The News Talkers
May 21, 2014
Obviously, there are differing opinions about what makes a sci-fi movie ‘great’– groundbreaking special effects, like The Wolfman, Star Wars or Jurassic Park; adaptations of famous novels, like Dracula, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; social/political commentary works, like Metropolis, On the Beach or Fahrenheit 451; and philosophical themes like 2001, Contact or The Matrix. (You probably have your own criteria and classic flicks to mention, so please feel free…)
Once in a while, a film appears that manages to combine a range of these concepts into a single package, with stunning results and a lasting reputation & popularity. 2001: Space Odyssey packed what were (for the time) eye-wrenching SFX with Arthur C Clarke’s epic story of human social & spiritual evolution into superhuman capabilities, which made 2001 a classic in science fiction filmdom. Movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Time Machine and Source Code (an underappreciated little gem) are also notable not for the effects work, but for plotlines that spoke about the nature of human consciousness, social evolution/stagnation, and the persistence of awareness after physical death.
And very, very rarely, a movie weaves together several of these elements into a film that is complex, challenging and touches on social, emotional and spiritual themes in one impressive package. Cloud Atlas is one of those… one of the best sci-fi films of the past 20 years or more, and possibly the best ever made. If you haven’t seen this movie, you owe it to yourself, and you’re definitely in for a real treat…
Cloud Atlas is a brain-bending interweaving of six separate stories, stretching over about a 500-year timeline, from the mid-1800s to sometime beyond about 2400 CE. Each separate narrative is a tale unto itself, touching on themes of the nature of freedom and coercion, creativity & exploitation, corruption, love, sacrifice, fear, hope and transcendence. The film is challenging & confusing from the outset, with stories introduced one after another (without apparent connection) and only slowly interwoven as each individual narrative progresses. Watching, we gradually begin to realize that each separate story overlaps into others, events & decisions in one tale affecting characters in other times. Further, there are hints or intimations that characters, personalities or ‘souls’ recur across time, being influenced by not only their own past decisions, but also the actions of other characters they may (or may not) have known before.
The film is wonderfully acted by world-class stars including Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess. Ben Whitlaw and a host of excellent supporting actors. Astonishingly, each major actor appears in different roles in every separate story—portraying not simply different characters in different times, but even different gender roles. Hugo Weaving is cast in both major & supporting male roles and a significant female character; Halle Berry portrays major & minor female characters and has a male role cameo.
If this sounds confusing—it is, deliberately so… The ‘re-appearance’ of familiar faces in different characters/roles gives a unmistakable feeling that we are watching personalities or ‘souls’ recurring over time, carrying both their intrinsic or essential nature and the result of choices/action in other lives, evolving (or devolving) in a kind of karmic waltz across the background of past history into the indeterminate future.
(I’m determined not to give any ‘spoilers’ in this article—there won’t be any wrapup or explanation about the ‘conclusion’ or ‘resolution’ of the movie. While Cloud Atlas does provide a ‘prologue’ and ‘epilogue’ that suggests a finale, I’m not going there… my goal is to entice you to watch the flick— and draw your own conclusion.)
PS– Watch the credits…