"The boundaries between noise and sound are conventions," aspiring composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) writes in a letter to a loved one. "One may transcend any convention, if only one can conceive of doing so." Cloud Atlas, enormous in its ambition, asks the viewer transcend the boundary between entertainment and art. Is this too much to ask of Americans?
story covers 6 separate plots: 2 in the past, 2 in the
present and 2 in the future. Each plot uses its own specific style of
language. Goethe wrote that “progress has not followed a straight
ascending line, but a spiral with rhythms of progress and retrogression,
of evolution and dissolution.” In flipping back and forth between the
styles of the different periods, we see that while the sophistication of technology and language may change, the richness of life depends not on one or other, but on the interaction of both--on our ability to use language to connect us to our world and each other.
Hanks plays a primitive, Zachry, whose language, despite communicating
effectively within the sphere of his tribe, is not elaborate enough for
him to understand certain things about himself and the natural world. He does
not always have the words to communicate what he feels inside, and so
those feelings become repressed, are mixed together with his survival
instincts, and projected out in the form of the devil figure Georgie (Hugo Weaving),
who advises him to give up--look after his own interest rather than
attempting further communication.
publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) represents the polar opposite end of the
spectrum. His mastery of the English language allows him to explain
anything whatsoever that may happen to him, but he inhabits a world that
he is unable to engage with. His attempts at communication, despite
perfect style and delivery, all come up empty. We first encounter him at
an upscale publishing industry party, wondering “Why would anyone want
to become a book publisher?” He lives in a world in which language sets
up new boundaries--in the form of hierarchical systems of law--as much
as it has broken through old ones faced by Zachry.
progress--the kind that increases happiness--occurs when language helps
us engage with the world and each other. False progress seems to do
this, but its application is uneven. Boundaries are broken, but only for
an elite few. We use language to define the boundaries between us as
much as we use it to transcend them.
both poles together is the story of Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae)--a cloned slave-worker
from the future. A resistance movement covertly takes the depressants
out of her daily soapsac, and she gradually starts to question the rules
she and the other clones live by. After going to great lengths to take
over a broadcasting station, the resistance puts out Sonmi-451’s transmission to give society the evidence that fabricants are no
different than purebloods.
In the climax of her story, Sonmi states: “Our lives are not our own, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future. Death, life, birth--everything is connected.”
A life is more than just the sum of the subjective emotional states the individual has experienced. Home and work are our lives’ two recurring dreams in that objective thought never takes place within either. In addition to these states of split-consciousness (home and work, public vs. private, male-female, servant-master, weak-strong, etc.), there is an objective, unified existence that we can experience also, if we so choose.
progress is the process of language bringing about a richer world.
Language alone allows us to perceive the world from someone else’s
perspective. And when we succeed in communicating our perspective to someone
else, a new door opens for us both. We all benefit, both live richer
lives, both become more human.
recurring theme in Cloud Atlas, as with most any action film, is the
struggle for survival. “The weak are meat, and the strong do
eat”--society tells us over and over that this is the defining rule of
our existence. But we also learn there is the hope of an alternative.
Just as primitive humans learned to view nature objectively, rather
than expressing their subjective emotional states, so too modern humans
are learning to view our own lives objectively, as parts in a greater
narrative. “To be is to be perceived--to know thyself is only possible through the
eyes of the other.”