Our lives are a constant struggle. We struggle for the right words, for our liberties, for our success, and sometimes for the very air we breathe. No matter how rich or poor you are, every day the struggle begins anew…and if you aren’t struggling, then odds are you aren’t having much impact on this crazy planet. So many of us do struggle though, and in the rare moment that the struggle brings forth release, we can bask in the knowledge that we have made our mark. It’s a mark we leave on the world when we take risks, when we dare to create, and when we put what’s best for others ahead of what’s best for us.
This daily struggle is the subject of the truly remarkable CLOUD ATLAS.
There are six stories that the film interweaves:
In the late 1800′s, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is at sea in the South Pacific on a trading vessel. On this craft he sticks his neck out for a slave before falling ill. Once sick, he is cared for by a morally compromised doctor (Tom Hanks) who may, or may not, have his best interest at heart.
In the 1930′s, a young composer named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) reaches out to a professional idol (Jim Broadbent) with the hopes of creating great music alongside him. His ambitions don’t quite go to plan, and he chronicles the goings on in letters to a man he loves dearly named Sixsmith (James D’Arcy)
In the 1970′s, an intrepid reporter named Louisa (Halle Berry) has her journalistic integrity tested when an older Sixsmith comes to her with the truth about what’s happening at an American nuclear facility. Her dedication to telling the truth and protecting her sources soon comes under direct challenge by those the truth would harm most.
In the early 21st century, a literary editor named Cavendish (Broadbent again) becomes an unwitting prisoner in a situation that should end with the words “Cuckoo’s Nest”.
Some forty of fifty years later, a waitress at a Korean restaurant is pulled in by the authorities for instigating an uprising. The numbered-not-named waitress, Sonmi-451, is goaded by a plant inside the Korean government (Sturgess again) to spread the news of what’s really happening behind the scenes of one of the world’s biggest companies.
And finally, over 1000 years from now, after an apocalyptic even know as The Fall, a primitive native on what used to be Hawaii named Zachry (Hanks again) has to fight visions of a demon bent on his temptation (Weaving again). When he isn’t doing that, he’s deciding just how much he wants to help a mysterious stranger (Berry again) to deliver to the masses something they desperately need: The truth.
A funny thing happened on the way to writing this review; I discussed the film at length on a podcast. There, my friend Kurt bemoaned the fact that many of the lessons CLOUD ATLAS wants to teach are lessons we’ve learned all these lessons by now. I said it then, and I’ll say it now: I don’t think we have learned these lessons after all. I don’t think the whole world knows that big companies aren’t interested in protecting their employees. I don’t think the whole world knows that the ruthless will always feed on the week. And I don’t think that everyone has yet learned that their reputation is firmly in the hands of those too willing to destroy it.
I think that many either haven’t learned these lessons yet – or have conveniently forgotten them – and that’s how we find ourselves where we are. We find ourselves in that place where, to paraphrase Louisa, we make the same mistakes over and over again.
To help us understand why, CLOUD ATLAS paints on a massive canvas. It brings together its six narratives in a way that is both disjointed and yet strangely complimentary. It’s as if we are spending a restless night drifting in and out of dreams and nightmares, and we have lost sense of what is a dream and what is reality. That audacity in its storytelling leads CLOUD ATLAS to lose us for a little while towards the end of the second act. However, right around the moment when we are ready to throw up our hands in surrender, the story finds us. It takes us by the hand, and guides us the rest of the way home.
It guides us through the story of humanity: the story of people we never knew, and how they have affected the lives we now lead.What’s more, the movie understands just how much influence we have on the lives of others. The quote goes that “with each crime and every kindness, we shape our future”. It dares us to think not only about how we are shaping our own lives, and affecting the lives of those around us, but what values we are instilling and re-enforcing in society as it tries to evolve. We might not think we’re affecting anyone outside of our immediate inner circle, but one need only examine Frobisher’s influence on Louisa to prove otherwise, or Zachry discovering Sonmi’s manifesto.
Such traces and influences are the reason we see actors playing multiple parts: Because the directors want it understood that even though miles and years divide us from one-another, that we have become so connected, that it’s inevitable that traces of who we are will be found in complete strangers.
Sadly, as CLOUD ATLAS underlines, human beings will always seek to harm one-another to get ahead. However, human beings have also figured out ways to make their voices heard in the world in a way that is impervious to harm. For starters, we can create. We can compose, we can write, we can chronicle. We can imagine up things of great beauty and leave them to be discovered by others. Likewise, we can be witnesses – foot soldiers for the truth. By finding the courage to spread the truth, we take things that were out of reach for so long, and suddenly make them obtainable.
Since I first watched this film, I have been haunted by its score – a glorious piece of composition that employs many movements the way the story intertwines its plot threads. I’ve latched on to the point of the story where Louisa first hears Frobisher’s sextet and swears that she’s heard it before. She’s heard it because she’s a part of it, the same way this story is a part of us. Its threads will seem familiar because we have all lived through these crusades of truth, beauty, and love. We’ve all fought the fights we were supposed to fight, and won or lost as the plot dictated we needed to do.
Like that evocative sextet, humanity has within it many instruments that come in and out at specific moments in the composition to play their part. Some of us might be low and grinding with the cellos, some of us might be blaring trumpets, and all of us seem to be playing isolated parts. However, when we hear everything together in concert, we understand our place in the symphony.
Yes, we might very well find ourselves playing a part we’ve heard before. However, even though the song remains the same, it’s a song of hope…and one that we must continue to play until every last note is heard and understood.