1 Star - Troubling
The philosophical underpinning of Cloud Atlas is convoluted. This complex novel of six interlocking stories written by David Mitchel is made even more confusing by the three directors who bring it to the big screen: Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski. Working collaboratively in producing, directing, writing and even composing the score, this trio of creative minds has created a film that is in many ways cinematically unparalleled. However, as reviewers who focus on the spiritual and social implications of film we are interested in the tapestry of disparate religious and philosophical beliefs. Weaving together several religious systems, this film presents reincarnation along with demonic temptation, murderous violence along with honoring human initiative. One of the core beliefs within the film is the assertion that human nature does not change while noting that we need to fight against the dehumanizing persistence of slavery, that “true bloods” are not different than the futuristic fabrication of cloned humans yet only a cloned leader can bring change. Further, the assertion that social conventions are merely boundaries to be transcended contradicts the stories depiction of creative people being self-destructive. These opposing assertions are presented as sermons in the mouths of various characters and are shown being consistent over several centuries and diverse social situations.
The most expensive independent film ever created at $102 million, the ensemble cast is excellent. Playing both male and female characters over several centuries of six interlocking lives, each actor also changes race and place within the social structures of each tale. This complexity is difficult to follow but some of the mysteries are clarified as each actor is shown in their various roles during the closing credits. The creative use of make-up and prosthetics allow both the actors and audience to experience the breadth of their skills. At times, it is difficult to understand the dialogue and variety of accents used, but this becomes less noticeable as the actors are convincing of their characters’ authenticity.
Tom Hanks is the first and final narrator in a place that feels to be far in the past but we discover it to be in a “post-fall” future. It is this tale told to his grandchildren that takes us back in time to where he is joined by Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou and David Gyasi. Almost all of these actors take on six distinct roles. But the fact that so many characters are played by the same actor is masked by the make-up and prosthetics in most cases.
The belief and/or feeling that death is not the end of human existence is something most people in all centuries have recognized. But this spiritual sense does not answer the question of how life continues. Some have suggested that we return to life again in some reincarnated form. But the assertion that the reincarnated souls are connected in generation after generation has far less support. For those in the Christian faith, death is the beginning of an eternal experience, and death is experienced only once. In Buddhism’s four stages of enlightenment, the second, third and fourth stages are all attempts to end the despair of rebirth into this transient world. Cloud Atlas is a creative but troubling expression of why continuing an unending rebirth into the same difficult and fallen world does not solve the struggle. What is needed is a Power greater than ourselves to save us from this cycle of despair. As Christians, we know this Savior is Jesus who conquered death and will resurrect us into eternal life as well.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. Where do you get your beliefs about death and life after death? Are you confident in your beliefs? Why or why not?
2. Mitchel claims that human nature cannot change. Thus, he weaves together six stories over several centuries in which the same human condition exists. Do you believe human beings can change? If we can change, then what makes that possible?
3. Cloud Atlas is perhaps the most complex film created to this point. Did you find this complexity engaging or disturbing? Why do you answer as you do?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.