Cloud Atlas: Freedom, Dystopias, and Sex Change Operations

On DVD. As a movie fan, I have a love/detest relationship with the Wachowskis. Sometimes, they poop out very terrible pieces of excrement with bad philosophy, like V For Vendetta, and sometimes they make visually stunning, thought-provoking films — with bad philosophy, like The Matrix (I give them a break. No one is a 100% hitter). Cloud Atlas is one of the latter. One thing is for sure, they always deliver consistently bad philosophy. However, like Nietzsche, their hero (they are Nietzschean after all), they are great with words. And they are excellent at embodying their bad philosophy into story. They are great storytellers, these two.

Cloud Atlas is an adaptation of the novel by David Mitchell. The film is a quite fascinating intercutting of six stories that all take place in different time periods and sometimes different planets, yet are all interconnected in their theme because as one of their dialogue memes goes, “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present.” The brilliant hook they provide is that in each story, the same handful of actors play the lead characters in different roles. This is a very creative tactic to embody one of their themes that I will address in a moment.

1) One story takes place in the 1800s about an Englishman’s awakening to the horrors of slavery.

2) Another story takes place in the 1970s about a black American reporter uncovering a scandal by “Big Oil” to ruin the advent of nuclear power.

3) Another story takes place in the Victorian period, I think, about a homosexual music student that transcribes for an old famous composer, who uses the kid’s genius for his own benefit.

4) Another story takes place in the present, where an old geezer is forced into an old folks home by his brother and plans to escape with a motely band of other marginalized oldsters.

5) Another story takes place in the future, where a “fabricant” created for the pleasure of humans becomes self aware and turns into a sort of female messiah of revolution (One of the Wachowskis’ favorite themes)

6) Yet another story takes place in the distant future, after the apocalypse caused by that big oil scam, where a primitive man interacts with an alien humanoid and turns from a coward into a hero.

Whew! That might look like too much to follow, but it really isn’t. They do quite an excellent job of intercutting between cliff hangers of each story and bouncing around between the stories in such a way as to tie them all together in a thematic montage about freedom, oppression, dystopia, and identity politics. “We are bound to others, past and present.”

All the stories are about individuals who discover or live under some kind of oppression, whether its slavery, big corporations, old people in an old folks home, or the government in the future. They each have a unique individuality that causes them to feel constrained by their world and want to break out. Though my personal favorite was the post-apocalyptic story of a man who turns from coward to hero, the most philosophically blatant story is the futuristic dystopia.  There, the society is called “Unanimity,” which obviously represents homogeneity where everyone is the same in one big “unanimous” entity. Wachowskis are GREAT with working quotes elegantly into their storylines, and Cloud Atlas is full of them. Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian intellect who wrote of Soviet Communist oppression of their own people in the post WWII era is quoted, “You can maintain power over people as along as you give them something. Rob a man of everything and you no longer have any power over him.” Beautiful truth that punches through.

Another beautiful phrase is spoken by the old man in the old folks home: “Freedom is the fatuous jingle of our civilization. Only those deprived of it have the barest inkling what it really is.” Yet another line that echoes through the stories in different character’s mouths as the revolutionary inspiration is the line of a movie, “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse.”

Like good Nietzscheans, they struggle against the very nihilism of a naturalistic world without God as several villains repeat, “Only one principle on earth. The weak are meat and the strong do eat.” The characters in this world are shaped by forces that “began long before we are born and go on long after we die.” In the future, fabricants are “expired” by being told they are going to “exaltation” (read: “heaven”), but they are only being processed into food to be given to other fabricants. In other words, transcendent beliefs are delusion. All there is is here and now and the naturalistic processes of life.

Now comes their magic trick. They attach that naturalism, a philosophy that believes in the existence of only natural causation, and therefore no supernatural, and they attach it to the villains in the stories who reiterate the philosophy that “There is a natural order to this world, and it must be protected.” They ask the question that if God created the world, then what changes and what is sacred and inviolable, and they conclude that our identities are socially, or more importantly, individually constructed.

This is identity politics, and I think is the main thematic thrust of the movie. As one character says, “All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended,” and “My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.” And lastly, as another says, “I can feel your heart beating as my own, and I know separation is an illusion.”

I think the import here is definitely the notion that our identities as humans is plastic. It is shaped by our own self-definition, not by God through his natural created order, because they believe there is no natural order of things. To them, the natural order is an oppression. And those who believe in natural law are the villains. So therefore to be a man or woman, gay or straight is oppression and we should be able to craft ourselves as anything we want, an obvious dominant theme in the Wachowski brother’s bad philosophy, and the obvious justification for Lana’s own real world body mutilation to change his gender. I suspect it will be a theme of just about every movie they make since it is at least Lana’s religion.

The way they embody this belief of theirs in the story is quite ingenious though. The same lead characters play the different leads of each story. But more importantly, just about every character plays both a male and female character (with make up of course), and a different race as well in the different stories. So Blacks and Asians play whites and visa versa. They incarnate the plasticity of human identity into their very filming, in order to show that there is no difference between men and women, different races, or even good guy and bad guy, as characters are good guys in one story and bad guys in another. While this certainly holds true for race because race is itself an artificial human construct that is of no significance, it is also applied to things that truly are significantly different, such as gender. So we create ourselves according to this postmodern nonsense.

Now, of course, this is a mixed bag, because the question of freedom and the individual is clearly a powerful and beautiful theme to reveal oppression and totalitarian control of the collective. There is much truth to this story and much beauty in its revelation of the abuse of power and order and the collective. Unfortunately, the filmmakers provide an answer of equal monstrosity, namely the absoluteness of the individual without accountability. They don’t realize that their statement about all of us being connected from womb to tomb by forces beyond us is in fact a statement about the very natural order, boundaries, and collective reality they condemn. Either we are connected to a transcendant order or we are not. Make up your minds, Wachowskis.

It represents the perpetual quest of man to reject God’s order and God’s Law as boundary conditions for our betterment. It is the Edenic rebellion of personal autonomy from our Creator.

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