It's easy to declare an epic a failure if it doesn't perform as expected. This is true of wars, economic rallies, romance and even complicated desserts. But in the realm of art, where art meets commerce, like the movies, we should be very careful at judging ambitious works too quickly, and too harshly. Celebrated pieces can be swiftly forgotten and badly received oeuvres can have surprising staying power.
I watched Cloud Atlas this weekend, at home, on a large screen TV, from a screener DVD. Being a screenwriter myself I can imagine the cringe from any film maker hearing this. This is certainly not the way this spectacle was meant to be seen. But I will tell you that I was transfixed. And that's not easy to do.
The movie is an adaptation of a complicated book with six story lines in six different time periods, two in the future, three in the past, one present day and replete with a dream cast that populates each time period in different roles; which is already a recipe for disaster. I've had the experience of adapting a 600 page novel into a 90 minute movie. It wasn't easy and that was in just one time period so I don't get to complain about it here.
That this film is a conscious attempt to define what only the unconscious knows -- that we are all connected in our current lives, as well as past and future, and that our experiences all affect one other -- is pretty far reaching.
Not standard popcorn stuff.
The novel Cloud Atlas has an underlying theme of slavery and darkly oppressive societies. Perhaps that's because mankind has made this our own theme. Through it all characters fight for hope or redemption, and if not that at least for freedom. And several characters achieve it with tremendous effort.
The film weaves a tapestry of these stories and the lead actors play up to six parts each to achieve a 'spirit' of continuity in each story. It is visually stunning and powerfully performed. One of the futures is so unique and breathtaking it could have been its own film.
That you would wish any of these stories to be expanded so that you could spend more time with each hero is saying a lot. The plots don't all work perfectly, but for me there was an experience that began forming that was larger than the whole. It's one the film makers no doubt intended: that history, our time, and the time of our descendants is all part of a deeper and simpler truth that our lives all affect one another beyond our conscious understanding.
Will you spend your life helping or hurting, trusting or betraying, fighting or running? It's not so much that one action directly affects the karma of another life. It's that the movie makes you think beyond the end of this week. It makes you think of the next generation and next century and how we all spend time on this planet making choices. When our lives are over we are merely the collection of these choices. What do you want those choices to be? For in the end that is what we all leave behind and that may affect what is to come.
As a story teller myself I found the last moment sublime, as all of our stories are truly that; stories. And more so than we may ever know.
I recommend Cloud Atlas for daring to make us think that our lives matter in ways we may never know -- and in ways we may only hope.