Cloud Atlas (film, 2012)

It was the end of my summer season working Glacier Bay National Park, which puts it sometime circa 2012 or 2013. I decided to visit a bit of southeast Alaska, including Sitka, and while in Sitka I stayed at a pretty rad little hostel.

I was told that the little group of guests would be watching a film that night, and so I joined the merry band. It was a rather odd forum for film viewing. We all sat in the hallway, awkwardly leaning up against the walls or lounging on pillows, contorting our bodies every which way in order to view the projector screen that was set up at the end of the hallway, in the door that led to the porch. And so it was that I watched Cloud Atlas, for the first time. And like many fans of the film, I knew I would have to see it again. And again, and again, etc.

I knew I had to watch it a few more times just to get the sense of what the fuck was going on. The fascinating thing about the film, though, is that you can enjoy it even while being fairly confused as to the point of it all. You can feel the beauty of it even while confused ast to the plot lines or even of the resolution in the film. In this sense, for me anyway, there’s feeling I get from watching the film, it’s moving in a similar way to listening to music. And music itself is one of the main motifs of the movie, so there’s that.

The film contains multiple plot lines, in multiple periods of time and in diverse settings, some of which are out of this world, i.e., one of the plot lines takes place not on Earth. This is one of the reasons why I’ve felt like watching it over and over and over again. But the abstract slant of the film also leaves it open for a good deal of fun, in terms of forming interpretations. There are numerous themes and interpretations are infinite in possibility, but for my money, the most dominant idea of Cloud Atlas is something almost theological. I think of it as sort of the spiritual dimension that drives revolution and social change: our interconnectedness necessitates that we overturn the established order, the so-called “natural order.” Why?

Separation is an illusion

Cloud Atlas character

The antagonists in the film repeat the mantra of the establishment: There is a natural order to this world and those who violate this order do so at their own peril. This natural order justifies everything from slavery in the old days to economic corporate domination in the contemporary world. The natural order is what justifies the hierarchies of domination and control.

The weak are meat and the strong do eat!

In one of the plot lines, the rebellion is called “Union” which is in rebellion against “Unanimity.” This illustrates the influence of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn was a Russian philosopher and severe critic of the repression of the old Soviet Union. So, I found the lables telling: Union represents true solidarity, over and above conformity for the sake of advancing a corporate totalitarian regime, Unanimity.

Over and against the idea of a “natural order” of hierarchical power is the idea that “To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.” This is what brings together the solidarity movement of Union. It is also sort of the philosophical basis for separating false solidarity from true solidarity. Mere conformity — whether this be Soviet style or the consumerism of the U.S. — is not solidarity.

Cloud Atlas film money theme

Solidarity is based on the central insight that most of those who occupy a society must recognize not merely that we are all interconnected but that each person must make an effort to understand the ways in which “the other” sees things. It’s the “walk a mile in my shoes” idea. Whatever it means to build a society based on solidarity, as opposed to mere conformity, it has to involve the actual effort of citizens to see each other through the eyes of the other, through the eyes, especially, of those with whom we do not understand.

I’ve only picked at one of the many threads that run through this film. If you’re a Cloud Atlas enthusiast, like myself, I’d be curious as to what it is about the film that hits you. Above all, this is a film that lends itself to many interpretations.

I’ve seen the film at least a half dozen times, I reckon, but I haven’t read the David Mitchell novel, at least not yet. I hope to, though, soon.

Cloud Atlas film music

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

5 thoughts on “Cloud Atlas (film, 2012)”

  1. I watched a show you recommended last year, and now I am curious about this one too.

    Thanx for the recommendations.

    And the theology again… Hmmm…

    That stuff is my bag.

    I want to say (at one level) that the faith tradition I grew up in avoided the label “Evangelical”, and perhaps for good reason, but that would be a fine distinction. Four outsiders, I would say we were close enough to just go ahead and lump us in.

    Now… with that said, I want to say that my adult faith and core beliefs are enhanced and even changed, at some points quite drastically, from what I grew up with. I am a veteran of changing my mind about theological things. I am definitely not, and I think you know this much by now, not your father’s oldsmobile when it comes to Evangelical Christianity.

    Don’t let that fool ya, though. I consider myself quite conservative, but my worldview is much more biblical now than when I was young and accepted the junk theology handed down from my parents (somewhat) and my grandparents (a LOT).

    So, in the specifics of my views, I expect they are not what you would expect. Perhaps they are, but I have come to think I am more unique than that.

    So… reacting theologically (to this and your recent post on communion as well), let me say, I am reading a book right now (not as excited about it mid way as I was at the start) called A Farewell To Mars – its an Evangelical pastor’s journey from supporting war mongering politics to joining Jesus in seeking peace for our world.

    Anyway, this guy raises an observation from Gen 1-11 (the primordial history) that I had never considered. I am not ready to either embrace or reject it, but I do find it curious too, and it resonates with your thoughts a bit, I think. He lumps Cain in with the agriculturalists of primitive cultures and Able with the nomads-shepherds (stopped short of calling him hunter/gatherer). Sure enough the text does describe these brothers in such terms, but this pastor suggests this is symbolic of the ag people killing the nomads. Ag being related to ESTABLISHEMENT types and nomads being related to NATURALISTS. Hmmm…

    Actually, I am finding problems with it he as yet to address, but that is not to say his theory has not merit. Just that if it can hold the merit, it needs to handle some complexities too.

    In my view, the Tower of Babel is a prototype for EMPIRE… and it comes through the line of Lamech and sons. And I find it highly significant that these people on the plains of Shinar set out making BRICKS to build their tower in which they will MAKE A NAME FOR THEMSELVES (I find this resonates with D. Trump at so many levels that it hurts). This is the first time the word for BRICKS appears in the Bible. The next time it comes up is in Exodus where the children of God are enslaved to EMPIRE making bricks for the imperial master from whom God sets them free.

    All of that of course preludes Jesus vs Rome AT THE LEAST.

    But hold that brick idea a moment. Because I think, and you have to do a fair bit of theological reflection to pull this together, but once you do, it seems quite logical and rewarding, the Bible seems to be a bit hostile to the idea of BRICKS.

    WHO KNEW??? And WHY bricks???

    Well, I am sure it is symbolic, but bricks seem to become associated with empires, and empires seem to be pitted against the Kingdom of God all through. Meanwhile in the Kingdom the divinely preferred building material is STONE. And there is that wonderful psalm that tells us the STONE the builders rejected has become the CORNERSTONE in the HOUSE of God (lets let House of God roughly symbolize Kingdom of God in loose terms). But let us also notice that in the Hebrew language ben and eben rhyme. And the psalmist makes a play on words with it meaning STONE symbolizes SON and STONES symbolize SONS. Sons of God are stones of God.

    Thus when you read in Ephesians about Jesus building a temple out of SONS, it all makes sense in this deep theological worldview.

    Anyway, I called myself conservative for a reason. I favor biblical theology to just any theology. But I find these thoughts resonating with yours.

    I don’t claim they are the same at all. I am not trying to get cozy with yours. But there is enough resonance there that sharing our thoughts and considerations stands to enhance things for me.

    Thanx for talking theology. It jazzes me.

    God bless…


    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a huge Cloud Atlas fan and I loved the book, too. I recommend reading it. The part that gripped me the most was the section set in Seoul, both for the rebellion of the servant class and the monstrous consumerist society. I often think about how the well-off folks got a salary and were literally required to spend all of it. No way out of the city if you don’t have any money leftover. Comfortable, but subjugated. Not so different than the fast food clone girls, just with more toys.

    I think David Mitchell is a great writer and creates beautifully written scenes, though his themes and characters do get repetitive if you read several of his books in a row. He’s genius at writing a certain type of elitist, erudite, and completely bitchy man–hysterically funny. Which is great, because usually the rest of his characters are not funny at all. I like his … what would you call it, like magical realism? Slightly supernatural stories taking place in the present day. He’s great at revealing just a bit of weirdness at a time, slowly drawing you in and easily suspending your disbelief.

    The Bone Clocks was another good David Mitchell novel, but it got a bit transparently preachy for my tastes. Still, I enjoyed it and stayed up too late reading it.


      1. Just finished the last page one minute ago. Excellent. The writer has a similar writing style and personality to your own. I think you will enjoy it.


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