In 1916, film pioneer D.W. Griffith produced his epic “Intolerance,” a nearly three hour (163 minutes) epic that literally spanned the ages; in it four stories of moral conflict are told simultaneously: religious rivalry in ancient Babylon in 500 B.C., Pharisaic Jews condemning Jesus in Judea in A.D. 33, Catholics persecuting Huguenots in 1572 Paris, and turn-of-the-century social reformers destroying a family circa 1915. The intolerance of the title refers to abuses of power as well as social prejudice, and how the two combine to destroy lives. In 2012, David Mitchell’s novel “Cloud Atlas” written and directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola, Run”) and Andy and Lana Wachowsky (the “Matrix” trilogy, “V for Vendetta”) follows the same pattern. In 172 minutes, it tells five parallel tales of moral conflict, set in 1849, 1936, 1973, 2144, and an undated post-apocalyptic world.
In 1849, a young American lawyer travels to the Pacific Islands where he witnesses the horrors of slavery first-hand. As the story develops, things are not as they seem. He is ill and obtains ministrations from a friendly doctor—or does he? An escaped slave stows away and he is compelled to face his own prejudices. In 1936, a talented homosexual composer struggles against social prejudice to produce a symphony. In 1973, an investigative reporter finds herself embroiled in a massive cover-up that threatens environmental disaster and global economic domination. In 2144, genetically engineered slaves struggle for freedom against a faceless big brother style government. In the distant future, a primitive society faces destruction or salvation depending on whether they embrace their superstitions or the advances of science.
“Cloud Atlas” is ambitious. It has a big cast composed of big names (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant) who, through the miracles of modern make-up, appear in all five story-lines. And the make-up is miraculous, although Doona Bae as a freckle-faced red head doesn’t work terribly well. The sets, from a 19th century sailing ship to a cosmopolitan dystopia to a Planet of the Apes style future world are all breath-taking. So visually, the movie is spectacular.
But its pace is methodical, and its screenplay commits the unpardonable sin of self-importance. In fact, the ponderous progress of the story-line allows the audience time to consider the inconsistencies of plot. Like why are slavers operating out of San Francisco, California (a free state that never allowed slavery) and how did African slaves arrive in the Pacific Islands (last I checked, Africa is not in the Pacific)? And how is it the post-apocalyptic survivors create such intricate stone buildings but never build a stone wall to protect them from the raiders that are bent on their destruction? And why is post-apocalyptic Zachry, who has only known crude leather clothing haunted by a ghost/demon that wears top hat and tails? All plots have implausible elements, but a well-written script (and well-paced film) will distract the audience with other items of interest so they are overlooked (Hitchcock was the master of this).
As for the self-importance “Cloud Atlas” suffers from, the theme of generational connectivity is hammered on, but does not really improve on Griffith’s original premise in “Intolerance.” In that film, the philosophical origins of moral conflict are seen as part of human nature, as emphasized by the images of the Eternal Mother rocking the cradle of humanity. In “Cloud Atlas” a bevy of serious toned narrators tells us repeatedly that what we do is affected by the actions of our predecessors and will impact future generations. Somehow rewriting history (African slavery in California and the Pacific, a nuclear power plant in San Francisco) to prove that point seems to defeat that purpose.