What makes a movie work, makes it feel fresh? Conversely, what feels cliche, and just rehashes previously covered ground?
Taking an obvious (and given Disney’s recent acquisition, somewhat timely) example, why has Star Wars remained so relevant? Sure, it got everything right--the accent of C3PO, the music, the back and forth between Han and Leia--all that grips us in the usual way of the popular fads that come and go. And yet Star Wars never really left. There was something deeper about the effect that it had on many of us. Perhaps it was the way Darth Vader so perfectly embodied the theme of the struggle with evil--the temptation of giving in to our dark side that rules in the name of order. Although Darth Vader was the undeniable “bad guy,” he also claims to represent “order”, flipping the traditional role of the “villain as outlaw” on its head. Sometimes, the rulers are the villains. In all of film, the character of Darth Vader best expresses the truth “power corrupts”.
So, “power corrupts”. Where do we go from here? I see Cloud Atlas as a far-reaching exploration of some possible answers.
Specifically, Cloud Atlas is a story of the soul in action.
Unlike most movies that delve into history, Cloud Atlas tells the story of the voiceless--the African slave, the residents of a nursing home, the artificially intelligent slave of the future--those who have been "otherized" and “exiled from the civil world.” "To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.” Cloud atlas explores the inverse side of the statement “power corrupts,” showing us the point of view of the victim. If power corrupts the ruler, what does it do to the ruled? And digging even further, how can one use his or her power to be redeemed?
When Adam decides to help Autua on the ship, he loses his role as oppressor, and for the first time perceives a slave as a human. Soul is moving through him.
Cloud Atlas is smart enough to recognize that “all individuals are created equal” is not the “end of history,” as some have claimed. No, indeed, the work of the soul goes on, whether we see it or not. If you don’t believe me, observe neurosis (soul from below) and the process of economic globalization (soul from above). These processes exist independently of the conscious goals of individuals. What else but soul can be responsible?
However, Cloud Atlas does not stop at modernity. Or perhaps, it realizes that we can only understand our present age if we are shown where we could be headed. In New Seoul, which is built above the mostly-flooded ground of old Seoul, we encounter a people who again face the same situation as Autua--voiceless, powerless, dehumanized--except Sonmi is not human. (Much like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica) Sonmi is a clone/computer hybrid (called a Fabricant in this story)--an organic body with a computerized mind. Is her story therefore different from Autua’s? Cloud Atlas does not back down from this question.
Tying it all together is the story of Zachry. The entire development of soul through the rest of film is personified in his character.
Zachry takes for granted that his instinctual reactions--to stay hidden, to murder the stranger, to kill the sleeping enemy--come from a power greater than himself. Not so for modern humanity. We would not make this mistake. We look inside first for all explanations of behavior, whether it’s to the brain through “learned behavior” or “repressed complexes”, or “unconscious archetypes.” However, trapped by our inward-looking, ego-centered bias, we become oblivious to the work of the soul. Zachry has not yet fallen into our ego-centered trap, and so is transformed by Meronym. He is open to new experiences in a way that we are not, and so her soul begins to act through him.
It’s interesting Roger Ebert titled his review “Castles in the Sky.” I have just been reading Wolfgang Giegerich, who writes,
“We remember Goethe’s statement that it was not he who made his poems, but that they made him. The creative person, in his creating, is building castles in the air, and is used by them for their need to become produced... ‘By its colorful tunes the lark blissfully climbs up into the air.’ Creativity means to trust the air, its absolute negativity, as the only ground upon which, as well as the only stuff out of which, great cultural works can be created.” [ Giegerich. What is Soul? p. 184 ]The Cloud Atlas Sextet can be interpreted as its own separate character that “needs to become produced.” Perhaps the characters in each era are “creative” in the sense that Giegerich talks about, that they are capable and willing to become the mediums for great works. They are the capable and willing builders of castles in the sky.