October 22, 2012
Cloud Atlas storms into theaters as many Americans flood their front yards with signs pulling for their favorite political candidates. Whether it’s Drain Commissioner or School Board representative, County Clerk or President of these United States, one thing is clear: there are at least two different ways of seeing everything – and each of us must choose.
When I headed to the Toronto International Film Festival this year, I was excited, as I always am, to see some films that I may never get a chance to see somewhere else. The small, quirky, independent films that make up the bulk of a festival are almost always the highlight for me (and they were again this year), but I must admit that the ticket I was most excited about was Cloud Atlas. An independent film by technical counts (it was not produced by a studio), Cloud Atlas is anything but small. Boasting the largest budget for an indie film ever, this is not your average art house charmer.
When a filmmaker decides to cut together an almost six minute trailer, you can safely assume that they are hoping they have created an epic. That combined with the fact that the trailer for Cloud Atlas reveals the film will be tracking multiple storylines happening over multiple time periods (6 of them actually), you know the writers and directors are reaching for something massive. But reaching and grasping are two very different things.
Lana and Andy Wachowski teamed up with Tom Tykwer to do what many called impossible: turn David Mitchell’s 2004 novel into a movie. And, now that it’s completed the film critics of the world (yes, that includes you) will weigh in on whether this trio of filmmakers proved everyone wrong or right.
In some way, Cloud Atlas is the follow up to The Matrix the Wachowski’s should have created, rather than stretching that franchise to its breaking point. Once again they have brought to the screen a narrative that calls for people to see the struggle taking place in our world – a struggle between competing ways of seeing the world and understanding how and why it all works as it does. Bluntly, Cloud Atlas portrays the storm created when differing worldviews meet like cold and hot fronts.
The question becomes, which is the weaker system?
My understanding going into the film is that it was about transmigrating souls moving from one generation or epoch to another. And, on some level, this is true. It is a film about the interconnectedness of humanity over time. But to limit the film to this is a great mistake and horrible reduction. This is a film about the clash between those who believe resolutely that the reality of survival of the fittest means it is everyone for themselves and those who believe we are to live a life where we are willing to sacrifice and strive for equality. Eat or be eaten vs. we’re all connected. Egocentric vs. worldcentric.
This battle is not brought to the viewers in a non-partisan manner. This is a film with a point of view, a bias, a hope, and a dream. While Cloud Atlas unfolds, we move from era to era, from film genre to film genre, and watch basically the same storyline unfold in each place. Those with power are seeking to stay in power and do so by diminishing anything that threatens the structures that keep them there. As is repeated throughout the film, the weak are meat and the strong will eat.
But under the boot of those in power comes a sound beyond just a cry for help. There is a hope that the counter-narrative that is being squashed by the strong will someday take root en masse. There is an underlying dream of a future when the world will not be divided between the haves and the have nots, the rich and the poor, the privileged and the oppressed, the strong and the weak. There is a commitment to telling the next generation that there is another way to live, even if almost no one is doing it. There is a belief in what could be, but is not yet.
And so in each storyline within the larger story we see the passing on of the hope. Sometimes it is transmitted in a book, a sextet, a story told by the fire, a signal shot out into space, a letter to a friend or a simple act of kindness to another human being. The story of hope is told over and over again, by new people who have received it, hoping that it will have a day where it is the dominant story of humanity.
Cloud Atlas is impossible to take in all at once. It will likely repay the viewer who is willing to return to it. But where it at times feels more a like a fogged map that is hard to follow, it also is reaching for something worth reaching for, even if it can’t quite grab it. It declares the importance of telling the counter-story to the one that is eating up and spitting out so many, in hopes that someday soon, it will be realized on earth. Cloud Atlas invites us all to live a story that we believe is true, even if it is not the dominant story being told around us. Cloud Atlas is an invitation to live what we believe will be, but at the moment is not yet. Whether it is a well-articulated, clear or meaningful invitation – there’s probably two ways to see that.