Cloud Atlas, Music, and the Ripple Effect

Cloud Atlas is a remarkable, audacious, uncompromising film, connected by themes and actors reappearing in different times as their characters’ reincarnated selves.  At its core, it’s the simplest of stories: it is about the transformative power of even the smallest act of kindness.  To paraphrase a conversation between two characters in the film, one small act may be “a small drop in the ocean,” but “the ocean is made up of many drops.”

The film isn’t linked together by narrative techniques  so much as by themes, images, and choices.  People choose to do horrible things, just as they choose to do great things.  The story of a man being poisoned on a vessel in one time influences a composer in another, whose lover influences a woman in another.  An editor’s story is turned into a movie, and that movie influences people in a futuristic Korea, one of whom in turn influences a post-apocalyptic world, where she is worshipped as a goddess.

Cloud Atlas, itself, takes its name from the composition (The Cloud Atlas Sextet) that the young composer writes before his death.  Heard in different times, it awakens feelings of remembrance in people who hear it, even those hearing it for the first time.  Music takes what is familiar and novel and combines them in such a way as to please and surprise the listener.  It take separate notes — each insignificant in themselves — and organizes them so that a line can be draw from the first note to the last, though the line is musical, not narrative.  In a movie, images are most important, and so Cloud Atlas gives us what is familiar, combined with what is novel, in its images, linking them to show continuity, contrasting them to show separations.

Like themes in music, this film has themes that reappears throughout its length, the main one being that of doing a kindness, and defying convention in the process.  “The order of things” is another theme, to which the lie is given in that people who defy the “natural order of things” create a more free and more natural order to the world, whether it’s helping out a runaway slave or exposing a nuclear power plant that has been rigged to fail to accepting a mission that is doomed to fail, only so as to plant the seed of freedom in one person’s mind, so that it may grow in others.

I have not mentioned the interconnected stories in this film.  I will not do so, for they are less important in understanding what this movie is about than the themes mentioned above.  How can one describe the inner logic of a song, or a symphony?  It doesn’t have a narrative to latch onto, and even tone poems and program music must contain tonal logic, so that the result is music, and not just noise.  Of course, as the young composer discovers in the film, there is no barrier between music and noise, which leads to another leitmotif: the breaking down of artificial barriers that separate us from others.  We see two forms of slavery in this film, three if you count the slavery of the mind that affects the residents of the post-apocalyptic world.  In each story, the protagonist either aids others in escaping this slavery or aids himself in escaping it.

Like music, too, it’s not the parts that matter so much as what they equal when played as a whole.  If only one of these stories were told, it would be a different movie, about one person in one time and place, rather than all people in all times and places.  One drop in a pond creates a ripple; many drops create a wave.  It’s the cumulative effect of this film that gives it its power, whether through these themes, through the imagery of worlds long gone and worlds yet to come, or through the actors’ performances in playing several different people, spread out across five different periods in our past and future.  Sometimes they are male, sometimes female; sometimes black, sometimes white; sometimes old, sometimes young; sometimes good, sometimes evil.  Sometimes they are not even human, as with the fabricants in New Seoul.

And it’s entertaining!  In a movie with so many themes to juggle and actors to direct and locations to use and points to be made, it never preaches and never feels too long.  It’s not perfect (the escape from the retirement home offers some needed comic relief, but feels out-of-place among the other stories, even as it connects with them thematically), but it works, even in adapting a slightly different spoken language for use in the post-apocalyptic section.

When the film ended, I had two thoughts: 1.) I wish to see it again, and 2.) I’d like to read the book.  Though the movie is less puzzling than people make it out to be, you do have to pay attention.  Perhaps those who are confused are hearing the notes, but not listening to the music.

As always, I am indebted to Wikipedia for jogging my memory on specifics in the film, such as the term “fabricants” and the fact that the music is called The Cloud Atlas Sextet, not The Cloud Atlas Suite, as I had originally written.  And since a sextet is a piece written for six instruments, and the composer’s lover is named “Sixsmith,” and the movie is composed of six stories…