Movie Review: “Cloud Atlas” (A film for the ages but perhaps not for ours)

A couple of friends and I saw the film “Cloud Atlas” last week. It was a wild ride to say the least. The movie was visually spectacular – Academy Award quality indeed. Though its storyline was at times difficult to follow, its message about revolutionary resistance and liberating reincarnation was beautiful and inspiring. It made me think about the worth of self-sacrifice and about what happens after death.

Featuring actors like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and other well-known stars, “Cloud Atlas” chronicles the six lives of the Hanks and Berry characters over a period of roughly five hundred years.

The action takes place in the South Pacific of 1849, England of 1936, San Francisco of 1973, the United Kingdom of 2012, Neo Seoul (South Korea) of 2144, and the Hawaiian Islands of 2321. Over the course of the epic’s nearly three hours, six separate apparently unconnected stories are told. The first tells of Adam Ewing, a lawyer who converts from his father’s slaving business to abolitionism because a Maori slave responds heroically to Ewing’s own act of kindness. That tale is followed by Robert Forbisher’s, a bi-sexual musical genius, who commits suicide after accidentally murdering a mentor who attempts to steal Forbisher’s musical masterpiece, “the Cloud Atlas Sextet.” The story helps viewers appreciate a love story between two men in a culture hostile to relationships like theirs. The third narrative introduces us to the journalist, Luisa Rey, who fights to expose big oil companies intending to stage a nuclear accident for the benefit of the oil companies themselves. Rey’s fate turns out to be reminiscent of Karen Silkwood’s. Then there’s the account of Timothy Cavendish who at age 65 is imprisoned in a nursing home by a vengeful brother. Cavendish triumphs over the nursing home’s ageism by executing a successful escape along with three other patients.  “Cloud Atlas’” fifth episode takes us to Neo-Seoul where a clone named Sonmi-451 joins the Resistance to take down an all-controlling multinational fast food giant which, she discovers, is turning “fabricants” like her into food. Finally, “Cloud Atlas” tells of Zachary whose tribe lives in a post-civilization wilderness after modernity has been destroyed by global warming.

Though each of these stories at first seems unrelated to the others, the Hanks and Berry characters bring them all together – but not without some work on the part of the viewers. Hank’s post-apocalyptic Zachary is the film’s unifying narrator. He begins and ends “Cloud Atlas” telling its stories to his wide-eyed grandchildren around a fire on the Cloud Atlas planet itself. In the starry distance, he points out a faint blue dot – the destroyed Planet Earth where he used to live. “Grand-P’s” stories assert the connection of everything and about how acts of kindness or cruelty influence not just the reincarnated selves of the agents, but the entire planet and all of its inhabitants.

More specifically, the film is about ordinary people sacrificing themselves in the face of overwhelming odds. The rebellious heroes include a slave, that bi-sexual man in prudish England, a power plant whistleblower, a crusading reporter, a rebellious clone, and a man facing his own internal guilt and fears following a haunting act of cowardice. All are pitted against systemic abuse caused by slavery, homophobia, big oil, ageism, the fast food industry and the devil himself. Against such forces, each act of sacrifice is infinitesimally small – a mere drop in the ocean, as one of the films characters puts it disdainfully. Nonetheless, as another character replies, the ocean itself is made up of innumerable drops. Each human has a small part to play, but the final effect can have the force of a tsunami. That’s the revolutionary message of “Cloud Atlas.”

What the film says about reincarnation is equally thought provoking. What happens to us after death? The movie’s response: We pass through an open door moving from one room to another, from one time, from one place to others. And we carry our karma with us. What we sow, we reap.

In the meantime all of us are one. “Cloud Atlas” conveys this idea by having all of its actors play wildly different characters. In one epoch we’re born as men, in another as women; we are heterosexual and homosexual; we are black and white, Asian and European; we are clones; we are primitives and technological wizards; we are heroic; we are knaves. In hating others belonging to any of those categories, we hate ourselves. Our loathing will come back to haunt us shaping both our destinies and that of our planet.

Some reviewers have found offensive the film’s insistence on having each actor play multiple roles. Why, they ask, did the film’s directors cast westerners as Asians with unconvincing make-up chiefly having to do with eyes? Couldn’t the casting directors easily have found suitable actors from Korea or China?

Though reflecting an admirable concern for inclusion and equal opportunity, the question misses one of the film’s major points about reincarnation and karma. Differences in each incarnation, “Cloud Atlas” implies, are superficial like badly applied makeup. After all, body appearances really are only cosmetic.  Underneath it all is our true essence, our real Self which is the same in every instance.  Therefore we must be careful about whom we despise because we may well come back as those very people.

And so it is that Tom Hanks appears as a malpracticing doctor, a hotel manager, a nuclear power plant employee, a thuggish novelist, as an actor, and as a member of a survivalist tribe after the apocalypse. In each case, viewers can recognize the Tom Hanks we know and love underneath the cosmetics, no matter how heavily or skillfully applied.

Our recognition of Tom Hanks in every instance gestures towards the film’s (dare I say it?) spiritual question.  What is it that enables us to say that each character is Tom Hanks?  Or put more generally, if reincarnation is a reality, how can we say that the same person appears across eons of time? If I was a woman, but now am a man and don’t even remember having been a woman, how can I really be described as “reincarnated?” In what sense does the reincarnation represent a continuation of me?

Buddhists and others, of course, have a ready answer to such questions. However this is not the place to address them. But in provoking the question, “Cloud Atlas” will create suitable places for doing so across coffee tables, in classrooms, and in those quiet moments when each of us considers our final destiny.

As OpEdNews’ Rob Kall has indicated, “Cloud Atlas” is a movie for revolutionaries – perhaps the best since “Avatar.” Like “Avatar,” I also see it as a deeply spiritual film. But don’t expect your right wing brother-in-law to like it, or that it will get favorable reviews in the corporate media.

This is a film for the ages – but maybe not for ours.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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