The evolution of Hugh Grant villains over three “Cloud Atlas” timelines is righteous. In the 1970s, he’s an energy company executive who orders a hit on a reporter, but probably wouldn’t kill her himself. He’s a suit. In the 22nd century, he’s taken the logical next step: manager in a fast food restaurant, free to brutally kill in public. The laws and his remote control allow for immediately terminating the life of a problem (clone) employee, so of course he does. And then in the future, after laws and remote controls have been wiped away by apocalypse, he has naturally evolved into a demonic, Skelator-looking cannibal. Behold your souls’ future, Koch brothers:
Face-tattoo Tom Hanks hesitates for a moment before overriding his good-guy nature and viciously ending Skelator with a knife. Guess evil that evil must be put down. When some big end-time event stops men like our bank CEOs and politicians from ripping off normal folk legally, they’ll hop on horses and torment us the only way they can. It is in our nature that there must always be powerful bad guys doing people wrong.
That’s merely my own interpretation, though.
“Cloud Atlas” weaves six distinct stories together over centuries. Whether the film is explicitly about reincarnation is not really knowable. What is knowable, and quite explicit, is its lesson. Sonmi-451’s words will inspire revolution and worship, and this is what she says: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
The whole idea of whether our souls pass on through generations is not something a smart person thinks can be definitively answered. But the Directors Wachowski (and Tom Tykwer) do think they know one thing absolutely: We should be good to each other. The thread that ties together the six “Cloud Atlas” stories is goodness, and the first kind act that launches the whole amazing story is a man simply overcoming ignorant prejudice. Do that, the filmmakers are saying, and you may have unknowingly saved the world.
We’ve said it here before, specifically about “The Master,” but it warrants repeating: There is power in ambiguity.
My favorite scene in “Cloud Atlas” launches the Timothy Cavendish storyline. Cavendish is a book publisher at a party for a mobster whose memoir “Knuckle Sandwich” got harshly dissed in print by a critic (Phoenix Fookin’ Finch) who happens to be in attendance. The mobster is Tom Hanks, hamming it up. He gets everyone’s attention and tries to embarrass the critic. When this backfires, he throws the critic off the balcony to explode with a splat several stories below. It’s hilarious. I love the idea of the Wachowskis, who almost certainly hate critics and rarely give interviews, delightfully scripting this scene.*
That murder sends Hanks’s Dermot Hoggins to prison, but his book sales skyrocket. This is the key event that leads us to Cavendish’s incarceration in a “Cuckoo’s Nest”-style old folks home, which he will escape in a rollicking, funny adventure culminating with a soccer-hooligan bar brawl. The story will inspire Sonmi-451 to lead the Union against Big Brother in the future.
(Indulgent political tangent: As a former member of the Independent Source PAC, I love that the “Cloud Atlas” rebels are called “Union.” ISPAC was working to expose government corruption, so every time we were mentioned in the paper our name had to be preceded by “union-funded,” to inform readers we got donations from union groups. “Cloud Atlas” shows, again, a natural evolution. Unions are merely feckless groups of workers who want fairness and money in exchange for their labor, but one day they’ll be mankind’s last hope against the Koch brothers’ laser army.)
If this movie is about doing good, how are we supposed to feel about the killing of the critic? That wasn’t good, right? And yet it was an important moment in the timeline. Perhaps there are good killings. Maybe killing a critic is OK, in this movie’s judgment. Maybe it’s also OK for Face-tattoo Tom Hanks to saw through sleeping Cannibal Hugh Grant’s neck because Cannibal Hugh Grant, like the critic, deserves untimely death because he’s evil.
Really, though, I think it’s probably just a question left hanging, like so many others concerning the soul.
Do we have soul mates? “Cloud Atlas” implies we do. The same actor pairings, as different characters, keep finding each other in the different time periods. There’s a lot of love in this movie, but the notion of soul mates is ambiguous. Is the comet birthmark the only continuous soul in the story, or does each actor portray the same soul throughout? Maybe the answer is both, somehow. Like Morpheus in their classic “The Matrix,” the Wachowskis can only show us the door; we’re the ones who have to walk through it. Thinking is fun.
Not ambiguous is the intention to jump genres like no film I have ever seen. Tonally, the six stories are utterly disparate. Swashbuckling high-seas thriller. Unrequited gay love affair expressed through letters and classical music. A reporter outrunning an assassin through 1970s film noir. Slapstick old-people comedy. Sci-fi freedom-fighters fantasy with laser bikes outrunning hover jets. Post-apocalyptic climbing movie with an evil leprechaun.
Through it all there are heroes being brave, choosing to do right. Whether they know it or not (some do), they are inspired by the souls that came before them, until Face-tattoo Tom Hanks is helping Halle Berry save what’s left of humanity.
“Cloud Atlas” is a masterpiece because while its metaphysical curiosities about time and the soul are difficult and pondered without resolution, its message is simple: Be good. The Wachowskis actually gave interviews after this one, and a consistent quote throughout was from Andy Wachowski: “The main character is humanity.”
I have to go. My wife is going into labor.
*M. Night Shyamalan killed a critic in his (first) horrible film “Lady in the Water.” The book “The Man Who Heard Voices” says producers pleaded with Shyamalan to cut that scene, but he insisted. He hates critics even more than the Directors Wachowski. “What kind of person would be so arrogant to presume to know the intention of another human being?” a character says, then we cut to movie critic Bob Balaban getting murdered by a werewolf. Ha!