Does a film need three directors? It reminds me of the joke that a camel is a horse designed by committee. Cloud Atlas then is an art-house blockbuster designed by committee. The novel that this film was based was nominated for The Man Booker Prize, and instead won the Richard & Judy book of the year. For those that don’t know, the Booker prize is like an Academy Award or a Nobel, whereas the Richard & Judy book of the year is like a commendation from McDonalds book club – unfortunate.
Cloud Atlas tells 6 simultaneous stories that encompass a Pacific seamen from the 19th century, a bisexual musician in 1930s Belgium, a journalist investigating nuclear power in the ‘70s, a present-day bumbling Englishmen trying to escape a home for the elderly, a revolutionary cyborg in neo-Seoul and finally a post-apocalyptic society in Hawaii. In the novel these narratives are each split in half and told in ascending and then rescinding chronological order peaking in the central post-apocalyptic story. In the film they are edited together seemingly at random to create an epic three-hour multi-stranded collision of different plots. The spiritual meta-narrative is that all of the characters are connected and each act of kindness/selfishness in each of the eras affects the next character, a message that is only projected through multiple characters being played by the same collection of actors (mainly Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Donna Bae, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant).
The interesting thing about this plot structure is that each audience member can relate to his or her favourite era and characters, much like they would in a multi-stranded soap opera. My personal favourites were the bisexual musician attempting to win over his master in the ‘30s, the mise-en-scene of 1970s San Francisco and the postmodernist sci-fi futurism of the dystopian neo-Seoul. The other three storylines were either irrelevant or simply annoying. To elaborate on a single story seems inappropriate, but it was the only aspect of the film that I really felt any gravity towards and that was the feminine, cyborg uprising in future Southeast Asia.
The future that is represented in Cloud Atlas is a clichéd corporate nightmare where identical female robots have to serve an arrogant middle class fast food, doing so with perfect manners and tolerating abuse and sexual humiliation. They only tolerate this lifestyle as they are told that they will eventually be upgraded and break free to a new life. One of these cyborgs manages to learn the truth that they are in fact merely recycled and so leads a rebellion against the system. This narrative reminded me symbolically both of the American Dream and the Islamist nightmare. Both ideologies tolerate a present hegemonic domination for a future reward: one financial and worldly, the other religious and ethereal. Only in a time of Occupy Wall Street and other global protest it is the Americans who are ignoring all of the revolutionary symbolism in their media and the Muslim countries who are attempting a revolution. I wonder how this portion of the film would play out in Syria…