When I first saw the extended, five minute cinematic trailer for Cloud Atlas, I knew that I would go watch this film. Any movie that merely attempted to do what I saw in those five minutes deserved to be watched, even if, ultimately, it failed to accomplish its goals. I watched it without knowing the plot or even genre. I avoided reading reviews, and knew only that it received a polarized reaction. I wanted to watch it first and make up my own mind. However, I enjoyed the movie so much I wanted to write my own review before I delve too deeply into what others have to say. Now that I’ve seen it, here is my take:
The movie consists of six short films intercut with each other. They span the mid-19th century to some distant, post-apocalyptic future. Because the films are edited together, the directors encourage the viewer to find common features between each story, perhaps to understand them sub specie aeternitatis – the way an eternal watcher might experience them: as though they were all happening simultaneously (and to the same people, over and over again). But perhaps the most important story, the one that provides context for the six that we see on screen, is mentioned only once at the very beginning. When we first see Dr. Henry Goose he is excavating a cannibal graveyard. He explains, very briefly, that cannibalism is a logical response to a) the natural roles of predator and prey and b) the recognition that humans play both roles. He recites a rhyme that is repeated at various times in the movie: “The weak are meat and the strong do eat.” And it is this very concept that the movie explores.
The underlying commonality between the short films is the dynamic between the strong and weak. Think of the title: Cloud Atlas. It seems like an oxymoron. An atlas offers knowledge of the world, but for this to be possible, the world must have some stability. Rivers and mountains change gradually, but are fixed such that a detailed map of the world is useful. We like to think of human society as dynamic and innovative, and the movie’s six scenarios display an impressive range of progress, both social (the abolition of slavery) and technological (the sequence in Neo-Seoul). Humanity changes like the clouds. Can any map be made of the clouds? The film argues that the map is the interaction between strong and weak, oppressor and oppressed, rich and poor. The best way to understand that interaction, according to the film, is an analysis based on predator and prey and the justification that the predators offer for their deeds. The justification is almost always based on “nature” – such as, it is in the nature of the weak to be eaten. Or, it is in the nature of the savages to be enslaved. Or, it is in the nature of the rich to seek riches without interruption by conscience. Or, it is in the nature of the manufactured to be disposed of at the will of the maker. Or, it is the nature of the established to take the innovation and labor of the newcomer, etc…
As an extended demonstration of this idea, the movie succeeds beautifully. The directors use many tools to make this demonstration more vivid. The presentation of overlapping, simultaneous stories, for one. The use of the same actors across time periods, sometimes as predator, others as prey. From what I understand, there was some criticism of the makeup effects needed for the actors to portray so many characters. Yes, some of the makeup is more mask-like than it could have been. However, the illusion shouldn’t be complete. Being reminded that the same person is there, under the mask, is actually beneficial to the film’s thesis.
One of my favorite techniques is the use of traces from previous oppressions being implicated in the “present” oppression. The first, and most obvious, is the cannibal graveyard. There are many others, some very subtle. One set of characters listen to music that was written under oppression from a previous time. One set of characters watch scenes from a movie depicting the story of a previous set of characters. Occasionally characters will meet. What makes these storyline interactions so fascinating is the way previous predator/prey relationships leave lasting traces – in the earth, in the people that remain, in art, and even in mundane household objects. They are not, strictly speaking, causes. The film is not deterministic in that way. Rather, the determinism comes from a destructive hunger in the human soul, and evidence is everywhere. The movie invites you to walk around and ask yourself how the things you see around you narrowly escaped destruction and how your enjoyment of them implicates you in past predator/prey dynamics.
If the movie ended with that insight, I think Cloud Atlas would have been successful, though depressing. However, the filmmakers added their prescription for how to rewrite the human atlas. The argument, so far as I can tell, runs thus: humans organize themselves into predator/prey relationships. Predators justify their oppression by claiming that it is natural, thereby protecting their status as predators with taboos. Therefore, the best way to break the grip of the predator is to violate the taboos. According to this way of understanding the world, a taboo is the prey’s internalization of the predator’s yoke. By participating in the taboo (avoiding the forbidden activities), the prey becomes implicated in its own enslavement. And so, we see liberation by rejection of taboo in each scenario. For some, the taboo is easily broken (Neo-Seoul). For others, the taboo feels almost as real as the ground on which the character stands (“Ole Georgie”, in a plot element that is destined to be criticized by those who misunderstand its purpose). In each case, the film presents the taboo (even when broken unsuccessfully) as something which ought to be broken.
And this is where the movie is incomplete. At over two and a half hours, I won’t call its incompleteness a fault, but the film offers little guidance in telling us the difference between what is immoral (the murder of a book reviewer) and what is merely taboo (the abolition of slavery). Perhaps the filmmakers assume the difference is obvious. Perhaps it is the thesis of some other movie. I welcome any comments on this missing piece. Perhaps it is in the movie and I just didn’t catch it.
With that small caveat, I believe Cloud Atlas to be an important addition to the Wachowski’s catalog. After exploring oppression by “the system” with the Matrix films, and oppression by tyrannical government in “V for Vendetta” they have finally turned to oppression by the neighbor. Cloud Atlas exhorts the viewer to love the neighbor, and for that I found it edifying.