I have been talking a lot about ‘Cloud Atlas’ lately. The big new movie, by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, just came out, and there has been a lot of discussion about it, it’s multi-tasking multi-star cast, it’s muti-story structure, it’s meaning. And I’ve been trying to explain to people what I think about the movie, which is very much related to what I think about the book. But usually this involves me attempting to explain, then descending into a sort of quasi-meaningful babble and saying “I just… I just” a lot. So I thought I would come on here to see if I could articulate some of my scattered thoughts. And just a warning, some of these thoughts will probably be full of cheesiness.
First of all, let me start with the book, which I read a few years ago and fell madly in love with. By David Mitchell, who is a genius, it’s a sort of literary palindrome of a book; six different stories unfold so that the first is the last and the one in the center is the only one that doesn’t repeat, if that makes sense. All the stories are set in a different time period and, to an extent, genre (there’s a futuristic science fiction story, one that’s journal entries from a ship in the 1840s, one that’s a 1970s mystery), and they weave together in subtle, beautiful ways, both with plot and thematic elements.
I’m not going to tell you more about how it actually works – you could never hope to capture it by summarizing it. Because the magic of what ‘Cloud Atlas’ does, what makes me obsessed with it in a way that lead me to consider buying a box of books so I could hand them out to people when I recommended it (kiboshed when I realized this would make me only a few steps away from the subway Scientologists), is not something you can easily explain, hence my starry-eyed jabberings about it in person.
I am not a religious person. I am probably best described as a yoga-class-Agnostic, casually spiritual but not in any well-defined way. However, what I do know is that I find the greatest moments of connection to my world, and to the humans around me and our singular history and hope, in art. Reading ‘Cloud Atlas’ for the first time was one of the most potent moments of this. The book, with its expansive stories and scope, its connections between its protagonists and the people around them, made me feel my place in the universe. Like all great teachers, it doesn’t hit you over the head with this, it merely gives you the pieces that allow you to find it for yourself. And when I read it, through the doorway of ‘Cloud Atlas’, I felt like I could see how I relate to history, how human beings connect to each other, and the great beauty that comes in everyday human living. It made me weep. It still does, every time I read it, which is a few times now.
So I was nervous at the thought of a movie version, just because, how could it possible capture what is so subtle, so ineffable, about the book? But when I heard that the filmmakers were going to cast actors to play multiple roles throughout the stories, I stopped worrying. If they were doing that, I thought, they understood something deep and fundamental about the book, about the idea of the connection that runs through the stories. They got it.
And luckily, I was right: they totally did get it. I saw the film on Friday, and the best compliment I can give is that when it was over I was sitting in my seat weeping, needing a few minutes just to process and get myself together, just as I do every time I read the book. The cast is wonderful, the cross-casting totally works, and the cuts and changes merely make the essential stories more cinematic (many of them I didn’t even notice). And, like with the book, I feel like I’ll need a few viewings to catch all the references and connections, and their implications. I cannot speak for someone who sees the movie not having already read the book, but as someone who has read the book, and loves it, the movie captures the epic breadth of the book. It captures the awesome (and I mean awesome in the true sense of the word, not in the Spicoli vernacular in which I usually use it) sense of being a part of something beautiful and bigger. It is, in brief, great.
So, I think you should see it. I’m not guaranteeing that you will like it as much as I did, but oh, if you do, what joy lies in store for you. And I definitely think you should read it, probably multiple times. And if you ever want to write essays in your head about ‘Cloud Atlas’ while you’re on the subway, know that there’s someone out there who understands.
Also, I’m seriously considering getting a little comet tattoo.