Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tom's Official Cloud Atlas Review!

"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?

The 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.

Tom 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.

Book 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.

Real 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.

Tying 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.

Real 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.

One 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.”



  1. Robert Frobisher was played by Ben Wisham, not Jim Sturgess.