Towards the end of the movie Cloud Atlas, the Union – a rebel force in 22nd century dystopian Korea – is under attack by the forces of the Unanimity, a sinister Orwellian government known as a “Corpocracy”. As the hopelessly outnumbered freedom fighters fired away, I thought of two things: the end of the third Matrix movie, in which a similar assault with a similar polemic is underway, and of Lana Wachowski’s astonishing speech when receiving the HRC Award recently. Lana, with her brother Andy, made both movies, but when she made the Matrix trilogy she was Larry. In this scene in Cloud Atlas, the heroine, a genetically engineered human called Sonmi, is telling the truth in a series of “Declarations”. She speaks calmly, from behind the safety of some kind of protective transparent enclosure, as her comrades are gunned down protecting her. She might as well have been Lana, and the siege represented in both movies are apt portrayals of the state of mind a cultural outcast and visionary must feel, especially when she is trapped in the wrong body.
I read Cloud Atlas the novel this past week, because I had become fascinated with the trailers of the movie. I loved the book, which to me is a virtuoso feat of writing which almost becomes a work of hubris, since author David Mitchell has written six stories from six different eras in one novel. More than that, he has written them in styles suitable to the eras they from, two of which are eras which haven’t even been yet. And he manages to to create a spy-novel kind of hook: planting clues in each story which links characters in them across epochs with one another. What the take-away is from these linkages, beyond “we’re all connected”, isn’t clear in the novel, which I liked. The writing retains an impermeable mystery to it, as if to say, I am writing about something which cannot be explained, so I won’t even try. But I believe it’s true. Michell reportedly deemed the novel “un-filmable”.
Along come the Wachowskis however, and I will give them this: Cloud Atlas the movie is brave and ambitious in all the ways I admire. But where it stumbled for me is precisely in the places where movies have to explain things in a way that novels do not. In the movie, virtuoso acting attempts to imitate the virtuoso writing of the novel, but whereas Mitchell was writing in different styles, here we have actors playing several different roles across epochs. As an actor, I loved this aspect of the movie. And yet, it was also problematic for me. First, some are better chameleons the others (Hanks, Winshaw, D’Arcy). Some play nearly the same character in different costumes (Berry, Broadbent, Weaving). Second, it seems to draw direct causal relationships across epochs that the book merely implies, and implies inscrutably. A good deed done in this life will have a ripple effect, likewise a bad deed. But in the novel the cause and effect is not plain. I appreciated that ambiguity, which allowed me work a little to get into the gaps, and fill them with a theology all my own.
But something did leap off the screen (besides the dazzling movie-making – no really, go see it). And that was this: that it is works of art that connect the characters across time. The central artistic motif is Frobisher’s composition “Cloud Atlas Sextet”, which we hear only tantalizing phrases of in the movie. And yet, it travels across time in a mysterious way, as music does. So too the book about Luisa Rey, the movie about Timothy Cavandish, and the journal of Adam Ewing. These are works of art, of creativity, which grab the attention of (reincarnated? spiritually implicated?) characters in future eras. Even, and maybe most especially, Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith, with their Edwardian flourish and wit, are works of art which captivate a young female reporter in 1975. To me, this has as much spiritual import as the more overt ideas of souls and metaphysics.
The Wachowskis were a perfect match for this novel, and both they and Mitchell are prophets. Could Atlas in any genre is trying to show us where we are going, and it’s frightful. I have always believed this of artists, especially brave and anti-conventional ones like Lana, Andy and David: they peer in to the future and show it to us. For real. But since the future exists based on an infinite series of variables, they show us only one beautifully described future, in which we cannibalize each other as we eat the earth to death. In which only acts of heroism which fly in the face of our naked self interest can save us as a species, but also in which “the weak are meat and the strong got to eat”.
One of the ways the movie outdid the novel was in the visual story of races. In the Wachowski’s vision, we are all going to end up as coffee-colored homo sapiens with slightly slanty eyes and a wild variety of hair. This was a story they told in the Matrix too. And our fear of that truth (and I believe it is a truth) is the genesis of many acts of horror. An evil spirit named Georgie was brought to life for me in the movie in a way he wasn’t in the novel, and given the language of violent xenophobia, whose effects are witnessed in ripples across time. The Wachowski’s will no doubt take some grief from the PC class for making Caucasian actors look Asian, African-American actors look European and (not so successfully) Asian actors look Caucasian. But they also had women playing men and men playing women, and this too made me think of Lana, for whom the change of identity we actors play with all the time was literally for her a matter of life and death. And it brought home the ineffable link between the movie and novel: that what matters is not the shape, color or sexual equipment of the human, but rather the choices that human makes. And that a spiritual effluence flows between all people and across time, and when we notice it and pay attention to it, the choices we make are better ones.
PS: I am convinced that a scene late in the movie (and not in the book) has Quaker inspiration. In it, the young lawyer defies his racist father-in-law by burning a document presumably giving the older man a claim to slaves. John Woolman, 18th century American Quaker abolitionist, famously had a spiritual opening when he could no longer transcribe documents having to do with slavery. Lana will have to let me know if I’m right . . .