"Our lives are not our own," says Sonmi-451. The words of the fabricant waitress of the future in the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas have double meaning. Workers and servants, debtors and peasants, slaves and free men ... our lives are not our own. We are also responsible to those who have gone before us and to those who will follow. This social responsibility, often over generations, defines us and gives us meaning.
Through these themes Cloud Atlas turns on its head the shallow, self-centered, individualism of Ayn Rand's book and movie with which it shares partial title -- Atlas Shrugged. Instead writers and directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer have spun from David Mitchell's highly acclaimed book an ambitious epic film that follows six stories, cross-cutting the years to weave a complex tapestry that is always fueled by the spirit of optimism and hope.
The directors helm the voyage with a firm hand. The stories are diverse: A mid-nineteenth century Pacific Ocean crossing. A young composer's creative efforts in Europe between the World Wars. A reporter's dangerous investigation of California's nuclear industry in the 1970s. Escape from a dictatorial skilled nursing home. The struggles of a Pacific Islander battling marauding tribesmen. The discovery of Sonmi-451.
Pieces of each story are shown in what at first appears random order. But the burst of story from each tale always seems to advance the plot. Sometimes the plots of the stories advance similarly; sometimes character development parallels, sometimes complements. Despite the varigated narratives, there is little confusion as to what is unfolding. Suspense as to what might occur, certainly. Surprise as to the unfolding plots. But not confusion.
Much credit goes to generally stellar performances. Yeoman work from the principles who each handle six different parts: Academy Award winners Halle Berry and Tom Hanks, the brilliant British character actor Jim Broadbent, Wachowski regular Hugo Weaving, One Day's Jim Sturgess and the stunning Korean actress Doona Bae, so memorable in Bong Joon-ho's gripping horror story The Host. Only Hanks' role as Pacific Islander Zachry fell somewhat victim to his futuristic dialect.
Most of the credit must go to the Wachowskis. Their huge critical and commercial success of The Matrix and V for Vendetta was followed by the bump in the road of the failures of Speed Racer. Taking the option on Mitchell's popular book, they were able to capitalize the highest budgeted independent film, the most expensive German produced film ever. They put together an award-winning cast and challenged it with multiple nuanced roles in different stories echoing through time and place.
Despite its daunting run time of almost three hours, Cloud Atlas has been greeted by mostly good reviews, high per theater attendance resulting in its number three ranking on opening weekend and a 10 minute standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, just as the audience in this film reviewer's theater applauded loudly at its conclusion.
And what were the audiences applauding? More than whether characters lived or died, found happiness or bitter disappointment ... they struggle, learn, change themselves and the world around them, rippling through history and our consciousness... giving us the impetus and hope for change. Our lives are not only our own.