Lana Wachowski, Tom Twyker, and Andy Wachowski have accomplished something very special in Cloud Atlas. They discovered a clear and natural way to tell a metaphysical narrative of love, kindness, and actions echoing throughout all of time. Each scene in the six very different storylines is connected by an emotional or physical event that ties the core group of spirits together over centuries. The method becomes clear at the halfway point of the film, where explosions, falls, and acts of aggression rapidly echo throughout the flow of history.
Cloud Atlas is not breaking any new ground in theme or philosophy. It's riffing on the same emotional core of films likes Babel and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. If you choose to live your life in a good way and are willing to put others' needs/the greater good above your own priorities, you'll eventually have good things come back to you. Behave poorly and selfishly and you'll face great struggles later on. The spirit itself is neither good nor bad, as one spirit can flip back and forth from great fortune to great pain in a relatively small period of time.
The innovation from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker is essentially creating an anthology film that feels like a cohesive narrative without a framing device. There is no comic book to guide you (like Trick'r Treat), no charismatic gatekeeper carrying you from tale to tale (like the Amicus horror anthologies), and no linear story acting as the clothes line to hang the other tales on (like Creepshow). The writing/directing trio connect the stories through casting choices and parallel narrative motion.
The same core cast populates all the tales of Cloud Atlas. Tom Hanks plays everything from a privileged doctor on the high seas to an angry mob-tied author to a post-apocalyptic survivor fighting for his family. Halle Berry plays a rich white woman, a Korean surgeon, and an investigative reporter as everything from a silent cameo to the only lead character in a story. Doona Bae plays a Mexican guard at an illegal sweatshop, a beautiful genetically engineered server, and a prostitute (among other roles).
When dealing with a narrative about the connections between life and the universe, the traditional boundaries of gender, race, and social class no longer bind. The constant presence of the same cast--recognizable in an instant because of birth marks, voices, and distinctive facial features--makes the skips in time and space much easier to understand and connect.
Perhaps this casting choice is the most controversial element of the film Cloud Atlas. If a character is supposed to be white in one story and Korean in another, why not cast a Korean actor to play the Korean role? Isolated from the film, the decision to cast a smaller cast of actors to take on six or more roles each seems questionable.
Within the film, it is a clear way to connect the stories. You might not like seeing Jim Sturgess and Keith David--a white and a black man, respectively--playing Korean citizens in the future world of Neo Seoul, but the context of the film--specifically a huge sign later in the film that makes it clear that some of this "yellowface" makeup is actually poor underground plastic surgery to look like the beautiful genetically engineered workers of the future--makes you accept the possibility that maybe the spirit isn't bound to one racial or gender identity.
Maybe the decision to have actors of one race play another race is a way to hit home the larger narrative of tolerance as many of the characters who abuse people--homosexuals, African slaves, women--are forced through cosmic events to live in those roles in the future.
Controversial or not, Lana Wachowski, Tom Twkyer, and Andy Wachowski's casting and narrative decisions are what make Cloud Atlas such a successful feature. This is a film that anyone should be able to watch and understand in their own way. It's a Rorschach test of a film, where you can see what you choose to see in it. If you go in with an open mind and an open heart, you might walk away feeling a sensation of hope for all of humanity. Good or bad, right or wrong, everything that happens in this lifetime has the potential to change the future for everyone. Why worry about strife when choosing to live this life can be the best decision you can make?
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