one might hear from my favorite author, Stephen King. For me, that is an immediate hook to the soft vitals that reels me in and keeps me close. From there we begin to meet the many characters that comprise a lovely example of why sometimes, just sometimes, it is indeed permissible to flash forward, backward, and sideways to make your point – rather like Wonka’s famous elevator.
I will not – nay, cannot – delve into each character and time segment that is examined in this film. Instead I want to discuss the way that the film connects each of those timeframes and so beautifully illustrates the concept of connection and replication of souls that continue forever, without change, in a web that holds everything together and gives all things meaning.
The main characters – Hanks, Berry, Bae, Broadbent, as well as Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, and Ben Whishaw – live lives in 6 separate time segments: 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and 2321. As different as each period of time may be, each character is painfully the same. The only difference is their appearance, in which at times there is only one feature that connects them in the viewer’s mind to that character’s other incarnations. In some ways that is part of the fascination and fun of the film, but in no way is it the truest magic that the viewer will discover. That lies in the complexity of the relationships held with each character and the one other character tethered inexorably to their soul, down through all the ages.
“Our lives are not our own – from womb to tomb we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Beautiful quotes ripple through each character, repeated by other characters in other incarnations, all to make those messages abundantly clear. Repetition is learning, so they say.
The main message is clear – through all of our many lifetimes, we each play the same basic role. We must, in order to learn from and fix our mistakes. Only when we have attained enlightenment and fixed our mistakes do we change roles and become revolutionaries, able to step outside our singular selves and benefit a larger part of the world. In every lifetime we have “our” kindred spirits – the ones we recognize and evolve toward, the ones we must fix our mistakes with in order to climb through the levels of being and become our superior selves. We are connected to “our” spirits and every lifetime we act out the same play in the same roles, albeit a different stage and with different stage dressing.
Some instances of echoing synchronicity include the soft-hearted lawyer who stands up for minorities through the ages, and helping those same enslaved beings to mount a rebellion of sorts, to break their bonds and break the mold of their time. He aids a slave in one lifetime, and frees a Fabricant from her Soylent Green-like existence in another, so that she may become a symbol of inspiration for a movement to dissolve such slavery once and for all. This Soylent Green-like existence is also shouted from the rooftops (figuratively) to fellow patients at a nursing home, before Fabricants came into being, by the same publisher who begins the tale with his warning of flashbacks and flash-forwards. His warning is not heeded, at least not by them. But do the ripples not reach that future Fabricant and fuel her rebellion, just as much as the love of her liberator? It seems so.
A dark thread also runs through these lifetimes. There are characters that do not seem to want to evolve or fix their mistakes. They share a motto as well – “The weak are meat, the strong do eat.” These people are always the villains, always spreading darkness across every segment of time they inhabit. They know not love and do not have a connection in this way to any other characters. They repeat, perhaps, simply to create friction and prevent those striving for enlightenment from attaining it. They deal in suffering as readily as a gunslinger deals in lead, and with as catastrophic an effect. In all times, in all lives, these forces exist.You can find them if you look closely – they are always played by the same actors (Weaving is one, hint hint), just as it is with the others. They serve chaos and discord, but they serve.
For me, one of the most riveting relationships is that between Doona Bae’s Fabricant character and that of Jim Sturgess’s Hae-Joo Chang, her savior, liberator, and beloved. The purity of her love for him is evident in every line of her face and movement of her body, and his adoration for her, his luminous face of revolution, is just as evident in his actions. His heartbeat soothes her, and he believes she has the power to change the world. He shows her horrors beyond her imagining, and in return she awakens to what she must do.
Their fight for a cause grander than their own freedom to love is heart-wrenching in its sweet naiveté and fierce devotion. She fears she has lost him, but he continues to save her and be saved by her. “I won’t let you go again.” His death and departure from this life with her leads to her capture, and she welcomes the opportunity to tell her story and change just one mind before meeting her own death, and moving on to where she knows she will once again connect with her love. Because separation is an illusion, and temporary. And sometimes, changing just one mind is enough.
Archivist: The reports said Commander Jang was killed in the assault.
Somni-451: That is correct.
Archivist: Would you say that you loved him?
Somni-451: Yes I do.
Archivist: Do you mean you’re STLL in love with him?
Somni-451: I mean, that I will always be.
In relation to this mindbending film, this is a vague article. I meant it to be. I hope it intrigues you to delve into the world of Cloud Atlas for yourself. Like the finest things in life, it can only be fully understood by personal experience, and personal relation to it.
The bright spot in a film rife with sorrow and pain is the ending idea that one cannot leave the film without absorbing – no matter the mistakes we have made, we can redeem ourselves through positive actions, such as love and selflessness, courage and tenacity. It is never too late to right a wrong. Souls that belong together will always come back together. We are all connected.
“Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion.”