Cloud Atlas: A Moral, Philosophical & Political Examination

The 2012 sci-fi film Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, was nothing if not polarizing.  As such I decided to forgo viewing the film when it was released and wait a few months until it came out on DVD or cable.  Which is unfortunate on one level because the film was gorgeous and I would’ve liked to have seen it unfold on the big screen.  Even so, I am convinced I made the right decision, having finally caught this epic mindfuck (and I mean that in a good way) of a movie on HBO yesterday, well over a year after it’s theatrical release and many months after it hit DVD.

The plot, such as it is, follows six story lines that are both metaphorically and literally (the film jumps back and forth liberally between all six threads as it unfolds) woven together.  At the heart of this cinematic hydra is the “Cloud Atlas Sextet”, a modern classical masterpiece composed by one of the characters in one of the story lines, which serves as a kind of MacGuffin to anchor all of the metaphysical/philosophical stuff, but in truth it is probably extraneous.  Even so, it is not insignificant that it is a work of art.  But then, all the best MacGuffins are in one way or another.  What matters most here is the driving notion that everything is connected and that one act in the past, be it good or bad, will echo through time and space for decades, centuries, perhaps even eons—basically, it’s the butterfly effect composed as a moral outline.  The film also seems to take reincarnation as a given, which I think is probably the real gripe of many Western critics who disliked the film, even if they were smart enough not to air their ethnocentrism openly in their reviews.  Americans especially just seem to have a hard time readily accepting another culture’s religious assumptions as a backdrop to a story, even though we regularly impose ours into our media with nary a complaint from outsiders.

Needless to say, I think the film is brilliant.  Yes, it was often confusing, but that is not in this case a hindrance to its enjoyment.  Indeed, as Roger Ebert attested with regard to another such film—the haunting political thriller Syriana—such deliberate mystification and uncertainty can sometimes serve a symbolic purpose.  I think that is the case here, at least  initially.  Yet, I have seen the film only once and I still do not feel like my mind was overtaxed by the experience or that the story was somehow lacking because of its complexity and unconventional nature, largely, I think, because I also do not subscribe to that other Western conceit that there is some ideal emotional formula that all good fiction—be it in film, book, television show, or whatever medium—must adhere to before it can be deemed a success.

But there is a point here, and it holds a nigh Campbellian mythic stature: it is the idea that there are two major unconscious forces in the vasty cosmos.  One is cyclical, the other diasporic, and neither of these forces is inherently moral, but within them moral or immoral actions have grave consequences because they will be repeated over and over again or exponentially enhanced, respectively.  Likewise, there is within these great dumb movements conscious forces which can take advantage of them to some degree for their own ends.

Thus, you have entities which gravitate to either movement.  In the case of the cyclical, because it is an innately conservative force, you see throughout time repetitions of the oppressive establishment, here slyly represented most often by Hugo Weaving, who has already been imprinted upon the collective consciousness as an avatar (in the form of Agent Smith) of the same in the Matrix film series.  There are nods to other famous film and book oppressors as well, such as the amusingly Ratchet-esque Nurse Noakes.  On the opposite end are those who stand for the elementally progressive force of outward dispersion, which is to say a breakout from the cycle, represented here by the various incarnations of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Doona Bae.  Note that when I say conservative and progressive here, I do not refer to any political ideologies so designated but only to the nature of the forces themselves.  To be sure, if you consider it carefully you will see that that which is cyclical cannot be ultimately progressive and that which is progressive cannot be ultimately cyclical, or these terms would lose all meaning.

That being said, it is the case that those most often served by the unchanging nature of cycles are agents of the iron hand, and thus it is little surprise that the same types of people are inevitably behind the movements to maintain the status quo.  There is inside all of us a natural-born resignation to the cyclical because parts of nature itself is cyclical.  Rituals can be comforting and most of us need them in some form; the trick is not to let our rituals, even if they are in service of the sacred, become sacred in themselves, because once they do, then anything, including other people, can be sacrificed in the name of maintaining this order.  Ideals then become more important than thinking, feeling beings. In the same vein most of us require change on occasion, and change too can be creative or destructive.  The most oppressive of governments are often tolerated by their subjects because these states, as horrible as they are, at least maintain the comfort of order, whereas revolutions can lead to the worst forms of instability and even outright destruction.  Or they can lead to something approaching utopia.  But it’s always a gamble which way it will go, and it never goes smoothly, does it?  The key to everything lies in understanding and reinforcing balance; if I have a mantra, that is it.

Within nature itself this balance already exists.  Indeed, it cannot be escaped, although it can be manipulated.  But one must understand that to manipulate it is not to destroy it but merely to change its shape, and its shape is dichotomous, or rather approximately dichotomous.  You may consider the yin-yang symbol as the simplest and most easily discerned model for reality, but in truth there is no easy division between good and evil, or between light and dark, or between the realms of mind and body, or anything else.  All of it is a continuum.  Humanity is no different, whether in the universe as a whole (consensus reality) or in the microcosm of our own selves, for we do not exist in a vacuum and all we say and do has consequences not only for ourselves but for those around us.

Here is where the philosophy of political conservatism breaks down, because it assumes that everyone and everything can be viewed as independent, and therefore individual responsibility is seen as quite literal.  Yet political conservatism is ultimately hypocritical by design, for any legally sanctioned power beyond the individual—whether accorded to the state, to an army or to the owner of a corporation—can then only be justified if one ignores the principle of independent responsibility.  To the conservative, the concept of harm is one-dimensional and shortsighted; it is merely that which can be measured directly and immediately.  This position does have value, particularly in the realm of law.  If we punished everyone for all the harm they generated, directly and indirectly, then every human being’s life would be nothing but a series of endless court cases.  Therefore, harm in the legal sense must be interpreted somewhat conservatively if the courts are to operate effectively.  This does not, however, mean that indirect harm isn’t real or important, and therein lies the flaw in the pure conservative philosophy.  Actions have consequences not only for those directly impacted by them but ultimately for everyone who shares this physical continuum we call a world; ergo, a truly moral political philosophy must take this fact into account, and this is what, in my estimation, justifies the use of the state as a tool to serve the greater good.

Of course, it must be remembered that the greater good is in some sense subjective, and therefore democracy best serves the overarching moral philosophy of the day.  This is not ideal, but it is inevitable in a genuine democracy; it is thus incumbent upon all of us who would do so to make our moral arguments through appealing to those things we all share, more or less, via the marketplace of ideas.

In that light we can better understand the recent conservative backlash against science.  At one time science may have served conservatism because it appeared that all things and all peoples were independent.  The entire science of taxonomy is founded on this notion, and all sorts of iffy political worldviews were once justified on the back of science, such as Social Darwinism.  The latter is even openly expressed in the film in the motto of Tom Hanks’ earliest incarnation Dr. Henry Goose: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”  However, this boils down to early misconceptions of how nature works.  In recent years we have learned not only that species aren’t always easily divisible but that the entire progress of nature (the process of evolution by natural selection, for example) is a continuum.  More importantly, it is progressive only in the sense that it is in a constant state of motion; humans hold no special place from the perspective of nature—if nature can be said to have a perspective—and if we were unable to adapt to our environment then we could be crushed under her heels just as easily as any other species.  Furthermore, though we are currently the reigning champions of the earth, we could easily lose that status under the right conditions and become just another species living by instinct, losing our faculty for rationality.  Cloud Atlas reminds us of this uncomfortable fact in its post-apocalyptic scenario, in which much of humanity has regressed to superstitious atavism (as is often the case in post-apocalyptic stories), including a clan of vicious cannibals.

The film does have some weaknesses.  The choice to show reincarnation, even if you accept it as merely metaphorical, by having the same actors perform these assorted roles results in some at times head-shaking makeup jobs, although to be fair the more outlandish ones are often played for humor, as in the case of Hanks’ Scottish thug-cum-author Dermot Hoggins and the decidedly unfeminine Hugo Weaving in drag as the aforementioned Nurse Noakes.  And it tends to lessen the confusion, I suppose.  Or maybe it enhances it.  I suppose that might depend on your penchant for investing emotionally in faces.  Or something.  Bottom line, it was sometimes an unwelcome distraction.   The story can also seem relentlessly dark, though it does manage to end on a hopeful note.  This wasn’t necessary to convey the story’s power but it was a wise choice, just as it was in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  In an epic of this magnitude, one that could just as easily have ended after the execution of Sonmi-451, say, why not end on the positive?  For, although humans and humanity in the larger sense are bound to go through periods of darkness, I believe we prefer to seek the light, whatever that may be for us.  And the choice to show Hanks as an old man surrounded by a gaggle of happy grandchildren certainly doesn’t take anything away from the film, so why not?

Also, though I myself do not consider this a detriment per se, it should be noted that this is a quintessentially Eastern film in terms of its philosophical approach, which, as I pointed out earlier, will put off many Americans who are disturbed by the idea of reincarnation.  For my money, the fact that the most oppressive of all the various societies shown herein is set in Asia, where social collectivism is more traditionally valued than it is in the West, is not lost me, nor is the fact that one member of the most oppressed group of people in this world—genetically engineered “fabricants” born and bred for slavery and service to mankind—ultimately becomes the most important revolutionary in it, as well as the patron saint of the post-apocalyptic one that falls chronologically last in the series of story lines.

What makes Cloud Atlas so special then is that it is no less than a distillation of all of the  abstruse forces that lie in eternal conflict around us: little guy versus the establishment, freedom versus oppression of all sorts, order versus chaos, knowledge versus faith, hope versus self-destruction, even determinism versus free will (at one point—while sharing a joint no less—one of the characters asks another, “Do you ever feel the universe is against you?”)  All of these big ideas could never really be solidified into a hard and fast plot, hence the experimental structure, which moves so quickly between the film’s various threads that it becomes aptly impressionistic.  The original novel’s author David Mitchell has called the film’s structure “a sort of pointillist mosaic” actually, which is as accurate a description as any.  However you choose to describe it, this is clearly not a Hollywood film, despite its relatively large budget.  Well, I don’t know about you, but I am exceedingly happy this isn’t just another Hollywood sci-fi action adventure film, all bells and whistles and no soul.  This is one of those movies I will enjoy watching again and again, noticing the little things I missed before, and proud to be a member of the species that produced such a magnificent work of art.


2 thoughts on “Cloud Atlas: A Moral, Philosophical & Political Examination

  1. This is now one of my favorite movies. My teenage daughters got it for me for Father’s Day. They both love it as well- we’ve watched it four times and look forward to watching it again.

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