The Wachowski’s ambitious film Cloud Atlas (2012) doesn’t achieve everything it aims for, but it does achieve a lot of what it wants. At least I think it does. Having read the novel by David Mitchell, I’m a little concerned that the film would make no sense to those who don’t know the source material.
For example, the title is never explained in the movie, but comes from this passage in the book. Zachery (the post-apocalyptic Tom Hanks character in the film) says the Abbess taught him that,
Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ’morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass and’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds (p. 308).
This is the clearest hint in the novel to the intention behind the device of telling six stories. Note that, while it initially sounds like reincarnation – a soul can stay the same while returning under a different appearance later in history – the point is really about epistemic uncertainty (“Who can say…”) in that, whenever we are encounter someone in life, we don’t know who they were before or who they will be later. The enemy I’m tempted to kill now might have been my grandmother in a past life or could return as my grandson in the next life. And the point here is not metaphysical – the author doesn’t really believe in reincarnation. The point is that we are all connected by a map only God knows. So a “cloud atlas”, is a map of souls’ movements across history.
But “atlas” is something else, too. It is the Greek titan who holds up the earth, the metaphor Ayn Rand used in her novel Atlas Shrugged to describe those “titans” of industry, job creators who prop up the economy while the rest of us lazily take from them. Rand imagines the titans “shrugging” the world off their shoulders, going on “strike” and refusing to let others take from them any more. Many newspaper editors used clever titles for their negative reviews of the film, playing on the phrase “Cloud Atlas Shrugged”. But this is more true than they realized. The parallel is intentional.
Both novels end in apocalypse. But, for Rand, the problem is that the government won’t leave self-made businessmen alone to pursue profit in their own way, and our only hope for salvation is unbridled self-interested competition and survival of the economically fittest individual. For Mitchell, on the other hand, the problem is that the government has left businesses alone, and their endless pursuit of profit has cannibalized itself, so only altruistic suppression of self-will though a recognition of humanity’s interconnectedness can save us.
In short, Cloud Atlas is the anti- Atlas Shrugged. Whereas Atlas Shrugged promotes egoistic individualism in pursuit of capitalistic greed, Cloud Atlas argues that the logic of corporate capitalism is self-destructive because individualism is an illusion. According to Cloud Atlas, we are all connected and therefore altruism is the only appropriate way of life, even if individuals’ greed and egoism makes altruism a dangerous creed to hold.
Thus, despite is apparent affirmation of reincarnation, Cloud Atlas is actually close to Christianity. Christ’s call to love our enemies is certainly incompatible with Atlas Shrugged. So is Paul’s statement that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another”, not to mention John Donne’s sermon in which he argues that “no man is an island entire of itself; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”. Collectivism, not individualism, is the Christian heritage.
So what about that reincarnation stuff? That the film isn’t really about reincarnation should be indicated by the fact that the two symbols of reincarnation – the use of the same actor to play multiple roles and the use of the same birthmark showing up on different characters – don’t line up. The birthmark doesn’t follow the actor. Also, when Tom Hanks tells Halley Berry he thinks he knew her in a past life, he’s wrong – he won’t meet her again for 200 years. (Here is the best discussion of the birthmark stuff I’ve read.) The point in the novel is much clearer: we all share the same universal human nature.
So we shouldn’t read the end of the gay character’s storyline as an affirmation that his particular soul will be reunited with his lover’s particular soul; instead, it is the recognition that, because we are all one, then the two of them will be eternally united anywhere anyone is in love. This is what he means when he says,
“All boundaries are conventions. One can transcend a convention if only one can conceive of doing so. … Separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond me.”
This is not about overcoming all rules, only boundaries between people, those hierarchical distinctions between people that oppress them. We’re all connected, and no one, however weak, is simply “meat” for the “strong to eat”.