the love you take is equal to the love you make

cloud atlasI have read before that no story is ever complete, that one tale transforms into the next, minor characters become major players and fade away, and words spoken in one century repeat in another millennium as a new teller takes up the tale.  What if you could take all these stories, these beginnings and endings, and stack them atop each other?  What if you could drag a knife down through the layers and pull out slices and see each story as it touches others?  What if in each slice you could see how every layer is connected to all those before it and after it?  Well, then you’d have Cloud Atlas, the latest film by the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix et al.) and Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) based on the novel of the same name by David Mitchell.  It, like the musical piece it takes its name from, is a symphony in six parts, six stories, six separate movies.


“Truth is singular. Its “versions” are mistruths.”–Sonmi-451

In the 1850s a young American lawyer named Adam Ewing witnesses the brutality of slavery while on business in the South Pacific.  Later, on the return trip he takes sick and the ship’s doctor tends to him, feeding him poison and telling him he’s been infected with a deadly parasite.  He discovers an escaped slave on the ship, champions him and protects him, and in return the freedman saves his life .   Later Adam and his wife join the abolitionist cause.  In the early 1930s Robert Frobisher, a brilliant student musician flees Cambridge after being discovered in an affair with a classmate.  He takes work as an amanuensis with an aging, once brilliant composer, who betrays him and tries to steal his work.  After shooting him, Robert hides away, frantically completes his symphony, writes one final letter to his lover, and then kills himself.  In the 1970s in California Luisa Rey, an investigative reporter,  is trapped in an elevator with Rufus Sixsmith, a nuclear physicist and Robert’s now elderly former lover.  Their conversation eventually turns to how much personal risk each would bear to do the right thing.  Later he calls her to ask for her help but when she arrives he has apparently committed suicide.  Luisa investigates and attempts are made on her life as she uncovers a plot to sabotage a nuclear power plant.  In the early part of our own century, publisher Timothy Cavendish runs afoul of one of his clients, a gangster turned author.  In desperation he turns to his brother and is tricked into signing himself into an old folks home that is more like a prison.  His efforts to escape involve a group of plucky old people and a madcap caper, complete with stolen car and bar brawl.   In a future only a hundred years or so away workers in Neo Seoul are genetically engineered clones whose lives never change from day to day.  One of these fabricants, a young woman named Sonmi-451, works in a brightly colored fast food restaurant.  She watches her supervisor execute a coworker for assaulting a customer who abused her.  Later that night she is rescued by a member of an underground rebellion and shown the realities of an outside world she has never seen, including the fate of her coworkers who get too old for the job.  She agrees to become the symbol of the rebellion and to broadcast her experiences to the world.  She is arrested, interviewed, and executed.  In a time beyond our calendar known only as After the Fall, primitive tribesman eke out a living on islands out in the ocean.  Periodically they are visited by remnants of the last surviving technological society on earth, who come in search of a device to communicate with off-world colonies.   One of these, a woman called Meronym, cures Zachry’s dying daughter and in return he takes her to the ruined installation at the top of the local cursed mountain.  Here they find hundreds of corpses huddled around a functional radio antenna.  When they return to the village they find it ransacked and burning and everyone dead.  Having lost everything, Zachry leaves with Meronym and eventually ends up on one of those off world colonies.

Although these are all distinct tales in their own right they are also the same story told through the lives of people reincarnated in different eras.  The connections between them lead from one to the next like a trail of breadcrumbs.  Adam Ewing writes a book about his travels; Frobisher reads it avidly and describes it in glowing letters to Sixsmith.  Frobisher composes a masterwork symphony that the old composer hears in a strange and frightening dream of a bright restaurant staffed by identical young women.  Luisa reads Frobisher’s love letters to Sixsmith and they lead her to the final piece of her story.  Her young neighbor later writes mysteries based on her life and these are published by Timothy Cavendish’s vanity press.  Cavendish writes his own novel about his escape; it is turned into a movie that Sonmi-451 watches on a stolen video phone one dark night deep in the bowels of her restaurant.   Later Sonmi-451 speaks the words that set the world on fire and after the Fall she is worshiped as a prophet.  Her final broadcast is watched on top of a lonely island mountain by Zachry and Meronym.  Later Zachry, now old and living off world, tells all these stories to his numerous grandchildren.

At its heart the movie is about slavery.  Sometimes it is overt, as when Adam witnesses a slave being whipped, or in Sonmi-451’s regimented life and the individuality and autonomy forbidden to her on pain of death.  Other times it is less obvious.  Frobisher and Sixsmith cannot love each other openly.  The composer is married to a woman who does not love him because she is a German Jew in Europe in the 1930s and the man she did love could not marry  her.  Zachry’s tribe is terrorized by cannibals.  The retirement home treats its residents like simple children and won’t permit them to keep their keys or phones.  Luisa is driven by the reputation of her journalist father.  Cavendish is threatened by gangsters and burdened by a mistake he made in his youth.  Even more than this the movie is about freedom and ability of people to make their destiny, to make a difference.  Autua, the slave Adam watches being whipped, takes a chance on a stranger’s mercy and stows away on the American ship.  Adam himself turns his back on his comfortable life, as does his wife, in order to right a profound wrong.  Frobisher and Sixsmith may not be able to live their lives in public but the world cannot destroy their love.  Several people risk their careers and lives to help Luisa discover the truth about the nuclear plant.  Cavendish confronts his regrets and rediscovers a lost love.  Zachry faces down his own demons to find trust in the strange woman who comes to his island to send a message to the heavens.  Sonmi-451 is the fulcrum on which every story rests; her journey from life as an anonymous commodity to the woman that changes the world is brief, heartbreaking, and brilliant.

The movie does some singularly interesting things with characters and with scene progression.  A handful of actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Bae Doona, Susan Sarandon, among others) play nearly all the roles and there is no adherence to race or gender.  Men play female characters, females play men, black actors play white characters, whites play blacks and Asians, Asians play whites.  Hugo Weaving alone gets to be an assassin, a slave trader, the devil, and Nurse Ratched.  Although this is confusing at first and some of the make-up is not convincing, the use of the same actors to portray similar characters throughout time strengthens the impression of past and future lives.  Repetition also serves this purpose and many themes resonate through different eras: “I believe there is a better world and I’ll be there waiting for you”; “I will not be subject to criminal abuse;” “The weak are meat the strong do eat” (cannibalism is a particularly strong recurring literal and figurative theme).  Characters talk constantly of personal identity, of the interconnectedness of people, how we must depend on each other in the fight to preserve those things we value the most.  Love and sacrifice are contrasted with evil both banal and epic.   The amalgamated characters can seem a little archetypal: Hugo Weaving’s characters just go from bad to worse, while all of Halle Berry’s are more or less noble.  Bae Doona and Jim Sturgess play a couple who find and love each other through time.   Tom Hanks’ various personae go through a transformation from a poisoner and thief to a reluctant whistleblower to a savage who overcomes his own fear and doubt to help a friend.  (I suspect the power of personal transformation resonates deeply with the Wachowskis.)  At first the cuts between the different stories are confusing but as you sort out who is when it gets easier, and by the end of the film, when doors open in one story and close in another, when lovers kiss and part as different people, when people running for their lives through Neo Seoul collapse into a journalist being chased by a gunman through California streets, then all the stories become one.

Not everything works.  The degraded futuristic language that Zachry and Meronym speak is almost unintelligible even after you’ve heard a lot of it and I suspect some context is lost to this.  The Timothy Cavendish story line is played almost entirely for laughs and this is jarring in its lightness, especially when the narrative transitions from slapstick comedy to slavers, betrayal, suicide, and the ritual slaughter of innocents for food.  The segments set in Neo Seoul are very Wachowski: lots of special effects, dark futuristic set pieces, martial arts, sex, flying bullets, chase scenes, and explosions.  This comes off as slick and out of place although I confess it was my favorite part of the movie (I’m shallow that way).  The make-up, although generally impressive, often takes attention away from the movie itself since one is tempted to spend a lot of time trying to figure out who is under all the prostheses.  In most cases the non-traditional casting and the modifications necessary to accomplish it is integral to the story but sometimes it doesn’t work.  Turning the lovely Korean actress Bae Doona into a red-haired, freckle-faced, green-eyed Caucasian woman is so odd it approaches the uncanny and likewise turning any number of white men into Asians succeeds only moderately at best.  As far as I can tell, no Asian men were cast in major roles and this seems an odd choice given the number of Asian main characters.  In the Cavendish section there is a shout out to Soylent Green that is almost flippant given all the actual human flesh-eating going on.   Finally, all this back and forth through time, all these powerful themes, result in a take home message just this side of trite:  “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.”  But you know what?  I’m tempted to say “So what?”  This is a big movie with big ideas and perhaps it overreaches a bit but I’d rather have a movie try for greatness and fall short than sit through yet another iteration of Transformers.

Not everyone lives happily ever.  In fact, some of these endings are beyond sad.  But still, after all these stories are told, the ending is profoundly hopeful.   As complicated as  it seems it is very simple.  If we can make a difference in our own stories they will change the world.

“Knowledge is a mirror, and for the first time in my life, I was allowed to see who I was and who I might become.” —Sonmi-451

Score:  Meh (but I am so reading the book)


~ by gun street girl on October 28, 2012.

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