A Filmmaker's Guide to "Cloud Atlas" (2012)

by Annie Kapur 7 months ago in movie

The Concept of Time

A Filmmaker's Guide to "Cloud Atlas" (2012)

In honour of David Mitchell's birthday, we're going to take a look at the film "Cloud Atlas" (2012) - which was previously a book written by Mitchell who also wrote "The Bone Clocks" and "Slade House". Known for his psychological novels, "Cloud Atlas" seemed like the perfect book to adapt into a sci-fi/fantasy like movie, keeping the psychological essence of the passage of time very clear within the film. Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Ben Whishaw and many many more, this film has an ensemble that is possibly one of the best that fantasy film has ever seen.

From the directors who brought us "The Matrix" (1999), these two women worked damn hard to turn one of my personal favourite novels into a cinematic masterpiece. I can honestly say that it is one of the few films adapted from novels that I have actually said I can thoroughly enjoy. They both did an excellent job.

Today, we're going to have a look at the concept of time in "Cloud Atlas" (2012) and notice how time is basically felt by every single character, how it slows down and speeds up, the symbols that are used to represent it and the dialogue that is used to put it into context. All in all, we're investigating how effective it is to portray this to the audience.

There is no doubt that it is a cinematic experience and an absolute masterpiece. But, we need to see how effective to portrayal of time is in order to understand the main essence of what the movie is undoubtedly about.

The Concept of Time in "Cloud Atlas" (2012)

We are going to investigate three main depictions of time in the film. The first one we'll look at is set and historicity. This is when the set and characters change to suit a particular time whether that be past or future. We will then look at symbols and how different symbols of time contribute to the way the audience understands the film. Finally, we'll look at characters and the character perception of time, how characters manipulate time and what effect this has on the film.

1. Set and Historicity

In the times of when Cloud Atlas (2012) is set, the filmmakers would've needed to make clear two things: the first thing would be 'when' (as it is the most obvious and the second thing would be 'why' (which is slightly more complex). The 'when' is easy because you need to stick a bunch of people in period clothing and then you have a time period. But dealing with the 'why' means that you require to understand how the book plays out. The book plays out in sections. It goes from one time, all the way through history into the future and then, comes all the way back to the beginning again. This is a closed narrative in order to show us how the time period at the beginning could have an impact on something far into the future and then, come right back in on itself to show us the context of the situation that we dealt with at the beginning.

To help the audience to understand the 'why' there are various things placed within the scene that link up time periods and these are also present in the book. For example: the sea journal that Frobisher is reading is the one written by Adam and incomplete and so, this lets us understand that there is a certain amount of time that has passed between Adam's journal writing to Frobisher reading it because not only is the book considerably worse off in Frobisher's period, but the book would've had to get to land, halfway across the country and into Frobisher's hands. It would've taken a long while and so, for the audience, it puts the timescale into context.

2. Symbols

There are various symbols used to represent time throughout the film and one of them is the piece of music that is entitled "Cloud Atlas". It is written and composed by Robert Frobisher and is almost stolen from him by the horrid aristocrat musician, Vyvyan Ayrs. The symbol itself is used throughout the film to link characters together and make loose ends tie up between who is actually someone else (for example: Luisa Rey is just another life of Robert Frobisher).

Another symbol the depict time is the sea. The sea, being everlasting as it is, depicts the nature of time in this film as being constant. This film works of the fact that everything is happening in a certain moment and everything, even the smallest detail by someone far away, can change the decision made by someone thousands of years later for whatever reason. There is a massive theme around how this impacts the challenges faced in the film and how each and every character makes a decision based on a decision from beforehand.

For example: Frobisher decides to kill Vyvyan Ayrs because Ayrs is looking to steal the composition rights to the "Cloud Atlas". Now that Frobisher has killed Ayrs, he cannot return to his boyfriend, Sixsmith, and so, runs away to an apartment to climb into a bathtub and shoot himself in the head. It is only because of the letter that Sixsmith was able to get to the apartment at the same time, but it was too late and Sixsmith is actually in the building when the shot goes off.

When Sixsmith meets Luisa Rey, Rey immediately recognises him though he is much, much older and she doesn't know why. The fact that Rey exists means that Frobisher would've had to die since Rey is basically Frobisher in another life. That's why she's heard the music piece before. Yeah, I know - complicated but makes sense.

It's also why Rey is there when Sixsmith dies. It completes the cycles of Frobisher and Sixsmith - a romantic relationship that was never completed. Throughout all of this, Frobisher only got to finish half of the sea journal written by Adam. Thus, it is the sea journal itself that represents the incompletion of Frobisher's relationship with Sixsmith. It is because Adam went to sea that he wrote the journal and because of the passage of that time it has been destroyed and comes into the hands of Robert Frobisher. It changes his nature forever because a half-read book is like a half-finished love affair.

And that's the case of symbols. If you'd like to investigate how more symbols depict different aspects of time check these out:

- Letters

- Night

- The Cosmos

- Nature

3: Characters

How the characters perceive time is very important because it is this that is projected on to the audience in some way, shape or form. If you watch the film, pay very close attention to the speed at which Frobisher kills Vyvyan Ayrs compared to the China Dream scene, they are two entirely different perceptions of time. Does this mean that time is moving differently? No, it means that the character is experiencing time differently. The China Dream scene is what it is, it is a dream. As it is a dream, the character would like to drag it out for as long as possible, which explains why the scene is shot in slow motion. But, in real life - many of the characters work in a fast-paced environment, hardly being able to slow down.

This is a concept also reflected in Frobisher's suicide. Now this isn't a dream but it is dragged out for a very long time. We have the two different aspects of time and the passage of time. Sixsmith's perception of time is very fast. He is trying to get to Frobisher in order to be with him and he is in high anticipation of what Frobisher will do now that he's killed Ayrs. But, for Frobisher, time is moving very slowly because he is not anticipating anything. He has already decided to kill himself and so, he doesn't move around as quickly (and you can see this when they are up on the roof but Sixsmith doesn't see Frobisher) - he is light and airy almost tired. Sixsmith, when on the roof, is very jittery in his movements, looking around searching for Frobisher. But Frobisher has a last cigarette, peers at Sixsmith, not letting him relinquish in pain after Frobisher himself is gone. It's possibly one of the most beautiful scenes in the film and a brilliant example of the passage of time.


There we have it. A good little starter analysis of "Cloud Atlas" (2012). As one of my favourite movies of all time, I would be so happy if I could see you studying and analysing the film in your own way. The concept of time is one of the biggest ideas portrayed by the film and is always the best thing to refer back to when it comes to understanding the relations between characters. I hope you've enjoyed this study of the film and I also hope to see you again soon!

"I believe there is another world waiting for us, Sixsmith. A better world. And I'll be waiting for you there." - Robert Frobisher, Cloud Atlas (2012)

Annie Kapur
Annie Kapur
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Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

Writer: "Filmmaker's Guide"

Focus in Film: Adaptation from Literature, Horror Filmmaking Styles and Auter Cinema

Focus in Writing: Ancient, Renaissance, Romanticist, Modernist and Translated Writing

See all posts by Annie Kapur