I walked into Cloud Atlas a few nights ago on a mere whim. I had just left Wreck-it Ralph (a rather brilliant movie in its own right, I suggest you go see it) and in the midst of an empty theater I convinced a friend of mine to sneak into Cloud Atlas with me because I had heard it had an interesting concept and, “Why the hell not?” The moral ambiguity of my actions aside, I am certainly glad I did so.
Cloud Atlas continually cuts between six different short stories. This was a tad shocking; I had known that Cloud Atlas was a sextet of stories but I had expected them to be presented in a linear fashion. The game was on for my friend and I, to figure out what grand scheme bound all these seemingly independent tales together. Lucky for us, the theater was empty and we could discuss freely throughout the film (in short intervals of course). I don’t want to spoil anything, so I will keep the details of the “big reveal” to myself. I will only explain that what binds the plot of each story together has more to do with the themes of each story rather than with any overlapping plot.
What drives me to write this article is the rather sharp criticism I am hearing about the film, not in the sense of its quality as a movie, but that it is racist. Claims of racism in Hollywood are nothing new. In the case of Cloud Atlas, many non-Asian actors are covered in make-up and special effects to give them what is effectively “yellow face” during a section of the film that takes place in the somewhat-distant future of South Korea. I’ll be the first to say that Hollywood has a nasty habit of being mean to Asian characters: often, they play into very obvious stereotypes, male Asians are often emasculated, and unless they are kung-fu stars, they rarely get to be the main character. I am sure you all remember how two Inuit characters and one Asian character from Avatar: The Last Airbender had been recast with white actors when the live action movie was made. But this is simply not the same case with Cloud Atlas.
What the people making these claims of racism forget is that Halle Berry at one point plays a white person, Hugo Weaving plays a woman, and Doona Bae (a Korean actress) plays a white woman as well. But this is all trivial; the real point is that the people that are making these remarks miss the context of the film (and therefore miss the irony of their own actions). It is difficult to explain without giving out spoilers, but the film deals heavily in issues of self-identity and one’s position in the society. We see a struggling homosexual man in 1930s England, a self-freed slave in 1849, and mass-produced clone servants in 2144 Seoul. It is easy to see that one of the vital threads binding Cloud Atlas’s stories is that: the things we believe to define us as people are our actions, not our genetics. This is shown through what is heavily implied to be a form of reincarnation. Throughout the film, each actor plays several characters, and as I explained before these roles vary in both gender and race. The make-up is done in such a way that it is easy to see that it is the same actor even when they are supposed to be a different gender or race. Cloud Atlas is trying to imply that the soul’s of people journey through time, but are not defined by their social status, race, gender, sexuality, etc.
I am not claiming that racism in the film industry doesn’t exist; it certainly does, and it is a horrible thing. What I am claiming is that Cloud Atlas is trying to fight racism, among other things. It is no mistake that Jim Sturgess plays a lawyer in 1849 that learns the evils of slavery, and then reappears in 2144 as a Korean man fighting a government regime that abuses cloned workers. If they had cast a Korean actor to fill his role in 2144 the entire lesson would be lost. The two stories would no longer be bound by what makes them greater than the sum of their parts. There is also a notion that the reincarnation of souls is not even restricted to each actor’s set of characters, as shown by a not quite subtle birthmark that never appears on
the same actor twice.
This is not to say that Cloud Atlas gets a free pass because it is a good movie. On the contrary I found myself excruciatingly bored quite a few times during the film’s obnoxious 172-minute runtime. Also, you should expect to be confused for the first chunk of the film; if you felt Inception was confusing, then I suggest you just give up because you are not going to get this one. Cloud Atlas is a film you have to take as a whole to understand, which means you have to endure the horrible pseudo-English of Tom Hanks’s character in a post apocalyptic setting, just as you take in the magnificently beautiful setting of 2144 Seoul. I would say I disliked watching Cloud Atlas, much in the way that an alcoholic says he/she dislikes alcohol. But if you are going to dislike Cloud Atlas, do it because you felt it was boring, or overly artsy, not because you thought it was racist.