Mapping Out Multithread Narrative in ‘Cloud Atlas’

Image 1: James D’Arcy and Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas

In breaking through the boundaries of conventionality, as referenced during a dream sequence voiceover that marks the film’s most poignant moment of self-reflexivity, Cloud Atlas employs a sprawling range of storytelling scope in its creation of six interrelated narratives that span centuries of human existence. Unlike David Mitchell’s 2004 novel from which it was adapted, the film capitalizes on the capacity of its medium by applying a multithread narrative structure to simultaneously shape each story rather than containing them within individuated sections. While these distinct plotlines are independently functional, it is the manner in which they intersect and coalesce that generates the film’s impact. A consistent use of crosscutting allows each of these narratives to unfold with internal linearity as parallels between the circumstances, characters, actions, and thematic issues are highlighted. This multithread framework allows each of the six parts to function as individual, yet essential, components of the whole, with the film’s totality deriving its significance from the interplay of the complementary layers of narrative.

Due to the necessity of the multithread structure dividing its focus, there is a sense of ambiguity concerning the typical signposts found in cinematic storytelling. Though each of the six plotlines has a clear protagonist, with equally visible antagonizing forces, the film as a whole offers no one central character or narrative. Thus, the protagonist and antagonist may be broadly described as one and the same: humanity. The dichotomous extremes of human belief and behavior, which may be boiled down to the cliché contrasts of good and evil, are manifested in different characters throughout different eras. This approach allows the primary characters to fulfill different roles during each reincarnation. Evil is typically embodied in the establishment or reigning power and the upholding of a depraved status quo, as seen with the institution of slavery in 1889, corporate corruption in 1973, and the system of fabricant labor in 2144. While some characters—such as the slave trader Haskell Moore, assassin Bill Smoke, abusive Nurse Noakes, and demon Old Georgie (all played by Hugo Weaving)—are consistently malevolent in every era, others—such as Tilda Ewing and Sonmi-451 (both played by Doona Bae), are benevolent in each era in which they appear. However, the narrative structure allows most of the characters to fluctuate in their moral dispositions in different incarnations, which not only highlights humanity’s capacity for both good and evil but also facilitates an extensive form of individual transformation and redemption throughout multiple lifetimes.

Image 2: The reincarnations of Tom Hanks

This multithread means of transformation and redemption is most visible in the character who begins as Dr. Henry Goose in the earliest narrative during 1889 and eventually becomes Zachry (both played by Tom Hanks) in 2321. While the character oscillates in his positioning along the spectrum of good and evil, embodying agents of both virtue and venality, such as scientist Isaac Sachs and the thug Dermot Hoggins, respectively, it is the bookends of his journey that conjure the character’s most significant metamorphosis. Dr. Goose is unmistakably aligned with the antagonizing powers of his storyline, demonstrating the depravities of humanity through his support of the “natural order” of slavery and murderous cruelty spurred on by his greed for individual wealth. He declares that “the weak are meat and the strong do eat” while attempting to murder Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) after slowly poisoning and stealing from him throughout the storyline. This identical line of dialogue is whispered to his later incarnation, Zachry, by the malicious demon, or hallucination, Old Georgie, who still haunts him over 400 years later.

The use of symbolic objects, such as Zachry’s green emerald necklace, which is identical to the button that Dr. Goose steals from Adam in the 1889 storyline, also reinforces the sentiment of continuation. Zachry can be seen playing with the emerald just before cowardly watching his brother-in-law Adam, who is not coincidentally the reincarnation of Adam Ewing, and nephew being slaughtered by Kona warriors. Here, the multithread structure is used to recycle key dialogue and objects to convey a sense of continuation between characters. These subtleties suggest that the residual essence of one’s previous lifetimes, such as the individualistic inclinations or guilt felt by Zachry from past actions, carry over into the future, which allows for a more dramatic redemption of the character once he finally overcomes his “demon.” This extended form of development through a continual process of reincarnation and sense of virtuous variability among the primary characters is a product of the multithread structure, which also utilizes its framework for thematic recurrence without reverting to overt repetition due to the diversity of the narratives’ extremely divergent settings and circumstances.

Image 3: Neo-Seoul

Throughout each of the six narratives, compassion and defiance under oppression surface as paramount motifs, as there are always agents of good who willingly risk themselves for others. As explicitly revealed in a voiceover that suggests our desire for survival often impedes our ability for courage, the film implies that humanity’s capacity for compassion is the remedy for the evils of individual greed. In 1889, Adam’s compassion leads him to befriend a runaway slave who later not only saves his life but also gives him the courage to denounce the institution of slavery. Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), in 1936, daringly defies his employer when his musical composition is threatened, ultimately giving his life to ensure the completion of his masterwork. Likewise, in 1973 Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), Napier (Keith David), and Isaac Sachs all suppress their survivalist instincts, resulting in death for some, compelled by their compassionate courage to uncover the truth of corporate corruption to save the lives of others. In 2012, as Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) and his fellow inmates attempt to break out of a nursing home, it is their decision to turn back and save Mr. Meeks (Robert Fyfe), which is purely motivated by compassion and jeopardizes their strategic getaway, that in turn allows them to escape when he incites a riot at a pub just before their capture. The 2144 narrative also employs a similar thematic structure, as Hae-Joo Cheng (Jim Sturgess) and other members of The Union sacrifice themselves in a defiant rebellion against the oppressive governing power of Unanimity in an attempt to liberate sentient fabricants from enslavement. Though each of these events consists of wildly dissimilar settings and stakes, the multithread structure permits their juxtaposition to reveal thematic commonalities in service of presenting the panoptic intentions of the whole.

The film utilizes its structural approach not only to create an extremely expansive overarching narrative that allows for a complex web of interconnection between different characters and eras, but also to reinforce the underlying themes of redemption, compassion, and defiance under oppression. Familiar settings and situations from the past, such as slavery and corporate corruption, are used to highlight real-world occurrences in which severe ethical injustices were overthrown through the triumph of individuals who neglected to endorse an immoral status quo. The fractured framework’s fluctuation of characters’ statuses as protagonizing and antagonizing forces suggests humanity’s capacity for both good and evil as a source of constant contention. The re-appropriation of similar themes and storytelling devices attribute a sense of infinite recurrence to this struggle between the vices and virtues that humanity endlessly produces. Thus, Cloud Atlas employs a multithread narrative structure to achieve a sense of scale and complex interplay between storylines, while also servicing its thematic messages of humanity in a manner that would be unattainable without the composite impact of its storytelling sextet.

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Author bio:

Michael D. Hollins is currently an MA student in the Cinema and Media Studies program at UCLA. He received his BA in Anthropology, Philosophy, and Film Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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