Cloud Atlas is like dreams. Some things are so achingly familiar and fiercely real that you don’t seem to be dreaming at all. Some trail you like vapour when you are awake, giving you a jolt of déjà vu every now and then, like a wall materialising in a fog. Some are so bizarre you wonder how they could possibly have emanated from your mundane mind.
But that is the nature of dreaming and waking and life itself. Everything is connected and while we can offer no rational explanation for it, the feeling and the belief that we exist beyond this life and affect and connect with other souls over the centuries, persists. Cloud Atlas is the ultimate cinematic exploration of the feeling that we have been here before.
It is phenomenally well cast. Each of the main actors plays several parts, showing the progression of a handful of souls through different lifetimes – which were soul mates, which were going to be redeemed, and which would never change their path. The stories arc from the 19th Century far into the post-Apocalyptic future. Much of the future takes place in Neo-Seoul, where the western actors get to play Koreans of the future. This has caused an outcry in some quarters, but as delicious Donna Bae gets to play a 19th Century white woman, and gorgeous Halle Berry gets to play an assortment of ethnic types, including a Jewess, it’s not an argument that holds too much water. The underlying message – that we are all capable of being reborn as white, black, Asian, male or female – is too important to bury under hipster sensibilities. Love continues through all of these changes and appearance is just that – appearance. Underneath we are the same soul driven by the same desires. If you are born as a man, and your soul mate is born as a man also, that won’t keep you apart, even if it means breaking social taboos.
The most affecting soul mate pairing is Sonmi 451 (Bae), a slave/clone fabricant, and Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess), a rebel leader who sees her as the only hope for a better future. They have long been attached, as an earlier story shows, and will be paired again. Their eternal love is beautifully shown in the Neo-Seoul episode, and Bae delivers a deeply affecting performance, shining through all her scenes.
This is not an Asian film; in fact it is a German production, by the Wachowski Brothers (Matrix, V for Vendetta) and directed by Tom Twyker (Run, Lola, Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), with an international cast, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jum Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Donna Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’arcy, Susan Sarandon, Zhou Xun, David Gyasi and Keith David. Yet it has a strong Asian in fluence, and Asian themes.
It can be convoluted and confusing – I really think it needs to be seen more than once. The actors are so good, that sometimes they are unrecognisable. Tom Hanks, in particular, is a revelation. A conniving 19th Century doctor, a revolting Irish author, a futuristic tribesman like someone out of Mad Max – did we really think he was only capable of playing Mr All American Nice Guy? With Halle Berry, he delivers extraordinary performances.
It is truly international as well, covering the globe from Hawaii to Korea, and universal, on what looks suspiciously like Mars. Extraordinary, ambitious, exciting, never boring – I loved every minute of it, and the prospect of seeing it many times to try and figure it all out doesn’t phase me at all.