Every year or so for the past few years, we’ve gotten at least one major cerebral sci-fi film that weaves effects and story beautifully within the format. This is not one of those, not really, but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. On its surface, Cloud Atlas looks like either a heady space opera or a forgotten adaptation of some beloved children’s book. This, as well as (probably deserved) controversy about its use of a white actor depicting an Asian character, has relegated the film to the back corner of libraries and streaming services. Even the Wikipedia page for it (and its book, which is pretty well-regarded) are overshadowed for the page defining a cloud atlas, which is, oddly enough, an atlas of clouds. I don’t know many people jumping to talk about this film today.
However, that number is not zero. I don’t think this is necessarily a film everyone should see, but many who watch it may find it to be a refreshing break from the Hollywood format that seems to dominate major film releases.
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Six Stories Tied Through Time
The story of Cloud Atlas is actually six stories. I’m not sure why the book chose that number, but the film chose it because the book did.
I only have a vague familiarity with the novel, so I won’t belabor comparisons between the two, though it is worth noting one specific trend the book features that the film eschews, arguably for the better. The first half of the book features the first half of each story told in a given order, followed by the second half of each in ascending order. The film intercuts the stories so it can more directly compare individual parts in each.
As one might imagine, there are a lot of comparisons available.
The stories are separated in time and space, but all have a distinct enough setting that they’re readily distinguished. The first chronologically features an aristocrat and a former slave aboard a ship who form a sort of friendship and save each other’s lives. The second is about a young bisexual composer who gets into a spat with his employer, who demands credit for the composer’s pet project, The Cloud Atlas Sextet. Decades later, the composer’s boyfriend is involved in a conspiracy to blow up a nuclear reactor and the third story follows a journalist trying to expose it. In the modern day, the fourth story follows a man trapped in a nursing home while trying to evade gangsters. The fifth story is set in a cyberpunk Seoul and follows a fabricant, a slave clone, as she joins a rebellion and learns the extent to which people like her are abused by their society. The last story is set in a far future where part of the world uses space-age technology and the other part lives through subsistence in the wilderness.
Broadly speaking, the stories can be organized by time (set in the past, present, and future). The stories each have their own arcs and characters, and while many of the stories incorporate similar archetypes and roles (the Rebel, the Authority, the Friend, and the Idol), fine points of the characters differ enough that none of the stories feels exactly like a duplicate of the others.
All of the stories are loosely connected through stories, with journals and recordings often traversing the years between stories to inspire others, directly or indirectly. These links can be tenuous at times, but thematic and structural similarities between the stories also connect them. This is particularly apparent in the film, which tends to switch between scenes with similar visuals set centuries apart. The juxtaposition of these stories ends up being the thrust of the film, and is arguably more interesting than any one of the stories within.
Themes and motifs are more important. All of the protagonists in the stories are fighting against some sort of oppressive regime, whether it’s a system of governance or a personal demon. All of the protagonists are concerned with creating, consuming, and disseminating stories, often those of their forebears. The protagonists usually have allies, but not many, and the stories are, with only a few exceptions, tragic. The film uses these recurring motifs to create a story about how stories unify humanity, even in the face of insurmountable odds.
Part Two: Cut
The message of the film is admirable and as one might imagine from a project by the Watchowski sisters, it looks gorgeous. The film has quite the budget, and it makes good use of it. Because it follows six stories instead of the usual one, the film covers a range of visual environments and costumes, and the nature of the stories themselves makes each tonally distinct. All of them are a slightly different genre — adventure, drama, action thriller, comedy, dystopian, and fantasy. Each has its own setpieces, some based in spectacle while others are emotional setpieces, and at its best, the film is breathtaking.
One of the film’s hallmarks is that it splices together similar beats in stories and uses visual parallelism to swap between stories. In one particularly memorable scene, the film alternates between two intense action sequences, one set in the past and one in the future, both with characters we care about in dire peril and unknown consequences. The cuts are visually impressive, but they also heighten the tension of both scenes by allowing for different outcomes and leaving beats at constant cliffhangers. It’s difficult to maintain intensity through scenes and chapters that switch between stories in conventional fiction because the audience needs a re-adjustment period to cope with what is usually a change in pace and tone. In Cloud Atlas, the similarities between stories and the way that it’s edited ensures that most of the time, the feel of the film remains harmonious. Despite the six stories following similar beats and not connecting to each other directly, it rarely feels like you are watching six short films of a similar nature. This is one of the main advantages the film has over the book.
However, even a creative style cannot make up for weaknesses in the individual stories. The film has a clear preference for certain stories over others, with the dystopian one carrying the visual weight, the post-apocalyptic one providing the film’s image, and the emotional core falling between the two stories set in the past. The modern-set stories are more delicate, less thematically developed and frequently forgettable or even distracting. I honestly didn’t remember anything about the conspiracy thriller story when I sat down to watch this film again, the reason being it becomes generic to the point of deterioration. The comedic tones of the modern-set plot mesh poorly with its high stakes and the seriousness of all of the other subplots. Relegating comedy to one subplot or character exclusively dampens its effect and makes this narrative arc stand out only in how it clashes with the rest of the story.
There is also a question of specific choices about characterization made within each story. Some of the narratives, particularly the future ones, are explored in broad scales with detailed lore and character arcs. These tend to involve the most characters and locations, making them notably more intricate than the others. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it’s not well-suited to this particular project. The dystopian story hits many predictable beats, like the fabricants being killed and recycled as food for their kin, but it’s fleshed out sufficiently that it could almost merit its own film. The post-apocalypse story, on the other hand, needs either more development or a very dedicated viewer in order for its many characters and factions to make sense.
I’d like to focus on the post-apocalyptic story for a moment because it feels like it takes up the most time in the film but still feels rushed. This one follows Zachry, a future inhabitant of Hawai’i (played by Tom Hanks). Zachry lives with his brother’s family in a small tribe constantly at risk of attack by the much more aggressive and cannibalistic Kona. Zachry has hallucinations of a strange being who constantly tries to coax him to violence himself, and who accompanies him as he meets and travels with Meronym. Meronym is a researcher from a space-age society that lives on the mainland, and she has come to Hawai’i in search of a ship that can send a message into the space colonies from her civilization. Her people are beset by a plague and in need of help. In helping her find this ship, Zachry discovers his entire religious system is based on an old recording. His family is also endangered and eventually killed by the Kona in his absence. However, through trusting Meronym, Zachry is able to overcome his personal demon and start a new life in space.
This is arguably the main story of the film, insofar as one exists, and it’s kind of a mess. Ignoring the fantasy conventions that the story apes, including a Ring Wraith homage, this subplot has a lot of characters in a lot of locations, with lore that requires lengthy exposition. Much of it is delivered in a pidgin slang on Zachry’s part that leans a bit cutesy for my liking, as it incorporates many modern phrases used out-of-context. Elements like Zachry’s imaginary friend, the Kona, and a spiritual woman also don’t feel especially cohesive or well-developed.
The detail work on the costumes, makeup, and sets is impressive, as it is for much of the film. The music is specifically suited to follow the significance of the Cloud Atlas Sextet within the story, and it’s appropriately lovely. The film looks good. Its effects are decent, the editing, while unusual, fits the story, and many scenes are effective. The main issue the film faces is devoting too much effort to decisions that seem half-baked. It stands by those decisions, and I have a certain respect for that tenacity, but in doing so, it often weakens its position. Perhaps fatally so.
Part Three: Yet Another Topic Hat is Entirely Unqualified to Talk About
No discussion of this film would be complete without at least acknowledging the other major aesthetic choice that got the film in a bit of hot water upon its release. To illustrate the idea of shared stories, the actors in each story are often re-used in different roles. Each story has a core of a few actors, and this dynamic is rarely repeated with the same people in the other roles, but it provides another foundation for the editing and sometimes creates an unsettling effect. Characters who are protagonists in one story become antagonists in another, at least visually. I like this choice, hypothetically. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m terrible with faces so unless I’m told directly, this is not the sort of thing I would ever notice. I didn’t even realize it was applied to as many characters as it was when I first watched the film.
But confusion is hardly a faux pas. The main controversy surrounding the film was its use of makeup to alter the appearances of some of the characters to make them look racially different than the actors portraying them. Specifically changing one of the lead actors, Jim Sturgess, into a Korean man.
Okay, so this whole thing requires a fair bit of context, and I am about the last person to decide the morality of it, so I’ll just kind of pull from what I’ve seen floating around on the subject. Basically, the historical trend of white people depicting non-white people through blackface or yellowface or the like, has deeply racist roots deriving from laws and systemic trends imposed by a mostly white upper-class on minorities in Western countries, especially the U.S., with the intent of ridiculing minorities and preserving a imbalanced power structure. White Americans did not think twice about the lack of authenticity and propensity for racist caricatures when casting white actors for non-white roles, and indeed for many productions aimed at a white, often racist audience, this was the point. Casting minority actors would give them more sway in the industry and direct attention at the cruelty and ineptitude of blackface stereotypes.
Which, over the twentieth century, is what happened; minority actors became more respected, audiences lost their taste for white actors in grossly racist makeup, and the more egregious examples of it all but died out, at least in major productions. It’s not that this problem is a thing of the past, but it tends to come up in different ways. Whitewashing, or casting white actors in roles originally written for racial minorities, draws from the same roots as the complex that allowed blackface to flourish in the early twentieth century. Criticism of racial insensitivity in casting choices is now usually concerned with studios’ attempts to shirk culpability while claiming the benefits a racially sensitive story allows. Liberally-minded audiences enjoy ethical films with diverse casts, and diversity allows a film to explore cultures that may be both comforting to minority audiences and refreshing to white audiences. This is less of an issue in narratives specifically directed toward a minority audience or created by members of that minority, but when it’s a large project done by a white person, the boundary between honest representation and exotification or can become pretty fuzzy.
Corporate cynicism doesn’t help. Often, when a casting decision comes under fire, the excuse from the studio is that the actor was chosen for financial reasons. Scarlet Johansson claiming the lead role of a Japanese android in the latest Ghost in the Shell movie is widely derided as a bad decision, not only because she wasn’t suited to the role as an actor, but also because it illustrated the film’s desire to make money over good art. Often, white actors are selected for major roles because A) the actors chosen are famous and will bring in a bigger audience, or B) casting a white person is seen as “politically neutral” or even prestigious on the global stage. This was supposedly the reasoning for a similar decision to cast Tilda Swinton in the role of a character originally written to be Tibetan in the film Doctor Strange, Tibet being contentious in China and the film seeking access to the large but tightly restricted Chinese market.
The whole situation with fair representation in casting is far more complex than these simple examples, and even firm advocates for better representation admit that sometimes the backlash against it can become a bit fraught. The recent adaptation of The Hate U Give was accused of casting a lead child actor with too-light skin by internet posters, with vitriol directed at the actor and the crew regardless of film’s more significant racial context. Colorism is an aspect of filmmaking related to whitewashing, and it has its own baggage that filmmakers (and other artists) need to be aware of, but criticism of racially inadequate casting requires understanding of the larger context as well. Frequently, boundaries established for one film don’t necessarily work for another because too many variables are different between them. There’s a big difference between a multi-billion dollar company making a limp attempt to sweep its lack of diversity under the rug and a small indie project that gets everything else right not holding up to scrutiny in one or more areas. That’s not to say that complaints of both can’t be valid, but you can’t criticize them on the same criteria.
So where does Cloud Atlas fit in? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s complicated. The film’s directors were all white and it made the rare decision to opt for not merely casting a white actor in an Asian character’s role, but also applying makeup to make him look more Asian. I would argue putting Tom Hanks and other white actors in coded-native roles is similarly cringe-worthy.
To the film’s credit, it doesn’t just do this with white actors; characters played by black and Asian actors are occasionally fitted to white or Latinx roles as well through the various stories. A friend of mine who introduced me to the film came down on its decision being acceptable because it was self-aware and made an effort to use the race-bending makeup equally among actors of many races (she herself is Chinese). I’ve seen a couple of articles that make similar claims about the film. The choice is a distinctly artistic one based in this particular film’s narrative structure; it wants to remind us that these characters are the same people at their core. The film has an overarching message of equality and perspective, with most of the stories featuring characters who are disadvantaged not just because of their social position within their society, but because of their race, gender, or ethnicity. By putting the same characters in different roles throughout the narrative, and telling the stories of people from a variety of backgrounds, the film imbues itself with themes pertaining to social justice.
But that still doesn’t make it not yellowface to dress up a white actor to look Korean.
Films can be contradictory. I can’t excuse the film myself because that’s not my prerogative as a white person. I have something of an obligation to point out what it’s doing because I’m a reviewer and it would be unethical of me to ignore, especially if I’m going to praise the film’s visuals, structure, and story in other areas. However, I’ll also try not to tread on the toes of anyone who finds artistic merit in this choice, or sees the film as praiseworthy regardless. I don’t think the decision is disconnected from the history of yellowface and other racist practices, but I also don’t think the intent is to perpetuate those practices either. I see what the film is going for, and it’s an admirable goal. It’s just not a goal I think this particular film should have aimed for.
Cloud Atlas is worth watching at least once. I don’t know that I can recommend it more than that, and to be completely honest, I’m not the sort of person who will hold it against you if you decide to skip out on this one. That’s part of why I give spoilers in my reviews, after all. It’s a unique experience, and we need more of those. The film failed at the box office, pretty resoundingly for something that cost about as much as one of the early MCU films to make. I don’t think we’re likely to see films like this made for this budget much in the future. Maybe shows, but even that’s a stretch. It’s worth cataloguing them before they get lost in the dust.