Saturday, September 20, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "Big Thirty and Little Wimble"

In “Big Thirty and Little Wimble,” BraveStarr and Thirty-Thirty intercept a gang of coyote-like bandits who have threatened the Judge McBride and her father, Angus.

Afterwards, Thirty-Thirty is tasked with caring for a young prairie person, Wimble. 

When the school bus gets trapped in the desert on a trip, Wimble is able to help the class out. Meanwhile, BraveStarr and Thirty-Thirty clash over parenting techniques.

“Big Thirty and Little Wimble” is another pedestrian, but inoffensive outing for BraveStarr, the Filmation series from the late 1980s. The narrative involves alien bandits that resemble coyotes, and 30-30’s attempt to be a foster parent for an orphan. BraveStarr and 30-30 don’t see eye-to-eye about raising the child, and the post-script involves the idea that “sometimes disagreeing with friends” is how you get to know one another. 

If friends can’t argue a little,” notes BraveStarr, “they’re not real friends.”

Like an earlier episode, “Brother’s Keeper,” “Big Thirty and Little Wimble” eyes gun use warily, noting that such dangerous weapons should only “be used as a last resort.”  It’s nice to see this smart idea expressed, rather than an unthinking glorification of guns, or a might-makes-right argument.

In terms of series continuity, we get our second peek at Fort Kerium’s school kids this week, and also a flashback revealing how BraveStarr lost a friend in childhood, because they saw the world differently.

Next episode: “BraveStarr and the Medallion.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Godzilla: (1978) "The Horror of Forgotten Island"

In “The Horror of Forgotten Island,” the Calico passes through an ancient force field during the approach of a comet that passes Earth only once every nine hundred years.  On the far side of the force field the crew finds an island guarded by a giant Cyclops.

While investigating, Quinn, Brock and the others learn that aliens visited the island and encountered the monster there generations ago, and erected the force field to keep it isolated from the rest of the planet.

Now the Calico crew needs Godzilla’s help to defeat or trap the Cyclops, and put the genie back in the bottle.

“The Horror of Forgotten Island’ is a little less successful than the previous episode (“Colossus of Atlantis”), but gets by with some nice, unexpected tension in the final act. 

In short, the Calico and Godzilla must trap the Cyclops inside a force-field, but simultaneously escape that very force field.

This task is complicated by the fact that the Cyclops can turn itself invisible at will.  At one point, it looks like Godzilla and the Calico are home-free, evacuating the island, when the monster shows up just in time (with three minutes to go…) to cause grief for Godzilla.

Godzilla tosses the monster back to land (a great coup de grace) and then high-tails it to sea, just in time to escape being trapped forever (or at least another 900 years) by the force field.  It’s funny to state that a kid’s cartoon is suspenseful, especially since some part of you knows that Godzilla can’t get trapped (because the series end…).  Yet buttressed by the ticking clock countdown, and the climactic final battle, the episode manages to be pretty exciting.

The only disappointment may be the monster here, which looks goofy rather than legitimately threatening.  The creature is a giant Cyclops with buck teeth and crab pincers, and it has a kind of dopey countenance. You don’t want it to escape the island prison, but it’s also kind of sad that the pitiable monster gets trapped on that island all alone for the rest of its life.

Next episode (in two weeks): “Island of Lost Ships”

Friday, September 19, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Code 46 (2003)

"If we had enough information, we could predict the consequences of our actions. Would you want to know? If you kissed that girl, if you talked to that man, if you take that job, or marry that woman, or steal that papelle? If we knew what would happen in the end, would we ever be able to take the first step, to make the first move?"

- Code 46 (2003)

If you subtract the  futuristic and dystopian details from Michael Winterbottom's spell-binding Code 46 (2003), what emerges is a relatively simple and straight-forward tale of doomed, irrational love. 

In other words, this sci-fi movie concerns an adage from an old Woody Allen film: the heart wants what the heart wants.  Even if what the heart desires isn't really wise, legal, or necessarily right.

Once you layer on the film's impressive futuristic details however, Code 46  emerges as something of tremendous import and note.  It's a frightening and deeply saddening glimpse of technology run amok and genetic control ruthlessly imposed by a seemingly-invisible but all-powerful State. There are echoes and resonances of Gattaca (1997) here, but Code 46's focus is not on personal achievement and widespread genetic "racism," but rather on a single star-crossed couple who -- inexorably and unintentionally -- flout the prevailing laws. They feel they have no choice. They are in the grip of a force not of their conscious choosing.

Coupled with a mesmerizing, trance-like score and an informal cinema verite shooting-style, Code 46 masterfully conveys a real sense of place and time; even though the film's futuristic venue doesn't exist in the real world.  It's a staggering achievement on Winterbottom's part, and Code 46 thrives not as an action film or even as a thriller, but as an unforgettable mood piece. Even if precise details of the plot are occasionally opaque or baffling, images and feelings from the film nonetheless linger and echo long after a viewing. 

After experiencing Code 46, you will authentically feel as if you've spent ninety-five minutes in another world. Or, as film critic Paul Byrnes insightfully reported in his review of the film: "It's a bleak future, but not a bleak film. Winterbottom has an uncanny ability to create beautiful, hypnotic sequences, using contemporary music. His films have a seductive modernism, but without losing focus on character and idea. Other directors raised on MTV use music to paper the cracks; Winterbottom uses it to get inside the cracks."

Does an empathy virus work long distance?

In the intriguing world of Code 46, genetics are rigorously policed, perhaps as a result of widespread infertility or sterility in the recent past. 

As the film's opening card relates: "due to IV, DI embryo splitting and cloning techniques, it is necessary to prevent any accidental or deliberate genetically incestuous reproduction." 

If genetically incestuous reproduction does occur, it is termed a Code 46 violation. If genetically incestuous reproduction occurs intentionally, it is a criminal violation of Code 46, and duly punished.

The future imagined by Code 46 is also one of huge class differences. Cities are over-populated (except in the "unhealthy" heat of broad daylight), highly affluent, and termed "Inside."  Beyond the borders of the colossal cities -- "Outside" --  denizens live in abject poverty, environmental desolation and technological primitivism. Because of the draconian genetic regulations, freedom of travel is a luxury of the past. 

To make passage from one from city to another, from Inside to Outside and vice-versa, travelers must carry genetic passports termed "cover," or "papelles." These electronic "papers" -- genetic driver's licenses, essentially -- must be presented before any egress. "Cover" is also severely time-limited.  If your cover i.d. expires while you are still in a foreign land, you have no way to get home.

As Code 46 commences, a fraud investigator, William Geld (Tim Robbins) is sent to Shanghai to investigate a problem inside the massive Sphinx Insurance Company. 

Someone inside the company is falsifying cover papelles for undesirable genetic elements, thus permitting them to travel freely in restricted zones. In order to help him ferret out the saboteur, Geld has been injected by his employers with an "empathy virus" that allows him to intuit the traits of those people he interviews, provided they freely share with him one detail of their lives.

After a series of one-on-one interviews, Geld determines that Maria (Samantha Morton) is the source of the falsified or forged papers. However, instead of arresting her, the married Geld makes a leap.  He pursues a romantic and sexual relationship with Maria. The next day, while still "covered," he leaves Shanghai.  

Back home in Seattle with his wife and young son, Geld still seems obsessed with Maria. When he is summoned back to Shanghai on a new development in his investigation (the death of a man with falsified papers...), he attempts to find Maria again. William discovers that she has been taken to a state clinic for a Code 46 violation. Specifically, she was pregnant with Geld's child. Now, the pregnancy has been "terminated" by the State. Also, Maria's memories of the sex act and her lover have been surgically-removed.

Although he knows he is courting danger, Geld remains in Shanghai as his cover papelle expires, and shares with Maria memories of their lost relationship. Geld also goes to a DNA expert and learns that he and Maria indeed share genetic history. Specifically, Maria is fifty-percent genetically related to him, a "biological clone" of his own mother, who was one of a "set of 24 in-vitro fertilized clones." 

Legally, they cannot "liaise"

Despite his knowledge of this fact, Geld still pursues a romantic relationship.  On forged cover, Maria and Geld flee to the "Outside" and to Jebel Ali, in Dubai. There, Geld learns that Maria has been implanted with a virus that reacts negatively to his...sexual presence. Still in love with him, Maria demands William strap her to the bed and make love to her.  He complies. 

But afterwards, still possessed of the virus, Maria reports to local authorities a Code 46 violation. 

The couple attempts to outrun the State in a hastily-purchased car...

You know what they say, "the Sphinx knows best."

In some ways -- and as has been duly noted in other reviews -- Code 46 plays like a high-tech variation and meditation on Sophocles' play, Oedipus Rex (429 BC).  

In both tales a man unknowingly falls in love with his own mother (or a genetic duplicate of his own mother, at least), and personal disaster and destruction ensue The Oedipus Complex is known in psychological circles as a male child's unconscious desire for the (sexual) love of his mother, of course, and Sophocles' famous work also gazes explicitly at the conundrum of fate versus free will. In pursuing his free will, Oedipus meets his unpleasant destiny.

This idea is resurrected, updated and tweaked in Code 46. William Geld is involved in an unacceptable form of love by legal, societal standards (as was the case with the King of Thebes), but in his case, the laws of the state actually seem to compel this behavior, at least to a certain extent. 

Society as depicted in the film creates the very technological conditions under which William can encounter a genetic duplicate, essentially, of his mother. And then society punishes him for his "illegal" response to Maria. Yet, importantly, Geld is in no position to deny his Oedipal feelings, his destiny, either. The "empathy virus" he has been injected with only augments his feelings for others, thereby assuring that he will step outside of bounds of legality with Maria.

As for Maria, she describes early in the film a dream she experiences every year on her birthday. In that dream, she gets closer and closer to finding her "destiny." She first meets William Geld on her birthday, and when she experiences the prophetic dream again, she sees him waiting for her. He is her destiny. Since she believes this, and William is "empathetic" (thanks to the virus), he cannot help but believe it as well.  He is a sense, under her romantic influence.

And Maria? She is a biological clone of William's mother. Does this mean that her subconscious vision of William as her destiny actually symbolizes her genetic desire for an offspring, a child?  The movie never suggests that explicitly, but it certainly seems a possibility. Maria receives one signal, but misinterprets her destiny. William is not supposed to be her lover, perhaps, but her child. A biological clone of another being, her circuits seem crossed.

Even the so-called "riddle of the Sphinx" is adapted in Code 46. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus must solve the riddle of the Sphinx, a query which has perpetually vexed travelers outside Thebes. In Code 46, the mysterious Sphinx -- the monolithic insurance company -- permits and denies travelers egress for reasons all its own. The corporation's decision-making process remains completely hidden from the actual travelers.  As viewers, we don't discern the Sphinx's higher purpose, except control.

In both Oedipus and Code 46, the man who has broken the law -- William or the King -- must pay for their crimes. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and becomes a wandering wretch. In Code 46, William Geld has his memories of Maria expunged from his mind and lives up to his name, "Geld."  To Geld is to castrate, and here William Geld is emotionally castrated; denied the knowledge of what he once felt (rightly or wrongly) was his destiny.

In substituting a company (Sphinx) for an instrument of the divine (the Sphinx of Greek mythology), Code 46 suggests that in a high-tech future both fate and free will shall be supplanted by the iron will of the State. 

And again, there's a kind of hypocrisy embedded in the State's will. The very world that it creates ultimately is responsible for encouraging and discouraging William and Maria's love. The State is a fickle deity. The couple would never have met without the genetic laws, never have fallen for each other without the "empathy virus" and then never have been torn asunder without the widespread prosecution of Code 46 violations. Maria and William are thus screwed six ways to Sunday, if you'll pardon my French.  Their love and loss is unimportant to the Order of Things as legislated.

William survives the affair well enough, after a fashion. But for Maria, it's quite a different story.  The end of the film features a canny montage of cross-cuts to suggest this. 

In one set of images, we see William returning home to his well-dressed, perfectly-coiffed wife in Seattle. He is greeted by his gorgeous spouse and young son, and then returned to his affluent home.

These images are inter-cut with visions of Maria alone, in Dubai, wandering in solitude and poverty. Her final words, uttered in voice-over -- "I miss you" -- are ones that William will never hear. In fact, he has no awareness or memory of Maria at all.Their love affair is erased, deleted except in her solitary memory.

And lastly, there's one final connection to Oedipus here. In Sophocles' work, Oedipus realized what he had done, and took steps to punish himself.  He rendered himself blind, and then made himself an outcast. In Code 46 -- after a second instance of illegal sexual intercourse with Maria -- William knowingly permits his lover to notify the authorities. He watches her make the telephone call, and does nothing to prevent her or stop her. 

This is by far a more passive response than Oedipus's, but it is William's tacit acknowledgment that he has committed a wrong, and that it must be corrected.  Yet -- in some cowardly way -- the burden of pain falls not on William (as it did on Oedipus) but on Maria instead. William blithely returns to his happy life, never knowing what he has lost while Maria forever bears the scars of their brief but passionate relationship. 

In this fashion, I submit, Code 46 also concerns a globalized society in which the rich make the rules and benefit from those rules, while the poor get shafted. 

William had an illicit dalliance, but was welcomed back into the loving embrace of his wife (and we see them make love after his return). He carries not even the burden of a guilty conscience for his illegal behavior. In this world, love apparently means you don't have to remember to say you're sorry.

Instead, Maria takes it on the chin, alone. Outside, and grief-stricken. She wonders, mournfully about the man she has lost, harking back to her own memory loss.

"Can you miss someone you don't remember? Can one moment or experience ever disappear completely, or does it always exist somewhere, waiting to be discovered?"

We all have problems, William. How we deal with them is a measure of our worth.

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Code 46 is an eminently powerful mood piece, and all the details add up to a believable future world as backdrop to the haunting, conflicted love story. 

In this case, one of those backdrop details involves the "globalized" society I just noted. Although the world-spanning State (a one world government?) regulates genetics, it has apparently also paved the way for the assimilation of all known languages and cultures, and therefore also the destruction of small, local, individual worlds (at least on the "Inside.") 

Specifically, all the characters in the film speak a hodgepodge of English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Farsi. There are no borders anymore, as the State (apparently a Corporate State) has smashed all of them. 

To support the idea of this rampant "globalization" and wanton intermingling of cultures, Winterbottom even intermingles our very sense of geography in the film. Outside metropolitan Shanghai, for instance, is a vast, empty desert. And Seattle looks roughly the same as Hong Kong does, or any other over-populated urban center. 

And in every city, gigantic interior structures seem to wind around on themselves, technological behemoths with no end and no beginning.The idea here is that technology and business "globalization" have dwarfed individuality the world around. By shooting in real-life locations all over the world and mixing and matching locales freely, Winterbottom presents a vision of global sameness on an inhuman (and inhumane) scale.

What's so beautiful about Code 46's presentation, however, is that Winterbottom does not approach this inhuman world with sterility or even, actually, cinematic formality. On the contrary, through informal editing and shooting techniques (jump cuts, blurred focus, point-of-view perspective shots, and more), he enhances the sense of a real place, of bustling Shanghai at nightfall, for example. 

Desson Thomson, writing in The Washington Post rightly observed: "The movie's atmospherics -- the grainy-hazy images, a blighted world, the zoned-out luminosity of Morton's face -- give "Code 46" an impact that transcends the actual story. You may soon forget the specifics of the plot, but you'll always remember the world it came from.

The spontaneous-seeming, cinema verite camera-work in Code 46 also successfully contrasts the controlling aesthetic of the Sphinx and the State. It's a top down world of rigorous control in which citizens are constantly under surveillance.  But down on the street level -- and between two lovers like Maria and William -- life can still feel spontaneous, surprising, unpredictable. This couple wander into a pre-ordained genetic meeting with eyes closed; not understanding the pull of destiny, or rather, genetic pre-determination. 

The fact of their genetic incompatibility is revealed in visual clues  by Winterbottom, right down to the casting of Robbins and Morton. Robbins towers a full meter over the diminutive Morton, a virtual giant beside her, and there's something unsettling and wrong about them "together," down to their very physicality. 

Kurt Loder noted this idea in his review of the film: "But in extrapolating from our contemporary unease about human cloning, and of course the ever-ominous powers of government, "Code 46" presents a future society that's hauntingly plausible. Robbins and Morton don't seem to have much in the way of romantic chemistry at first — or do they? In fact, they probably have all the chemistry possible in a world that's been so drained of cheer and trust and human possibility, and so fundamentally disfigured by scientific technology. They have too much chemistry, it turns out, and it dooms them both in different, dreadful ways."

That last point is a critical one. In very deep, thoughtful fashion, Code 46 concerns the way that our feelings seem to dictate our reality; how our emotions become intertwined, irrevocably, with our world view. Maria and William may be courting destiny in their tragic love affair or they may be responding to something deeper: a genetic, Jungian unconscious that must pull them together, regardless of the consequences. 

In small, meaningful ways and in occasional grace notes, Code 46 artfully explores the nuances of the human condition, and the way that the human condition forever remains constant, even in the looming shadow of scientific, technological and business "advances."

The heart wants what the heart wants...

Movie Trailer: Code 46 (2003)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

At Flashbak: The Five Worst Monsters of the 1980s Horror Film

My new article at Flashbak remembers some of the worst monsters of 1980s horror cinema.

"Although visual special effects, make-up and prosthetics improved substantially in the 1980s, not all monster make-ups or concepts were created equal during the decade of the slasher film.  Although the killer bunnies and frogs of 1970s horror films were long gone by the time of the Reagan Administration, new (and sometimes lame) monsters rose to take their place of dishonor..."

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?