Visual Elements >>>
Form and Function: The missing pieces
Cloud Atlas opens with an old man seated by the fire in open air surrounded by the elements.
This person is Zachry, speaking in post-modern English mumbling about the wind and demons—first person narrator with a voice over
In less than 30 seconds, you are taken back to a wide shot established in 1849. The voice over by an unknown man (later revealed to be Adam Ewing) will mislead you into thinking he is Zachry, recounting his past with a flashback sequence, but that isn’t true. Both are different characters in different eras—first person narrator with a voice over
In less than 30 seconds, you move forward to a close up marked by 1973 that will mislead you into thinking that time line for six stories run from 6–>1–>2–>3–>4–>5–>6 but that is incorrect. So this rules out the possibility of a flashback sequence in classical cutting. An unknown woman (Halle Berry) speaks in modern English mumbling about murders to protect a “secret”. You’ll find out later that she is Luisa Grey—non voice over.
In less than 30 seconds, you move forward to 2012 with a writer (Jim Broadbent) making an appeal to the audience (almost breaking the fourth wall) for patience with flashbacks because there is “a method to this tale of madness.” Is he writing Cloud Atlas the novel? Is he an unreliable narrator? Is he a character from 1973 given the typewriter he’s using? At this point, we have absolutely no clue that he belongs to 2012. You’ll find out later that he is Timothy—first person narrator with a voice over.
In less than 30 seconds, you are taken back to 1936. An unknown man is writing a note for his lover before committing suicide. In it he says that “suicide takes courage and that is the truth.” You’ll find out later that he is Robert Frobisher—first person narrator with a voice over.
In less than 30 seconds, you are taken to 2144. A woman (Doona Bae) is handcuffed and her final interview is about to commence. You get the sense she is important, some kind of oracle who’s about to be executed. You’ll find out later that she is Sonmi451. This scene lasts less than 5 seconds—non voice over.
Next, you are taken to 1973 again and stay there for less than 5 seconds with Luisa—non voice over.
Next, you are taken to 2012 and Timothy is mumbling about not knowing what “a mysterious man was about to do” that night—first person narrator with a voice over.
Next, back to 1849 with a what appears to be a treasure seeker talking about cheery stones, money and turning a profit. You’ll find out later that he is Dr. Henry Goose—non voice over.
Next, forward to 2144 with Sonmi451. An interrogator demands truth from her to which she replies “Truth is singular. Its versions are mistruths”—non voice over.
Next, back to 1936 with Robert about to commit suicide “Don’t let them say I killed myself for love. Had my infatuations but we both know in our hearts who is the sole love of my short, bright life”—first person narrator with a voice over.
In less than a minute, you’ve gone from 5–>3–>4–>1–>5–>2 before the title even begins to roll. At this juncture, we are no longer expecting continuity. But in what appears (or is supposed) to be a thematic montage of different characters in different stories arguing a thesis (containing ideologies or philosophies of the film)… the effect eventually produced is “abstract” snippets of shots darting from one point of view to another with audiences completely divorced…
After careful viewing, what you can glean from the “abstract” non-linear editing is merely a sense of visual montage without emotional or thematic context >>>
What you do suspect however, is that Cloud Atlas makes statements about:
A) supernatural phenomena
B) morals and rights about suicide
C) philosophies about the “truth”
D) politics and money
So far so good. But those cuts from the journalist and the writer set no theme whatsoever. No information can be gleaned from 35 seconds with each of them beyond mysterious confusion. This breaks the flow of any spatial or emotional context that can be understood. At this point; it has to be “abstract editing” because by now, the film is laboring extra hard with very little output. Audiences are disoriented.
Why the execution falls flat >>>
I believe, the intention of “fragmented shots” darting from one scene to another is supposed to create a sense of”leaping consciousness” by darting from voice overs to non voice overs.
Perhaps, someone decided in post-production that an opening montage sets the narrative of “human consciousness” through dialogues spoken from different levels of consciousness (editing language by going from narrator to 3rd person etc.). The problem is, no shots from Luisa. And no thematic dialogue from Timothy. These two missing pieces, are the results of having three different scriptwriters and directors going about their own thing. Therefore it baffles me, when someone describes the film as coherent, linear narrative that “links”. There is no form or function in the film at all.
Choppy Coherence Between Themes-Screenplay-Dialogue and Visual Storytelling >>>
Our choices in life are governed by either hard rigid rules (classical physics), or they are influenced by chance (quantum physics). Cloud Atlas’s position is that of quantum physics. It purports that determinism and freewill coexists—every consciousness is in fact one single consciousness experiencing a variety of “lives” where those lives have already been pre-determined.
But it makes no sense further into the film because it continues into how it is possible to transcend the rules of determinism and laws of physics by using explanations based in romantic / karmic / spiritual idealism.
The negative experience stems from a jarring inconsistency — intellectual, high minded inquiry on quantum physics and random chance concluded with a deus ex machina ending that exploits dramatic effects bordering on cliché (love is the answer because it conquers all. love and spiritual beliefs explain the phenomena. believe in consciousness and fate because they transcend time and space — they determine the course of your lives.)
Nature as an analogy for humanity’s metamorphosis fails by virtue of cause-effect, which is largely a scientific / philosophical / psychological inquiry (butterfly effect, chaos theory, human impulse) supported by elusive concepts (love is conscious).
Both unprovable because Cloud Atlas begins on one tangent (theories on causality, which are largely investigated with quantum physics and calculated using maths and probabilities), only to make a 360 degree turn and leap right into another tangent using semantics (playing word games about spirituality, love, emotions through monologues).
There are many other themes about homosexuality, bisexuality, women’s rights and freedom from slavery among other clichés that are part of this film’s overbearing dialogue.