One of the most alarming political twists of the 21st century has been the demonisation of Revolution. This concept has been seized and monopolised by a cartel of Communists and Terrorists, who transformed it into a Western boogeyman. Here, Revolution has become a thing of mobs, pitchforks and sewers stained bright blue with the blood of aristos. But this is a mirage. Revolution is not just the overthrow of governments. If anything such change is shallow: just one corrupt dictatorship replacing another. Lasting change happens not to governments but to minds. The only worthwhile Revolution is a Revolution of Thought, and Cloud Atlas makes you want to fight for it.
Cloud Atlas is technically composed of six stories spread across a multitude of places and genres. Amongst its vast roster of characters stand sailors, young lovers, plucky crime-stoppers, rebellious pensioners, mass-produced people and post-apocalyptic tribesmen, a dizzying complexity of people given order by a neat, if mystical, device. Cloud Atlas takes place in a universe of reincarnation, wherein the same personalities endlessly reappear across the ages. Though social status, race and even gender may change across the ages, character remains consistent, a point reflected visually by having the same actors play every recurrence of the undying personality.
The result is that Cloud Atlas’ character arcs don’t play out over the course of the film’s runtime, but over the passage of ages within the film. For example, Tom Hanks’ main role in the film is as a post-apocalyptic coward, kept mean and fearful by the whispers of a green-eyed Devil. The arc of that particular story involves him finding the courage to redeem himself. However, unbeknownst to him, the tribesman is not just redeeming himself, but breaking a mould that has defined him since the 1850s. Again and again, Tom Hanks appears as a man made evil by the fear of being weak in a world ruled by the strong. Then, at the last possible moment, he breaks that cycle. The tribesman does not just change himself, but also who he has always been.
The realisation that this is what Cloud Atlas is doing comes as a bit of a shock: not because the age-spanning arc is poorly set up, but because there is so much happening in the film that you just don’t notice what’s going on. There is something of the circus about Cloud Atlas. It is loud and bright and endlessly on the move, cartwheeling and backflipping across time. It is a film made by jugglers who skipped the fruit and pins, and moved straight to chainsaws. It is a film that batters the mind with a torrent of information and then, suddenly, steps back with an abracadabra and makes sense of everything. This trick is not new. Margaret, another modern masterpiece also makes its mark with a sudden unveiling. Yet, Margaret is ponderous. Watching it is like watching a pyramid built in time-lapse: lots of feverish activity slowly bringing an edifice into being. Though captivated, the watching mind does have space to breathe. The Cloud Atlas circus provides no such luxury. This film was not constructed but choreographed, with the score and the film’s pace so closely matching that every cut, every camera movement feels like a move in a visual dance. The editors took six separate stories and crafted a whole, linking mood with mood, narrative beat with beat, and also, in a moment that broke me, granted the last wish of a martyr.
Cloud Atlas does not handle its audience gently. I am used to crying when films earn it. Simply saying the word ‘Superman’ to me in the right way will make me blubber. Usually for me though, weeping over a film is a fulfilling, not-exhausting experience. Cloud Atlas hit me differently. Come the film’s finish, I was not sitting straight with tears shining on a Britannically-stiff upper lip. Instead I sat hunched and shaking. I think if I had been on my own I would have howled. I was convulsed by a heaving spasm, half-laughter and half-sobbing, that crumpled me up like paper and left me fragile as glass, with drool-stained knees and an overflowing nose. I felt for the first time in my life a beauty that did not just earn emotion but demanded it, a beauty that tore adulation from me as I would tear meat from a bone.
I can’t promise that you, reader, will have the same reaction as me. I am, despite appearances, something of an idealist. I believe in what Cloud Atlas has to say. I believe that we as humans are improving, slowly becoming better, wiser, more capable of goodness. Sure Hugo Weaving will always exist in one form or another, endlessly preaching the gospel of a naturally oppressive order, but change will always come to prove him/her wrong. The Revolution of Thought is endless. In Cloud Atlas we see it playing out again and again. Sometimes it ends in triumph. Sometimes it ends in the blood of revolutionaries. Sometimes the Revolution ends in a dying brain, only to rise like the Phoenix in the minds of others. However, it is not the end of the Revolution that matters. What matters most is the fight, that we fight, against the fear and the hate and the poisonous belief that ‘this is how it is and this is how it always will be’. Cloud Atlas celebrates this fight. It humanises this fight. It is a call to arms.
Long live the Revolution.