Cloud Atlas (Warner Brothers, 2012). Written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Based on the novel by David Mitchell.
Reviewed by Cat Woods
Spoiler Alert: because it contains plot details, you may want to read this review after seeing the film.
Cloud Atlas should change the world.
Not that I necessarily expect it to, but it really ought to. Just as I have said for decades that Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) should have changed the world. Had the world responded appropriately to that book, our lives would be different. By all rights, it should have instigated study groups around the globe to consider the myriad interwoven issues it explored regarding the tensions between individual freedom, ethics, and the role of a fair or unfair social order. We should have spent recent decades not necessarily agreeing with Le Guin’s anarchist model of a socialist society but debating our various answers to the critical questions she raised. By rights, The Dispossessed should have launched a whole genre of socio-political literature exploring the nature of socialist vision and the various possible mechanisms of its enactment. Yet 38 years later, it still stands alone; and it has yet to be made into a movie. Even if Hollywood did take its hand to it, you can bet they’d keep the bare-breasted bourgeois women, the chase scenes, and the violent suppression of a popular demonstration while losing every important message about what a better, more just arrangement of the world might look like, how socialism might be won, and what a more equitable social order means personally for the people who participate in it.
It comes down to what Hollywood’s about. I do not believe that Hollywood is driven solely by maximizing profit. If it were, films and TV series with political messages affirming the rights of the masses and their power to overturn unjust social orders would amount to more than a handful. More would have made it through the system. I think Hollywood’s function within U.S.-style imperialist capitalism is primarily to justify the current social order for the ruling class and indoctrinate everyone else to either go along with it or consider themselves powerless to change it. In any choice between a potentially profitable venture containing messages of empowerment to the under-classes and taking a failure, Hollywood will choose failure every time. For illustration, witness the fate of the Dark Angel and Firefly TV series.
But Cloud Atlas was not made by Hollywood; it was funded independently. At the very least, the movie does not fulfill the typical Hollywood “blockbuster” role of promoting the latest ideology of bigotry and abdication of our liberties. Instead it takes on the unlikeliest of themes for a major mainstream film: the politics of justice, including, most importantly, justice for workers.
On-screen Science Fiction and Socialism
Science fiction imagines alternate and possible future arrangements of society; as such, it is of particular interest to socialists. One of the earliest futuristic works of fiction, News from Nowhere (written by William Morris in 1890), was an imagining of a socialist society. But by and large, on-screen science fiction has been much more faithful to its pseudo-technologies such as “warp engines” and “plasma flow conduits” than to exploring the social questions – especially those involving economic systems – that mean the most to creating a fair world. In the Star Trek world, Federation citizens do not use money; they have replicators to meet their material needs; and yet they still need to borrow currency from Ferengi for certain purposes. Replicators work for some needs, but not for others (it’s never explained why); replicators themselves are hard to come by. The intergalactic economy is purely capitalist, even though the Federation has somehow – it is never explained how – advanced beyond the relentless dictates of profit. Gene Roddenberry’s original intent may have included socialist aspects, but these were not prioritized or emphasized in any of the Star Trek TV series or films.
The worst examples of on-screen scifi politics come up when dealing with workers’ demands. Babylon 5, which demonstrated almost prophetic political vision when it came to presenting the excuses governments make for waging imperialist wars and curtailing the civil rights of their citizens, also included a successful strike by workers. However, the granting of the workers’ demands was a gift from one heroic military man who tricked the government into not killing the workers, not at all a message of the collective power of labor. In Deep Space Nine, a workers’ strike was successful, but with the workers’ demands being met only on the condition that they dismantle their labor union. In Battlestar Galactica, Admiral Adama had a labor leader’s wife and child thrown up against a bulkhead of the ship, to be summarily executed unless the labor leader agreed to stop the strike. (And believe it or not, Adama remained a heroic "good" figure in the series even after this event.)
Hollywood standards for political content are generally so bad that I consider a scifi show acceptable or even pretty good as long as it refrains from the kind of over-the-top apologetics for right-wing agenda items, such as legalized torture, outright mockery of civil, human and Constitutional rights, and U.S. jingoism, that is typical of series like the NCIS cop show. This is the backdrop against which Cloud Atlas must be viewed. In this context, the film is completely ground-breaking, a victory of the interests of the people over those of the ruling class, and a source of inspiration and spiritual nourishment for those of us endeavoring to work toward greater social justice.
Themes of Cloud Atlas
You can’t understand all that’s going on in one viewing of this movie, and you shouldn’t try to. If you relax and let the stories catch you up in their flow, you will get the gist of it. It’s the kind of epic that deserves multiple viewings; and the details do bear up under subsequent examination (unlike the usual Hollywood "reveals" that are more often cheats). Much as there is to see in this film, there is still more than meets the eye.
The film is a sprawling three-hour canvas presenting many themes across seven time settings: 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144 leading up to a revolution, 2321 about a century after an apocalypse involving neutron bombs called "the Fall," and a denouement set several decades after that. Six stories are presented, each set in one of the first six time settings: a lawyer crosses the ocean with an escaped slave and a doctor who is poisoning him; a musical composer writes the Cloud Atlas sextet which he protects with his life; a reporter pursues the story of a nuclear atrocity planned by capitalists; a publisher is imprisoned against his will in a nursing home; a genetically engineered and cloned waitress becomes a revolutionary; a post-apocalyptic tribal man helps a woman from a remnant of technological civilization call for help to escape radiation damage on Earth. Each of the six protagonists has a comet-shaped birthmark that is revealed during the course of the story.
I divide the film’s themes into two main categories: the nature of justice and the nature of eternity. These two categories interweave, which I consider in itself a central message of the film: what unites us across time is the sum of how we treat each other; our service to justice is what truly survives our individual deaths.
Several of the main characters – presented across time periods through the use of the same actor in different roles – struggle with the nature of justice and what to do about injustice. Two of the main characters (the Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant roles) consistently represent injustice throughout all the time settings. During these struggles, two quotes are repeated by characters representing or giving voice to injustice in the story. The first quote is “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat,” a viewpoint that might completely replaces right, power is all, and only stupid fools who deserve their fate think otherwise. This “weak are meat” ideology culminates in the most stunning, poignant and apt visual metaphor for capitalism that I have ever seen: hundreds of naked corpses of murdered workers hanging upside down on conveyors of meat hooks in a factory that is processing them into cheap protein to feed the labor force living in slavery. The second quote is “There is a natural order to this world” – a self-justifying, profoundly abusive, oppressive, exploitative, and destructive order that will crush those who oppose it.
The crucial path through this landscape is that navigated by the Tom Hanks roles. In the earliest time setting, he is the nastiest, most vile representative of the "weak are meat" viewpoint, attempting to murder a young man for his fancy buttons and possible gold. At one of the critical junctures in 1973, he is inspired by his love-at-first-sight of the Halle Berry character to make one choice against the oppressive order to prevent an atrocity. He knows he may "lose his job or worse" and is murdered shortly after going ahead with it. In the next time setting, the Tom Hanks character is very violent and not terribly fair-minded, and yet he is actually, within his own frame of reference, fighting an injustice. His unfair actions in that setting in turn serve to trigger the events that lead another of the main characters to begin fighting injustice and acting with courage. At a later critical juncture during the post-apocalyptic setting, the Hugo Weaving character has become the Devil speaking the “weak are meat” viewpoint within the mind of the Tom Hanks character. The Tom Hanks character cannot get free of this voice until he takes another risk to trust the same character (Halle Berry) who first inspired him in the 1970s setting in order to help save a remnant of the human race on Earth.
The film returns again and again to the question of what survives our individual deaths. The idea that love survives death is more the starting point than the ending point in answering this question. It brings up in turn the question of what is love. What do we mean by it? Romantic or sexual love? Yes, sometimes. Yet in the two stories where romantic/sexual love is presented as somehow surviving death, something more than romance and sexuality allows it to endure – something that relates to the theme of justice, and something that relates to human consciousness and history as a collective endeavor rather than a linear series of individual achievements.
Eternity is presented as reaching both forward and backward with its signs and portents: music that is heard by characters in their dreams before and after it is put to paper and recognized as something that describes them through many lifetimes, inspiration drawn from the past or offered to the future, a photographic image, a premonition, a journal, a letter, a stolen button, a victim’s tooth, a quotation, a shared birthmark. We may live on through biological children, yes, but also through a piece of music the composer never heard performed, the memory of love, the idea of freedom preserved in a low-budget movie made of a comedic escape from an abusive nursing home by a fairly silly, and prior to this event cowardly and unmemorable, man.
Using the same actors in each timeline is shorthand to trace a development or growth across the time periods. One way of putting this is that the actor represents the reincarnating spirit; but one does not have to believe in reincarnation to appreciate the meaning of these connections. If it is spiritual reincarnation, it is a version that does not allow the individual to retain memory beyond the vaguest impressions of familiarity. It is more a pattern in human consciousness that continues beyond individual deaths. Using the same actor is a metaphor for this pattern, just as the idea of reincarnation itself is a metaphor for this pattern. (The accusation that Asian actors should have been cast in parts where white actors were given odd-looking makeup to indicate that they were playing Asian roles, misses the importance of this motif to the overall vantage point of the film.)
Another way of putting this is that the stories illustrate the growth of the "species being" of the human race. Although this term, too, may be more metaphorical than indicative of an actual autonomous consciousness beyond individual minds, the overall effect of summing the patterns of all our lives is as if such a larger collective consciousness were orchestrating and witnessing it all. The love that survives our deaths is that which moves through us to show kindness, to correct the injustice of the world, to inspire those who come after us to make something better. These patterns in humanity that stretch across time periods, for good or ill, form a larger picture that this movie dares to help us see. In the words of the "fabricant" revolutionary in the touchstone quotation of the film, "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."
In the 1849 setting, the Hugo Weaving role is Haskell Moore, a slaver who has become somewhat of a celebrity for writing a book defending slavery as justified by God. At the emotional core of the film, Moore tells a white couple who wish to join the abolitionists, "There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well." As he says this, the movie cuts to the execution of the revolutionary worker in 2144 for telling the truth about how the economic system treats workers. Tears streamed down my face as I watched this. To say that this scene and its message are exceptional in a movie I would see in a corporate multiplex playing major mainstream American movies is very much an understatement. I have never even heard of it, never even suspected the possibility. No, this is it – the meaning of our human lives, the point of it all: One must oppose injustice. Not because it will go well for us if we do, not because we will necessarily win, but because we can’t not fight it. It must be done. The universe, humanity’s species being, our collective oversoul and conscience, or God (take your pick) demands it of us. It is to be human and to join the human experience on the side of justice and freedom. We are thus "bound to others, past and present."
I do not know whether Cloud Atlas will move people or whether it will be received and responded to appropriately. I do know that it should change the world. By all rights, it should usher in a whole new genre of socio-political films exploring the nature of justice as well as the various possible avenues for achieving it. May it be so.