Film Advent Calendar: The story told through different timelines and intertwining philosophies in Cloud Atlas

  • Six stories manage to connect despite having no direct link to each other
  • Masterpiece begs multiple viewings but is well worth your patience
  • December 14th on NQ editor Matt Hartless's advent calendar of films you should watch this Christmas

The characters in Could Atlas spend a lot of the runtime discussing their philosophies on things important to them in their timelines.

This gives the film a rich ethical text to work with and to explore many themes some relevant right now, some which will surely become so.

Scene from Cloud Atlas
Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in Cloud Atlas. Credit: Warner Bros

Cloud Atlas is a 2012 philosophical fantasy film directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis and starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae and Ben Wishaw.

The film is a collection of six stories, each set in a different genre and period in time that are not connected in terms of their plots, but more thematically and through coincidental actions. There is a sea voyage in the 19th Century, a period drama in the 1930s, a spy thriller in the 70s, a dark comedy set in modern day, a sci-fi action story set 100 years into the future and a dystopian thriller set in the far future.

A common criticism of Cloud Atlas is that it feels like six short films. I completely disagree with this assessment, each story in the film deserves its place and hits a lot of the same beats as the other stories and yet hits enough of its own beats to feel unique. Quite a remarkable feat for a film that had three directors!

One of the main themes of the film is what freedom means to people. In each story the main character sees oppression, if they don’t directly experience it. Like other films by the Wachowskis, the interconnectedness of cause and effect plays a big part as well.

I wouldn’t want to spoil too much about the film as it’s worth going in to explore the philosophies of the universe and to come out wanting to go back in and explore further, to know what precisely means what.

Scene from Cloud Atlas
In the far future, Hawaii is one of the few remaining inhabited places. Credit: Warner Bros

The music, sets, location, costumes and acting, despite a few dodgy accents, make a great eclectic mix suitable for the story they are telling.

I think special praise needs to go to the editing department. How on Earth they got all this footage and managed to piece it together into something remotely coherent is one of life’s great mysteries. Bravo!

There are some truly uplifiting moments in the movie as well as some incredibly dark ones. The book that the film is based on tells the first half of each story in chronological order, tells the story in the far future in one go, then tells the second half of each story in reverse chronological order. In the book this means that events in each timeline influence each other on the way forward, but bizarrely influence each other into the past on the way back too.

The film does not tell the story in this way, but still manages to achieve the same effect. They match similar beats in each story with each other, connecting it with each other, so for instance, despite being in the earliest story chronologically, the lawyer (Jim Sturgess) betraying his father in law to join the abolitionists, along with the ‘what is an ocean but a multitude of drops’ line feels completely cosmically earned.

One final point is this film had the unusual effect of polarising critics, some loved it, some hated it, but the entire cast independently came out to defend the film, happily promoting it to audiences even to this day when they are not contractually obliged to do so.

So if you can’t decide what genre you want to watch, but want something deep and adventurous, Could Atlas is without doubt a film you need to watch this Christmas.

This article is part of the Film Advent Calendar series, where NQ editor Matt Hartless shares some of his favourite films in 24 different genres that you should watch if you need something to fill your time over the Christmas break.

Scene from Cloud Atlas
Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae in Cloud Atlas. Credit: Warner Bros