Thursday, September 18, 2014

From the Archive: Cloud Atlas (2012)

All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention, if only can first conceive of doing so.”

-          Cloud Atlas (2012)

The 2012 Wachowski/Tom Tykwer science fiction film Cloud Atlas is a sprawling, three hour epic, and a dedicated adaptation of David Mitchell’s award-winning novel of the same name, first published in 2004.   The novel tells six stories (or a sextet, if you prefer), set in six different time periods, ranging from centuries ago to centuries in the future.   

It is necessary to describe these six stories briefly, so you have a full sense of them, before I continue to review the film.

“We cross and re-cross our old paths like figure-skaters.”

First, there’s “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” set in the South Pacific in 1849. Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is the son-in-law of a slave-trader (Hugo Weaving).  Adam falls grievously ill on his return home to England, but is deliberately made sicker by a con-man, Dr. Goose (Tom Hanks), who wishes to steal his wealth.  Fortunately, Adam has befriended a black slave and stowaway on the ship, one who is grateful for Adam’s kindnesses, and comes to watch over him.

The second story, “Letters from Frobisher” is set in 1936 Scotland, and involves a brilliant young musician, Frobisher (Ben Whislaw) who creates a sextet called the Cloud Atlas while mentoring with one of the world’s greatest composers, Vyvian Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). When Ayrs recognizes his talent, however, he uses Frobisher’s homosexuality to extort him and imprisons the young man in his home until he hands over the Cloud Atlas.  Frobisher’s lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) tries to save Frobisher, but fate rips them apart.

The third tale, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is set in San Francisco in 1973, and features a dedicated reporter, Luisa (Halle Berry) who learns a dangerous secret about a nuclear plant that will soon go into operation.  She attempts to report the truth, but the head of the plant, Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant) orders her assassinated.

The fourth tale is “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.” Set in London in 2012, this tale finds a fly-by-night book agent Cavendish (Broadbent) unexpectedly incarcerated at a diabolical nursing home.  With the other exploited old folks in the home, Cavendish engineers an escape from custody, and sells the movie rights to his story.

The fifth story, “An Orison of Somni-451” is set in New Seoul in 2144 AD, as old Seoul succumbs to the ravages of global warming. There, a female “fabricant,” Somni-451 (Doona Bae) regularly endures slavery and exploitation but nonetheless honors the First Catechism: “Honor They Consumer.”  Soon, she experiences an awakening about the fabricants’ plight, and the connections between human beings.  She conveys these thoughts to the world at large after being rescued by the people’s union.  Through this orison or prayer on viral video, Somni, in later generations is worshiped as a prophet.

In Cloud Atlas’s sixth and final story, set in the post-apocalyptic Hawaii of 2346 AD, a grizzled old storyteller, Zachry (Hanks) recounts by campfire the tale of how his tribe ended up in a new home, starting a new life.  His story involves a gang of fearsome cannibals called the Kona (led by Hugh Grant in terrifying war-paint…) and his fateful decision to help a “prescient,” Meronym (Berry) on a long and dangerous trek to a mountain summit.  There, she believes, an answer regarding mankind’s future may exist.  But Zachry’s got a devil on his back, one insistent on causing Meronym’s mission to fail…

“Fear, belief, love…phenomena that determined the course of our lives. These forces begin long before we are born and continue after we perish…”

The movie version of Cloud Atlas adapts all six stories highlighted in the book, but takes the unusual step of doing so -- as the descriptions above indicate -- with the same eight or ten actors appearing in all segments, namely Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Jim D’Arcy, and Jim Sturgess. 

Now, just to be crystal clear, these actors are not playing the same character in each story; but rather entirely different individuals, a fact made abundantly plain by the creative and jaw-dropping make-up effects featured on-screen. 

So Halle Berry plays both a black woman of the year 2346 and a white, Jewish woman of the year 1936.

Likewise, Tom Hanks plays a murderous English thug for the story set in 2012, a movie star in the year 2144 AD, and the post-apocalyptic story-teller, Zachry, in the post-apocalyptic finale.

The question regarding this particular approach is: why

Why vet these six very different stories in such a way that the same repertory actors perform all the parts? 

The answer ultimately comes down to the film’s application of Buddhist philosophy, or what the dialogue terms “Eternal Recurrence.” 

Buddhists will immediately recognize this concept as something akin to the Samsara, which Wikipedia describes thusly: “

“…Samsara is defined as the continual repetitive cycle of birth and death that arises from ordinary beings' grasping and fixating on a self and experiences. Specifically, samsara refers to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another within the six realms of existence, where each realm can be understood as a physical realm or a psychological state characterized by a particular type of suffering. Samsara arises out of avidya (ignorance) and is characterized by dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dis-satisfaction). In the Buddhist view, liberation from samsara is possible by following the Buddhist path.”

You may notice something important encoded in that definition above.  The Samsara is said to have six realms of existence, and Cloud Atlas likewise consists of six story-lines set in six time periods.

Thus the movie’s epic tapestry serves as a deliberate re-creation of the Samsara, and the actors each portray multiple individuals or characters.  But the argument could be made, I suppose that they are playing…only one soul moving through the six realms, from past to future (and in one fascinating case of prescience, future to past…).

This fact means that the Tom Hanks character in the first, third and sixth story are different people/individuals but are perhaps the same soul, experiencing avidya and dukkha in a different state of existence, or level of the Samsara. 

Another way to describe Cloud Atlas’s thematic conceit: each main character in the film is re-born into one of the six realms and based on his “kindnesses” or “crimes” writes his soul’s very future going forward.

Again, what’s the benefit of structuring the story this way?  Well, the directors are more easily able to examine the ripple effects of moral or immoral decision-making over a long period of time or history, for one thing.

For instance, the soul portrayed by Jim Broadbent in the tale set in 1936 Scotland does something terrible to another person and his soul eventually suffers for it.  Specifically, Vyvian Ayrs, a famous composer, imprisons Frobisher -- a young man of great talent -- in an attempt to steal his work. 

But then, in the 2012 story, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” the same soul (for which actor Broadbent is the visual avatar) receives his karmic comeuppance: Cavendish is imprisoned in a nursing home of the damned. 

His soul’s evil acts in 1936 were paid forward to the next realm of the Samsara and thus the next iteration of his soul, Timothy, suffers grievously.  And the manner of the punishment is equal to the crime.  The soul goes from victimizer to victim, from jailer to jailed.

In one life: a jailer and exploiter.

In the next life: jailed and exploited.
Similarly, the soul symbolized by Hugh Grant undergoes his karmic comeuppance across two stories and two epochs.  As Lloyd Hooks, a nuclear plant manager in 1973, this soul willfully plans to murder thousands of people in a meltdown…all because he is being paid by the oil industry to sow mistrust of nuclear power. 

By the time this corrupt soul reaches 2346 Hawaii, however, he is a half savage beast and a cannibal, the Kona Chief.  His actions in life have made his journey through the Samsara all the more horrible.  By his sixth go-round he has not evolved or transcended, but actually devolved into something barely human, something very nearly animal.

In one life a killer by proxy.

In the next, a killer by hand...and teeth.
To fully understand and appreciate Cloud Atlas it is necessary to understand the Buddhist underpinnings, the concept of Samsara (or “eternal recurrence” in the film’s lingo), and even karma.  The viewer must realize he or she is witnessing the march of souls from 1849 to 2346 and that each stop or each story along the way is an opportunity for those souls to deliver kindnesses to others and evolve to the next step, or deliver a crime, and continue in a realm of suffering going forward.

As you are no doubt tired of reading here on the blog, my highest aesthetic or critical criterion is that form must echo content in film, and that visuals must reflect the story. 

Cloud Atlas is so brilliant and worthwhile a science fiction initiative, I submit, because it asks us -- through its casting and re-casting of the same actors as souls in various incarnations -- to understand one possible aspect or force of universal, constant human existence. 

Perhaps the there is no sphere of the afterlife at all.  Perhaps our souls ride the wheel of the Samsara, hopefully achieving wisdom as that wheel turns.  And what we do here, now, affects where our soul lands when we return to this plane of existence.

Had different actors played all the important parts in Cloud Atlas, viewers would have no visual signifiers by which to recognize the same soul in different stories and different eras, and therefore we’d be unable to track their moral progress on the Samsara, in the “eternal recurrence” of human life. 

The film thus suggests, by casting the same actor as different individuals over a long span of time, that our lives stretch beyond this moment of now.  They go on.  The flesh is mortal, but the soul is not.  We keep repeating the same mistakes, surrounded by the same souls, until we learn to change our behaviors, or until we reach the outcome we desire and need.

None of this philosophy would be evident, however, without Cloud Atlas’s complex structure.  The film reflexively notes its own complexity in an early voice-over narration by Cavendish (Broadbent): “While my extensive experience as an editor has led me to disdain for flashbacks and flash forwards and all such tricksy gimmicks, I believe that if you, dear reader, can extend your patience for just a moment, you will find that there is a method to this tale of madness.”

That line of dialogue -- that explicit request for patience and understanding -- is at the heart of Cloud Atlas’s ambitious strategy to chart the full human experience.  Since “we’re all connected,” the film requires the audience to engage with its creative strategy.  This task of engagement and attention is richly rewarded however.  Audiences that meet the film half-way will feel part of a process of discovery…and then experience joy and awe as that discovery unfolds, and layer after layer of meaning blossoms.

“I knew someone who had a birthmark similar to that…”

Much of the challenge and joy that arises from an engaged viewing of Cloud Atlas involves noting and cataloging the little touches or grace notes that connect souls from one story (or level of the Samsara) to the next. 

For instance, a comet-shaped birth mark appears on one character in each of the six tales, and then the film ends with a shooting star -- a comet of sorts -- as its valedictory composition.  Is this comet-shaped birth mark ticking off the levels of the Samsara, ending with a valediction in the cosmos, in Eternity itself?  Is it a signifier of the same soul, moving through various levels of the Samsara?  Again, the film opens itself to various stimulating and challenging interpretations.

Similarly, a jeweled button that appears in “The Pacific Journal of Patrick Ewing” re-appears again and again throughout history (or the future), owned by different individuals.

And all six levels of the Samsara are connected by a work of art featured prominently in the previous level of existence.

Frobisher in Story #2 reads Ewing’s diary from Story #1 

Luisa Rey in Story #3 listens to Frobisher’s musical composition, Cloud Atlas, from Story #2, and so on. 

Not only does music play a crucial role in the film, but a movie version of Cavendish’s tale appears in the fifth story, and a viral video from the fifth story plays a role in the sixth and final vignette. 

In toto, therefore, Cloud Atlas seems to note that art -- whether literature, music, film, or even a web video -- is the thing ties humans together on the Samsara from one life or level to the next. 

In other words, our art is as immortal as we are, and it carries our stories and histories into the unbound future. 

We can learn from that art if we heed it, and we ignore it at our own peril. This notion of art outliving individuals and proving of great value to future generations is transmitted beautifully in a line of dialogue: “My life extends far beyond the limits of me.” 

That extension of life may be in the soul itself, or it may be in the thoughts transcribed in a book, or the musical notes of a composition. It may be in a movie that speaks to the future, though it was made in the past.

What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?

The interconnections between the six stories in the film stretch even further. In all six tales featured in Cloud Atlas, a crime is committed based on craven selfishness and thirst for power.  This selfishness or power-thirst is tellingly described in at least three different stories as being part and parcel of “The Natural Order.”  

The Natural Order permits for the slave-trader, Haskell, to do his exploitative work. 

The Natural Order permits for the murder of whistle-blowers and the furtherance of avaricious corporate goals in 1973 San Francisco.

The Natural Order allows the State to abuse and cannibalize its Fabricants in New Seoul, and so forth (a fact foretold, uniquely, by a joke about Soylent Green [1973] in the previous story, set in 2012).  

Virtually every conflict in every story featured in Cloud Atlas lands a pair of soul-mates up against proponents of some Natural Order.  And the Natural Order always seems to possess the superior hand.

As Haskell, the slave trader notes in the first story: “There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. This movement will never survive; if you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you will exist a pariah to be spat at and beaten-at worst, to be lynched or crucified. And for what? For what? No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.

This plot-line represents the film’s embedded social critique of “Natural Order” and the so-called “Natural Order’s” vehicle on this mortal coil: anarcho-capitalism for lack of a better term.

An out-of-control and merciless capitalist buys and sells human flesh in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” 

The importance of status -- or “reputation” -- in a capitalist class-system is what drives blackmail and exploitation in “Letters from Frobisher.” 

The desire to control energy resources (at the height of the Energy Crisis in 1973, no less) is what drives Lloyd Hooks to contemplate the murder of thousands of innocent people in “Half-Lives…” 

Timothy Cavenish ends up at the nursing home while running away from a $60,000 dollar debt in “Ordeal.” 

The economic system of New Seoul mass produces people to be slaves to hedonist  “consumers,” and then cannibalizes those man-made people when they can no longer work, in “An Orison of Sonmi-451.”

And finally, the battle to control food and other resources dominates the final story, with the Kona Clan operating as the ultimate corporate raiders/cannibals. 

More than once in the film, we hear the mantra of Natural Order spoken aloud, and with hungry salaciousness: “The weak are meat, and the strong must eat.’

The point to all this is simply that when the goal of humanity is to control power or own supreme wealth rather than better oneself (and find true love…), crimes are born instead of kindnesses…and karma’s a bitch. 

In at least three of the stories (“Letters from Frobisher,” “Half-Lives” and “Orison…”) the meeting of souls together in true love is brutally curtailed by the forces of the so-called “Natural Order.”  In other stories, however (Ewing’s, Cavendish’s and Zachry’s), true love is victorious over the Natural Order because kindnesses, not crimes, carry the day.

Soul-mates threatened by the "natural order."

The same soul-mates, in another place and time.
The answer to the question posed by one character in the film – “why do we keep making the same mistakes?” – is simply that Natural Order, aligned with the levers of power, often seizes the day over the better angels of man’s nature.  But it’s a constant battle, and for that reason, our souls “cross and re-cross our own/old paths,” trying to achieve justice…and happiness.

“This world spins from the same unseen forces that twist our hearts…”

In the second story, Frobisher composes “The Cloud Atlas,” a sextet, and from this work the film derives its title and its structure. 

But today, I gaze at a science fiction film of such scope, ambition, and convention-shattering that I can’t help but think of “cloud” computing too.  With cloud computing, a program can run on multiple computers at the same time, networked together. 

That technological term therefore seems like a good analogy for our “interconnected” souls.  We’re all here on this planet together, right now, and according to Cloud Atlasthe gulf between us” is but an “illusion.”  In how we treat each other, we create a map -- or atlas -- a network of bonds, of loves and hates, stretching outward and into the future, and reverberating through the very corridors of existence.

In the end, like Frobisher suggests, perhaps we all become, art or music. 

And if that is the case, wouldn’t you rather your eternal song be one of harmony, not dissonance? 


  1. Thanks for the thorough review, John. I thought 'Cloud Atlas' looked like a Lifetime movie with A-list actors, and your review confirms that it is now officially as boring as it looks. I will stay far away from this one.

    1. Hi Trent. Well, I've done the film a grave disservice if I have indicated in any way, shape or form that it is dull or boring! I'm sorry! I consider it a genre masterpiece.

  2. Anonymous10:15 AM

    Cloud Atlas is an interesting film to me in that it IS such a dedicated adaptation of the book--and yet, everyone I know who has watched the film but hasn't read the book comes away unsatisfied, whereas those who have seen the film and watched the book thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Thankfully I had read the novel before sitting down to watch the film. My wife, however...not so much.

    Great review!

  3. Sax Man 691:09 PM

    Thanks for a characteristically thoughtful look at Cloud Atlas. I love this movie. I think that Roger Ebert was right when he wrote that Cloud Atlas is not merely the best film of the year, but the best film of the last decade. It is a wonderful exploration and dramatization of many Zen ideas. It stands up to repeat viewings.

  4. Dissonance and harmony are not opposites. Dissonance is a variety of harmony. The "opposite" of dissonance is consonance. (Of course the way you used the terms is common and I knew what you meant:-)

  5. Cloud Atlas, I cannot decide does it was great movie or ok. It is great cast and also acting but sometimes it was missing something.

  6. wonderful review, it makes me happy how much you understood the movie. Every time I rewatch Cloud Atlas I understand something else, but your review helps me to see beyond. With luck, every time I watch a new movie I will analyze better. I'm very receptive, so I don't tend to watch movies with preconceptions and I always understand the more metaphorical aspects of the movies later, not while I'm watching it. I enjoy the journey, but Cloud Atlas made me come up with really good reflections even while watching it for the first time in the theater. It blowed me away, totally, and after 4 years I still get surprised by the themes I see in the movie. I've... watched it like... 4 times since 2012? Yes, I think 4 times, and the first time I was like "I really liked this movie, such a surprise, it made me squeeze my brain and that's always welcomed". The second time I was like "OK, this is different, this is quality. And the music is nicer than I thought" and now I'm like "Holy shit, this is a masterpiece, and not only that, this affected me at a soul and brainy level and that's awesome because that hasn't happened to me before, which is a lot because I've seen movies that have become a big part of how I think about life (Amelie, American Beauty, Angels of Sex, Tada kimi wa aishiteru), and the music... shit, the music is like making love with Nature"
    so, that...


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