“Cloud Atlas”
“Cloud Atlas” is like a Ken Follett novel on steroids. A typical Follett novel like “Pillars of the Earth,” or, more recently, “Fall of Giants,” will follow several families through several historical eras, and eventually the stories might begin to interact and intersect, or at the very least, gather their own individual momentum.
The same is true in “Cloud Atlas,” although here we jump around not only between the stories, but also switch centuries, even traversing from post-apocalyptic medieval forest to the age of sailing ships to futuristic Neo-Seoul, with an apparent time-traveler juxtaposed, and at first the viewer is understandably bewildered. (It works better if you just accept the fact that you’re not going to comprehend everything at first.)
This film is also written by several screenwriters and even features a tag-team of Directors, so the viewer can safely assume that rather than one, large, unifying theme, the vignettes are themselves the emphasis here. Yes, of course, it appears a bit choppy and uneven, as well as long, and in places it will inevitably drag. And some of the characters the viewer will care about more than others. But there are also some stunning visual achievements and some excellent acting performances interspersed in this grand time-and-space-traveling saga, which makes the overall effect worth the effort, even without a discernible narrative thread.
All the main actors play different roles in different epochs. The principals are Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, but there are also significant performances by secondaries Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, and James D’Arcy, along with Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. It’s impossible to recount all the scenarios, and different ones will stand out in the memories of different viewers. But there are some unifying themes: How a simple act of kindness can reverberate through generations. How the impulse for human equality has to do battle, in any age, against prejudice and arrogance. How romance can pop up in unexpected places, and transform the lives of those who embrace it, sometimes tragically. How creativity arises from great passion, which can also be like a consuming fire. How greed continues to rear its ugly head, and lead to greater evils. How powerful love is, not just for lovers, but also within families, especially parents and children. How famous people are oftentimes ordinary persons who find themselves thrust into extraordinary situations, and decide that they can do no other than to be their best selves for as long as they are able.
Yes, it sounds like a humanistic romantic hodge-podge, and it is. And there are some viewers who will find the lack of clear story line to be particularly frustrating. Others will enjoy the experience of soaking up the seemingly disconnected images, and subconsciously internally constructing some order and comprehension. It’s either a grand epic or a chaotic mess, and maybe even it’s both together.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas