“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
– Sonmi 451
Thus sums up the core premise of Cloud Atlas, one of the more polarizing movies in recent memory and my personal favourite film for 2012. Spanning six stories over five centuries, many people found the movie slow, jarring, and difficult to follow. While I understand and accept some of these criticisms, they in no way diminish the sheer vision and ambition of this sprawling and profoundly human epic. If there ever was a film where the sum experience becomes more than its parts, Cloud Atlas is it. Before I begin, I want to share this short clip featuring directors Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer as they speak about their motivations for adapting David Mitchell’s novel for the big screen:
The film flips between the following stories:
- 1849, South Pacific – Adam Ewing, a lawyer returning from the Chatham Islands after completing a business deal for his father-in-law, is being slowly poisoned by a doctor lusting for his fortune.
- 1936, England – Robert Frobisher, a struggling musician finds work as an amanuensis to a famous but ailing composer. Their collaboration inspires Frobisher to begin his own masterpiece, titled the Cloud Atlas Sextet.
- 1973, San Francisco – Luisa Rey, a tabloid reporter, stumbles on a conspiracy around a nuclear power plant. The corporation in charge attempts to silence her.
- 2012, London – In desperate need of protection from associates of a jailed client, vanity publisher Timothy Cavendish is forced into a stifling nursing home by his vindictive brother.
- 2144, Neo Seoul – Sonmi 451, a fabricant clone created for labour at a fast food restaurant, recounts her tale of escape and self-actualization to an archivist just before her execution.
- A century after “The Fall”, Hawaii – Zachry, a goatherd from a primitive village, helps a woman from a technologically advanced society scale a forbidden mountain.
I struggle to offer a more detailed summary – it is one of those movies that must be seen first-hand. Suffice it to say that over the film’s three-hour runtime, connections clear and subtle tie these disparate tales together. Like a play with a small cast, the same actors and actresses don different costumes and makeup to embody a multitude of characters across race and gender. The settings and plots may change, but basic themes revolving around the human condition emerge again and again.
Both the film and the novel have generated a lot of analysis. Instead of trying to tackle everything, I will attempt to focus on a few ideas that are particularly relevant to Ekostories: Change, connection, and the power of story.
The weak are meat and the strong do eat
In Cloud Atlas, oppressive power relationships are prevalent in every time period, ranging from individual instances to structural systems in society:
- 1849: Ewing sees first-hand the conditions at slave plantations.
- 1936: An old ailing composer exploits Frobisher’s talent under the threat of damaged reputation.
- 1973: Corporate assassinations are carried out to silence whistleblowers.
- 2012: A nursing home serves as a prison for the elderly.
- 2144: Society is built upon the enslavement and exploitation of fabricants for labour and protein.
- After “The Fall”: Cannibals terrorize and plunder the villages on the island.
Throughout the film, there exist active agents who enforce the status quo, justifying it with the doctrine that “the weak are meat and the strong do eat.” The cast of characters played by two actors enforce this philosophy, serving as the chief antagonists throughout the film.
Hugh Grant is a slave plantation operator, a sexist oil lobbyist, a vindictive brother, a depraved restaurant manager, and an outright cannibal. He represents predators who leverage their positions of power over others for personal gains. Hugo Weaving plays Ewing’s father-in-law who supports the slave trade, a Nazi sympathizer, a corporate assassin, an abusive nurse, a politician intent on suppressing rights to clones, and finally a demon presence in Zachry’s mind.
“There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well.”
– Haskell Moore
Characters played by Grant and Weaving show up in almost every time period, serving as agents of fear and ignorance that perpetuate systems of exploitation and injustice. Cloud Atlas seems to suggest that greed, selfishness, and barbarism exist as constants of human nature, lurking always beneath the surface of us all.
The Most Ethical
“Pain strong, aye. Friend’s eye more strong.”
– Autua to Ewing
And yet, with every new life and lived experience there is hope. Possibilities for change and freedom come from the courageous choices individuals make. In each time period, Cloud Atlas reveals people rebelling against oppression built upon fear and ignorance:
- 1849: Ewing befriends Autua, a stowaway slave, and eventually joins the abolitionist movement.
- 1936: Frobisher escapes from the clutches of being blackmailed through an accidental act of violence.
- 1973: Rey works to expose a major conspiracy surrounding the flaws of the nuclear power plant.
- 2012: Cavendish escapes from the nursing home and reconnects with an old flame.
- 2144: After being rescued from a live of servitude, Sonmi sacrifices herself to broadcast an abhorrent truth to society at large.
- After the Fall: Zachry fends off Old Georgie, the internal manifestation of evil and fear in his heart.
In most instances, characters gain the strength to fight against oppression through their forged relationships. Ewing is saved from the murderous doctor by his friendship with Autua. Rey finds help in a man her father saved during the Korean War and in her next door neighbour. Cavendish escapes from the nursing home with the help of new friends. Sonmi learns to grow and love because of her rescuer. Zachry is saved from the cannibals through his connection with Meronym, a woman from another society. With each example of connective strength derived from acts of kindness and decency, I find myself thinking back to a passage from Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:
Vea: “The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!”
Shevek: “Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical.” (p.220)
The final fates of these agents of change are mixed. As in life, there are no guarantees of happy outcomes for those who struggle against injustice. Some, like Ewing and Zachry, are forever changed and embark on new journeys. Others, like Sonmi and Frobisher, are crushed and silenced by those in power. Nonetheless the impact of their deeds and actions endures, rippling out in unpredictable ways thanks to the unseen forces humans exert on one another. Moved by a chance encounter, one of the characters muses that “yesterday, my life was headed in one direction. Today it is headed in another. Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today.”
Change through Connection
“If you fall, I catch you.”
– Meronym to Zachry
The power of deep connection for triggering personal change and growth is most clearly depicted in the relationships between the characters played by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. In every time period, Hanks’ characters are portrayed as selfish and greedy cowards: A racist doctor who is willing to kill for gold. A blackmailing hotel manager. A scientist intent on staying quiet to save his job. A murderous thug. A goatherd too scared to save his friends.
Yet unlike Grant and Weaving, Hanks’ characters are still within the reach of redemption. Each meeting with Berry’s characters affects him. In the 70’s, Rey (played by Berry) convinces Sachs (played by Hanks) to do the right thing and expose the nuclear conspiracy, but he is murdered soon afterwards. In 2012, a thuggish Hanks spots Berry’s character and momentarily softens, but is too intoxicated and angry to pursue the connection, instead choosing to throw a literary critic off the balcony. After the Fall, Zachry (Hanks) finally connects with Meroynm (Berry), discovering the courage to overcome his inner fear and become a better person. Towards the end of the film, the elderly Zachry notes that Meronym, now his wife, “was the best thing that ever happened to me”, not recognizing how profound that statement truly is. For me, Cloud Atlas demonstrates the significance of meaningful connections that we forge in our lives, and how precious and powerful they can be to help us realize our inner potential, even when we are unable to see it ourselves.
The Unpredictable Power of Stories
In each time period, strands of story move and shape the protagonist in minor and major ways: Frobisher finds Ewing’s account in a half-torn journal and becomes obsessed with his harrowing adventures. Rey discovers Frobisher’s love letters and is haunted by his music. Cavendish reads Rey’s thriller manuscript and reflects on his lost love while his own escapades, adapted into a film, plants the seed for Sonmi’s awakening. Her tragic tale in turn touches the heart and mind of the archivist, who presumably helps triggers the Fall and the passing of the legend of Sonmi to Zachry’s community.
“You can maintain power over people, as long as you give them something. Rob a man of everything, and that man will no longer be in your power.”
– Sonmi 451, quoting The Ghastly Ordeals of Timothy Cavendish, quoting the work of novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
For me, the film serves as an affirmation for the mysterious ability of stories, in all forms, to trigger new insights and meaningful connections. I love the random and inconsequential nature of these links. From historical period drama, poignant love letters, cheesy thriller, slapstick comedy, to interrogation dialogue, one never knows how the receiver will connect with the tale and be affected. As I write this, I am reminded of why Ekostories exists: To share with you the stories that spoke to me and shaped my perception of the world.
Music and Storytelling
“The Atlas, I believe, is the only thing I have done in my life that has value. But I know I could not have written it, if I hadn’t met you. There are whole movements in the Atlas that I wrote imagining us, meeting again and again, in different lives and different ages.”
– Robert Frobisher
Besides the unique narrative structure, one of the most memorable aspects of the film is the soundtrack. Aside from being a hauntingly beautiful film score, the music of Cloud Atlas also plays an integral part in the story. Just as the actors/actresses play multiple characters, the sextet itself is a character, reinterpreted through time, shifting between the original piano piece, an orchestra version, a jazzy rendition, nursing home Muzak, futuristic Korean street sounds, and a hymn sung by fabricants. (Source)
One intriguing interpretation I’ve come across expands this notion of music as character even further, proposing that the Cloud Atlas sextet IS the film itself. In his moments of frenzied inspiration, the theory goes, Frobisher manages to tap into the underlying current running through the movie, inscribing to music flashes of moments past and glimpses of futures to be. Frobisher is thus the Sextet’s discoverer and transient vessel, but not its creator. I think the notion that the composition exists as an aural tapestry of lives meeting, clashing, resonating, and interacting with each other over time is a lovely and moving metaphor for human existence.
“Surely this is one of the most ambitious films ever made. The little world of film criticism has been alive with interpretations of it, which propose to explain something that lies outside explanation. Any explanation of a work of art must be found in it, not taken to it.”
Despite Ebert’s praise, there are many who see Cloud Atlas as New Age hogwash, filled with intellectually shallow ideas and pseudo-philosophy. I’ve read reviews where people lambast it at length for its depiction of race, its emphasis on reincarnation, and its ignorance of genre conventions and standard narrative logic.All of this is great. It’s rare that a big budget movie is able to trigger such diverse opinions, discussions, and debate, especially on heavy matters of spirituality and metaphysics. To me, Cloud Atlas is above all else an earnest labour of love, a work of art that rewards rewatches and encourages personal interpretation. I’ll end with one of my favourite scenes from the film:
- A Cognitive Shift: The Overview Effect
- Action, Responsibility, Empathy: Flight of the Hummingbird
- Avatar: The Last Airbender – World and Mythology
- Nausicaä Volume 2: The Acid Lake
Le Guin, Ursula K. (1974). The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins, e-book edition, 2010.
Images from Cloud Atlas © 2012 Warner Brothers. All rights reserved.
I’ve not yet seen this film, though it has been on my list. It has jumped up the ladder after reading your submission Issac. Always I appreciate your passion. Thanks for this.
Hi Nancy, you’re very welcome. I think the movie will be something you would enjoy.
Hope you are doing well.
Hi Isaac, This was a great essay. Really excellent writing. I saw this movie with my Mom and we both loved it. We couldn’t figure out why the critics didn’t like it as it obviously (in our case) had multi-generational appeal. Keep up the awesome work
Hi Hanna, good to hear from you! It’s one of those films that truly has a bit of everything. On one hand, I am a little sad it didn’t do better at the box office, I am grateful that it was made in the first place.
Thanks for the compliment and for reading!
I loved this movie as well and didn’t really get why people gave it a bad rap. Perhaps a lot of the critics didn’t like having to think too hard or just hated that it was almost 3 hours long. Movies that make you think and have depth always rank high in my world..but to each their own….
This is my guess, but I think it’s because many people go into films with certain expectations – about characterization, about narrative structure, about emotional arcs – that Cloud Atlas did not deliver. As I reflected on the film to write this piece, in some sense, they are right. Each of these stories, taken by themselves, (barring maybe Frobisher’s tale) are thin and extremely cliched. Dystopic Soylent Green future. Post-apocalyptic primitivism and cannibals. Old people escapades. Conspiracy with Big Oil. And so on.
But as I said in the beginning, I truly believe that the movie transcends the sum of its parts. The fact that it is able to do that with the material it has is, at least for me, a big reason why I enjoyed it so much.
After watching this film twice, my only regret was not seeing it on the big screen. I personally liked that the story was not your typical linear fare. I think we have been so accustomed to story telling moving from a predictable beginning, middle, and end that it is challenging to watch a movie that doesn’t fit this pattern. I did get a very “string theory” sense from the story where multiple realities spread across a wide spectrum of time co-exist.
The movie is its own beast when it comes to flow. The novel follows a a nested structure (story) 1>2>3>4>5>6>5>4>3>2>1, but the film relies on the strength of its editing to connect themes and scenes in a non-linear fashion. I personally think they did a dynamite job at it.
Too many examples to bring up 🙂 maybe when I have some free time I can look at it 🙂
I haven’t seen this yet either, but like Nancy, will do so soon. I don’t watch very many movies, as I find most of them predictable at best and an insult to my intelligence at worst. It will be nice for a chance to watch a movie that challenges my grey matter.
I would love to hear your reactions to it, Jonanne. As I stated before, the individual tales are cliched, but movie itself isn’t, and that’s sort of what I like about it most.
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Thank you for your thorough review. I haven’t seen this film, though I’ve heard of it. I watched the video you included. Seems quite innovative. Perhaps it will find its audience through DVD/blu ray
It’s interesting, I think it did better overseas than domestically. Perhaps elements in the film (the notion of interconnectedness and hints to reincarnation) are more acceptable and appealing? Not sure.
Great review. I think you did the movie a great justice and portrayed it beautifully in your words !
Thanks very much for reading, Cathy!
I think this is a pretty good examination of the film. In an odd and perhaps poetic sense, some of the negative reactions to the film seem rooted in themes the film itself comments on. The underlying story is a commentary on potential true potency of struggle and optimism. We live in a cynical world, where many people are bitter in their attitude towards life. Their bitterness is oft based on real experiences with the dark side of humanity. But that bitterness nonetheless engenders a cynicism that warps perception.
It has been said that one should never doubt the power of a small group of determined people to change the world, for nothing else ever has. This is true, but nothing is said about who those people have to be: the sociopaths, the predators, of society have themselves proven time and again a small group or an individual can change the world. Only they do it for the worse. What cripples people who could change the world for the better is their own discouragement – that they will never even begin to try, having been successfully tricked by the sociopaths into believing the lie of their own impotence.
Thank you for your thoughtful observation, Mori. I have thought before that the film seems to serve as a barometer gauging internal levels of hope and cynicism within people. Perhaps the very premise of the movie offends some because of that held bitterness they harbour towards life.
Intriguing take on what I consider a true but cliched quote. I think we often forget the world we live in was created in the same way – through a small group of focused, ambitious people with clarity of purpose (something that sociopaths possess in abundance) who strove to shape the world as they saw fit.
So is then the road to positive change the same as the one that got us to where we are today? Is there another way to affect change? Have to think about that.
I loved Cloud Atlas, and came away from the movie blown away by the immensity and genius of the project. I hadn’t read David Mitchell’s book until after the movie, and had to read it after seeing the movie. I felt humbled as an author after reading the book, and continue to be in awe of both the book and movie.
The narrative structure of both blows me away too. Which one do you prefer, Karen?
Isaac, that’s a tough question. I probably understood the story more easily from the book, but I loved the visual and lyrical impact of the movie. I would have to say the movie means more to me, because of the feelings it evoked in me.
Thank you for this analysis!
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