Recently released on DVD, Lana and Andy Wachowski’s collaboration with Tom Twyker ‘Cloud Atlas’ spans 6 (and a half) different time zones. Such a combination sounds ambitious, but hardly new. That is before you see how they intersect. Inter-spliced and overlapping continuously, each story helps to build an incredible, touching, scrapbook narrative.
But beyond the simple (or complex in this case) aesthetic effect here, this is of far greater importance than a mere stylistic choice. By interweaving the plots of various time-zones to make a spectacular timeline narrative, the film contests a number of troubling norms perpetuated within mainstream cinema. By doing so it rather brilliantly highlights the ideology under the skin of most films ‘common sense’ accounts of the role of the individual in history.
The dominant narrative in cinema tends, one way or another, to suppose that the protagonist alone accounts for their situation, their actions and their lives. Functioning within this atomistic bubble, the main character is accountable for their prosperity, or lack there of, and can go from bottom to top by virtue of pulling themselves up their bootstraps. In the majority of the stories in Cloud Atlas, this is not the case. The game is rigged – peoples lives are set out before them to be lived, not through some mystical process of reincarnation (as some have read the film) but because of the actions of human beings before them and the systems they created and lived within.
The duration of the film then, is spent addressing institutional problems, rather than good and bad humans, or indeed trying to provide a definitive ‘human nature’. There are, of course villains and heroes, but there is no lineage to it. This is where the ‘reincarnation’ theme I think has been misread. The idea of the actors being reused for multiple characters (and evidently having fantastic fun in their various roles) isn’t merely spiritualism, because they aren’t merely recycled ‘spirits’. Instead, the actors, especially Tom Hanks, display a variety of roles – some relatable, most utterly detestable.
Hanks plays a procession of metaphoric cannibals, who prey on the misfortunes of others to survive – it’s how they’ve learned to get by within societies of varying degrees of exploitation. They have internalised a toxic ideology, and it is difficult to overcome. This is finally illustrated to the literal degree by Hanks’ final incarnation – Zachry – a primitive dystopian Valley dweller who is tormented by “Old George” (Hugo Weaving, doing a Tom Waits impression). Old George is on one level ‘The Devil’ – a superstition who conjures up evil acts in ordinary people. His presence, however, can also be interpreted as a living embodiment of ideology.
During each period, Weaving argues for the defence of the ‘natural’ order of exploitation – of the roles of slave and master, rich and poor (he’s essentially in full Agent Smith mode) – as Old George even citing something Hanks said in ‘another life’, that the only law on God’s green earth is “the weak are meat, and the strong do eat.” Each time he assumes that this way of living is all that has existed, and therefore all that can exist. Any change would in essence be a violation of ‘nature’ – pretty much it would be the end of the world.
Zachry, who has previously acted on OG’s advice leaving people to be eaten by Hugh Grant (and not in the way that would land you with a gagging order), finds himself conflicted when helping Meronym (Halle Berry) – a stranger looking to contact earth’s colonies. His experiences contradict the assertions of George that she is either weak and to be consumed, or evil to be destroyed. In Zachry’s recognition of this contradiction, the spell is broken – he realises that permanent human nature is a fiction – one that simply kills to live, but can change in order to survive. Despite this ideological superego making desperate and increasingly irrational pleas to see ‘reason’, Zachry succeeds in breaking with the common sense of dog-eat-dog which he was raised in, and which billions of human lives have been lived in.
This makes the point – in contrast to the endless sea of hero-worshipping biopics about people like Mandela, Ghandi, Guevara – that there is not some kind of species difference between radical individuals and the establishment. Nobody comes out of the womb clutching a copy of Lenin’s ‘Party and Class’. The characters who do unspeakable evil unto others, are made of the same constituent parts as those who fight for a better world. In this manner, although it tells stories from the perspective of a few individuals, Cloud Atlas suggests that genuine change is delivered not from a few incorruptible saints on high, it is real people, engaging in genuine mass struggle, in the long term.
And I mean long term in terms of millennia. It’s a rarer film still for that reason. Even amongst progressive Hollywood (I don’t count Ken Loach as ‘Hollywood’, obviously, as most of his films end with crushing depression), there is a lazy habit of finding a quick fix to fade to the credits from. The narrative arc ends, so the convention is there has to be a point to leave the story where people feel the protagonist won. Life, and indeed history, are unfortunately far less cut and dry. Progress is never by any means permanent, and as a species, humanity probably moves backwards almost as often as forwards.
Cloud Atlas tackles this admirably – particularly as the stories near their multiple bitter-sweet conclusions. It pulls no punches in recognising the futility of activism – that even the struggle of a vast multitude is by no means guaranteed of instant and permanent change. One plot covers a lawyer from San Francisco coming to side with the abolition movement in 1800s America – a struggle we know succeeded eventually – but in contrast, a later plot covers the struggle of Somni, a biologically manufactured clone slave against the faceless corporation who owned her in “Neo Seoul”, 2144. The second struggle does not end (in the confines of Somni’s narrative anyway) in success. However, she is happy simply in her defiance – overwhelmed by the system’s guards for now, but willing to die in the hope she can inspire others to act.
That’s how thanks to the sum of its historical parts, the film still manages to be inspiring and uplifting in it’s conclusion. A parting exchange between Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) and his slave owning father in law (Hugo Weaving) brings some kind of sense to the arguable chaos of history. Weaving again describes the world as it is, or rather, the economic system he exists in, as natural and never ending. As such, he cannot see an end to it – and warns his daughter and her husband;
“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.”
Ewing simply responds: “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”
This wonderful succinct response sums up a combination of steady pragmatism and euphoric hope – it’s what makes the film’s message work without seeming idealistic and rose-tinted. The admission is that yes, we may have cause to shed many tears over time, but throughout all history that amounts to a wave that will wash away the slave owners, the murderers and the tyrants, and then humanity can be free. I might not be the one to see that day – but hell it’s worth a shot. After all, my life extends far beyond the limitations of me.