Cloud Atlas opens in the same way that, most likely, the very first story told began 100,000 years ago: with a wise, elderly person speaking to an audience gathered round a campfire. I didn't realize till Cloud Atlas was finished, a rousing and astonishingly quick three hours later, how thrilling an opening that is. For this is a meta story: It's a story about story. It's a story about why we tell one another stories, what stories mean to us, and how they affect us.
It's bonkers how far across time this insanely grand matrix of interconnected tales ranges, from 1849 to 1936 to 1973 to 2012 to 2144 to the far future; from Cambridge to San Francisco to the middle of the widest ocean to locations unnamed to us. The connections all come via stories told in diaries and novels and letters and manuscripts and movies and testimonies and even a symphony (which is a kind of story) passed down through time. The tales are in themselves gripping because they are all about the Big Important Things: truth and legend, love and betrayal, freedom and slavery. A lawyer on a sea voyage bearing a vital contract home becomes ill; a journalist uncovers corporate malfeasance and becomes a target; a wannabe composer working with a renowned mentor believes he can surpass his boss' genius; a once content slave in a dystopic future awakens to her plight and rebels. (That's not an exhaustive list of the individual threads here.) But only the audience can see how the past inspires the future via a narrative heritage inherited by the present.
No, that's not quite true. Of course the composer in 1936 knows he's inexplicably gripped by the diary of the 1849 lawyer, that he sees truths about the lawyer's situation that the lawyer cannot. Of course the 1973 journalist knows she's inexplicably gripped by the now faded and fragile romantic letters of the composer to his lover. But only we see the chain of inspiration that continues across countless generations, how the often seemingly mundane events of one life can nudge great things to happen in another.
In the film, a handful of actors play different characters across space and time, often intersecting in different ways than they do in the other stories. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, with their unexpected charm and chemistry, are a special treat to watch as their characters connect again and again. But the whole cast is enthralling: Ben Wishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, and Jim Sturgess in major roles; Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and James D'Arcy in smaller but still vital ones. These are wonderful actors giving multifaceted performances, sometimes even changing their race and gender. The makeup artists deserve praise too.
As we watch these oh-so-human people, something else extraordinary happens: Cloud Atlas ends up replicating the sort of experience we have today as we sit before the storytelling campfire of the television. Though it may sound contradictory, watching this wholly winning and completely cohesive movie is like flipping around the TV and happening upon all the good bits from half a dozen different and awesome movies with each change of the channel. Every sort of story is here: sci-fi drama, post-apocalyptic action, codger comedy, twee British romance, historical mystery, '70s conspiracy thriller. And in Cloud Atlas, we see the important scenes from these stories, the moments in which people learn the fundamental truths about themselves and the world and choose to act on them, for better or worse.
Tom Tykwer and the sibling team of Lana and Andy Wachowski may have separately adapted (from David Mitchell's novel) and directed the temporally dispersed tales, but these distinct stories come together in a way that sneakily injects directly into our media-savvy minds. Our stories today, the really influential ones that have real cultural impact, are ones that have started in film and reinforced their hegemony in our minds via repeated exposure on the small screen. Or they originated on TV in the first place. In some ways, too, then, Cloud Atlas is about how we tell ourselves stories right at this precise moment of human history.