Cloud Atlas and the Act of Telling of a Story

Over the next few weeks, I will be releasing a series of 10 essays about my top 10 films of the 2010s. These will not be comprehensive, lengthy essays about every aspect of each of the films, but will instead be shorter essays about single elements that I found worth discussing or interesting. These essays will not necessarily spoil every part of the film but they will be spoiling elements fairly freely. Obviously I recommend you see each of these films.

#3: Cloud Atlas

Note: As part of its commentary on the movement of souls through time, this film has several actors appear in cross-racial makeup, including a few white actors in what can unfortunately be described as Yellow Face. While I understand the intent, I wish the directors had found a way to realize their vision in a way that didn’t harken back to regressive casting policies of older Hollywood (and indeed, modern Hollywood). I do think the issue is more complicated than it appears, but it’s also not my place, as a white person, to absolve the directors of responsibility for it, if indeed they deserve absolution. However it would also be disingenuous for me to deny what an effect this film had on me, but I don’t begrudge anyone for whom this makes the film unpalatable or unwatchable.

There are a lot of was one could use to approach Cloud Atlas as a film; An essay on its editing alone could easily surpass the loose limits I’ve put on this project, and the acting is so good it probably deserves a book on its own (seriously, Halle Berry is so so good in this movie). But as with all these essays, I want to zero in on one point about this film: This film is about the stories we, as people, tell ourselves.

It’s not, we must say, exceptionally subtle about this, especially once you know to look for it. Consider, for example, how each story inevitably becomes a story that guides and directs the people in the story that follows after it: Ewing’s journal is published and read by Frobishers, whose letters to his lover Sixsmith are read by Louisa Rey, whose story becomes a novel that is read by Timothy Cavendish, whose escape becomes a movie that inspires Sonmi-451, whose words become the religion that guides Zachry. Even Zachary’s plotline becomes yet another story he tells to his grandchildren in the film’s prologue and epilogue.

This in and of itself is a neat trick, but what makes it interesting to me is not just what all these stories have in common in their themes (which we’ll talk about in a moment) but in how many of them are, on some level or another, foregone conclusions by the midpoint of the film. Adam Ewing’s journal has been published, so he must have made it through his struggles, Frobisher’s story opens with him planning his suicide (and we know from Louisa’s story that his lover, Sixsmith, dies old and alone), we see the final moments of Cavendish’s story in Somni’s, Somni’s story is told by her in jail in preparation for her execution and the entire movie opens with an elderly Zachary telling his story. Except for Louisa, we know (broadly speaking) which of our protagonists will live and will die at the end of their stories from the middle of the movie forward.

This is not to say that the film lacks dramatic tension, it still has it in spades, but to help redirect our attention. The point then becomes the act of telling these stories, of examining their themes and trying to figure out what they’re trying to tell us. And while there are a variety of themes present in each specific story, the consistent throughline of every story is the importance of community, collective action and bridging gaps between cultures. Everyone, from Ewing and Autua becoming friends despite being from entirely different classes, to Zachary and Meronym bridging the gap between their future cultures, every story hammers this theme. The only character who abandons his community and tries to strike out on his own is Frobisher and he’s the only one who has a truly tragic ending.

And here is where I think this aspect of Cloud Atlas really comes into its own, because while the heroes are absorbing the stories of the people who came before them, using them to guide their own actions and beliefs, the villains are not without their own stories. I’m not saying the villains are deep and complex characters, almost all of them are fairly one dimensional, which is tonally consistent with the rest of the film, but they are also not without their guiding philosophy. All of them, in fact, have the same guiding philosophy; That there is a natural order to things, with certain kinds of people on top and other kinds of people on the bottom. These can be based on race, class, age, sexual preference, it doesn’t matter. In fact, as the science fiction settings of Sonmi-451 and Zachary prove, in the absence of the pre-existing hierarchies, men like this will invent new ones; Fabricant vs. Trueborn or Valleysman vs. Kona.

The villain’s beliefs coalesce across all the stories into a single guiding philosophy that sits at the core of all their actions; That since they are strong, everything they do with that strength is justified by their having it, and any attempt to disrupt or adjust that power structure is unnatural and must be stopped. This can be the societal strength of the slavers or the physical strength of the cannibalistic Kona, it doesn’t matter as long as they have the power. As Dr. Goose says straight to Ewing’s face at one point; The weak are meat and the strong do eat.

But that’s where Cloud Atlas disagrees, where it uses its stories to counter that narrative, to show that this belief isn’t some biotruth about the human condition, it’s just another story that the villains tell themselves, to justify the things they’ve already decided to do. There may always be evil people in every time (usually played by Hugo Weaving), telling the story that the weak don’t deserve consideration and that the strong will always be justified in preying upon them, but we don’t have to listen to them. We can choose community, love and acceptance, and that those things will triumph over the kind of people who believe that power is best used to prey upon the weak. Those might be stories we tell ourselves too, and they might be unrealistic stories, but we can use them to guide us forward, to tell them again and again until we can make them a reality. We don’t have to believe the people who have been telling us for hundreds of years that they’re right just because they’re powerful.

We can choose to tell better stories.