Sunday, November 11, 2012

Cloud Atlas: Hey, you, get off of my cloud

OK, I'm just going to say it. Cloud Atlas (the recent film adaptation of David Mitchell's puzzle box novel) is a masterpiece. Co-directors Larry and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer don't think small. They clearly set out to create a masterpiece. Their movie is big picture, full of big thoughts, with a big theme, and a big story (or collision of stories) about life, the universe and everything. That’s always asking for trouble.

When a director (or team of directors) is obviously trying to create a masterpiece, an invisible chip appears on the shoulders of critics. Masterpiece? Who the hell do you think you are?

Most critics bashed Kubrick's 2001 when it first came out. (Harlan Ellison included -- who changed his mind but never admitted it.) Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life got a similar treatment. Yeah, I'm sure a lot of you hated it. Big and slow. Some things are supposed to be big and slow.

I could multiply examples and start fights, but you get the idea.

Cloud Atlas has been bashed for being predictable, but that misses the point. This is a movie about reincarnation and eternal recurrence -- reflecting the belief system of about a billion people on this blue marble. I've always had a fuzzy notion of what reincarnation would look like. This makes it clear. Pods of connected people, moving through time. Based on their choices, some people get better, some get worse. Tom Hanks' character starts as a murderer, ends up as a savior. Hugh Grant's character is merely pompous and irritating. By the time we reach the dystopian far future, he's a kill-crazy cannibal. Karma at work, folks. Not exactly instant, but effective.

Structurally, the screenwriters took the six interlocking narratives of the original novel (six stories, interrupted then continued) and presented them as six parallel stories (six stories, going on at the same time). Each tale is a tale of repression and liberation. To reduce it to a Marxist fortune cookie: Solidarity is eternally at war with exploitation.

Now, imagine that war, going on for generation after generation, with a new cast of characters with the same old souls burning inside.

That's the movie.

It's not a materialist world view. It's not a Judeo/Christian worldview. There's no messianic savior. Just a congeries of souls, eternally linked together, their every decision resonating. That's a fair description of what Aldous Huxley called the perennial philosophy.

The critics have a problem with the philosophy, so they have a problem with the movie.

In future lives they may yet change their minds.

Wheels within wheels

 The Wachowski's world view and obsessions shine through in their segments. (Basically, all the future segments.) A quote from a racist tract written in 1849 echoes through the centuries: The weak are meat; the strong do eat. By 2144, the weak are genetically engineered. A nightmarish fast food franchise called Papa Song's is staffed by hordes of identical clone waitresses -- "fabricants" without civil rights. In an echo of Soylent Green and Logan's Run, these servers have an expiration date called Exaltation. They think they're ascending to heaven. Actually, they get a bolt through their skulls -- and their corpses become processed food for their living sisters. 

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