David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, is apparently happy with how the movie turned out. He should be. The movie -- faithful in spirit but unfaithful in many details -- does something I would have sworn was impossible: it soars like the book.
The Key: Life Itself
To understand Cloud Atlas, look at the way things happen in life. Helpful or harmful actions birth other helpful or harmful actions, which birth other actions, and so on forever. Some of you know about this; most you will never know.
A casual encounter turns out to be life-altering; a job falls out of the sky; a song gets to you -- some would call these chance-encounters -- neither the filmmakers, Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell, nor I would call them chance, but whatever they are, life runs by them.
Past acts reverberate in the future. Music sounds familiar to a character who could not have heard it before. An act of kindness or cruelty changes the direction of someone's life forever, which changes another person's life forever, and so on. As the film's trailer says: "Everything is connected."
The individual Cloud Atlas stories interlock in ways that sometimes suggest reincarnation. More often, they suggest the simple truth that the present is connected to both the past and the future. Everything matters, which leads to the next point:
Actions Matter Forever
The central conflict between selfishness/predation and love is more obvious in the novel, because Mitchell is explicit about it, but it is fairly straightforward in the movie, too.
The common ground of all six narratives is exploitation of some people by others. All six narratives make the same turn, too: The exploited ones break their chains and reach toward something good (freedom, justice, truth, God, or their beloved). They head out into a future either happy or dangerous, but in every case allied with good. For this reason Cloud Atlas is a buoyant, hopeful movie.
"If I had remained invisible," Sonmi-451 says shortly before her death, "the truth would have remained hidden. I couldn't allow that."
I love it that Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski made this movie. They must have known from the beginning it was going to ask everything of them and not necessarily pay them back. In that way, their work is heroic.
This review appeared in slightly different form at Home Projectionist ("It's more than a movie"), a new Chicago-based blog about sharing movie-going experiences with friends and family.