Sometimes the key to one movie might be suggested by another. We know that the title refers to the first drawings of the shapes and behavior of clouds. Not long ago I saw a Swedish film, “Simon and the Oaks”, about a dreamy boy who bonded with an oak tree. In his limbs, he would lie while reading fantasy books, then let his eyes fall on the clouds above his head. As he read a book about desert wanderers, the clouds seemed to take the form of a ghostly caravan of camels in procession in the sky.
I have never, ever been bothered by “Cloud Atlas”. On my second viewing, I gave up on any attempt to make the logical connections between the segments, stories, and characters. What was important was to let my mind free to play. The clouds don’t really look like camels or sailboats or castles in the sky. They are just a natural process at work. Our lives too, perhaps. Because we have spirits and not clouds, we desire freedom. This is the form the characters in “Cloud Atlas” take and how they try to direct our thoughts. Any concrete, factual attempt to nail the movie to a cold fact, to tell you what that “means” is as pointless as trying to build a clockwork orange.
But, oh, what a movie this is! And what a demonstration of the magic and dreamlike qualities of cinema. And what an opportunity for the actors. And what a leap from the directors, who free themselves from the chains of narrative continuity. And then the wisdom of the old man looking into the flames makes perfect sense.