Sunday 7 July 2013

Cloud Atlas

See here for an official trailer for Cloud Atlas:

A few months ago word reached me of a new movie coming out with the intriguing title of Cloud Atlas; most people in the conspiracy/paranormal community who had seen it were raving about it. I tend to be cautious about excessive hype because I find it is rarely deserved, and falling too much into the spirit of its enthusiasm tends to lead to disappointment when I view the object of it. I walked into the cinema thinking that surely Cloud Atlas couldn’t be that good, could it? Yes it could, and it was. I’m so accustomed to reviewing books and films I can’t stand, so please indulge me while I review one I love for a change.

The film is by Andy and Lana Wachowski the cinematic siblings who brought us such greats as the Matrix Trilogy and V for Vendetta. The film’s intricate plot requires concentration to follow, but it is well worth the effort. The film is based on a novel by David Mitchell and the greater story arc evolves across six independent sub-stories that are set in different eras over a time period of nearly five hundred years; three are in the past, one in the present and two in the future. Despite this the events in one tale influence those in succeeding ones, and amazingly, preceding ones too. The way this occurs is found in Oriental philosophy, a subject that has influenced the Wachowskis in other films they’ve made. The different characters in the various scenarios are actually separate incarnations of immortal souls. This is explained several times in different ways; for instance Sonmi-451 in Scenario 5 says: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present; and by each crime and every kindness we birth our future”. In Scenario 3 the character Isaac Sachs experiences the same revelation although he describes it very differently because he’s a physicist: “Belief, like fear or love, is a force to be understood. As we understand the Theory of Relativity or the Principles of Uncertainty. Phenomena that determine the course of our lives… These forces that remake time and space, that can shape and alter who we imagine ourselves to be begin long before we’re born and continue long after we perish. Our lives and our choices, like quantum trajectories, are understood moment to moment. At each point of intersection, each new encounter suggests a new potential direction.” What I find interesting is that the different souls incarnate as very different personalities playing very different roles. The various incarnations can be both protagonists and antagonists, depending on the scenario. Also some of them play major characters in one scenario and are virtually cameo in another. One of them, which I’ll call Soul TH because he’s played by the actor Tom Hanks, starts off as a murderous quack doctor then goes on to become a blackmailing hotel receptionist, a mild-mannered and thoughtful nuclear power station engineer, a violent Gypsy novelist, a movie actor and a troubled uncle. All the characters in the story have a birthmark on their skins resembling a comet; this suggests that they are what Michael Newton calls a “soul group”, a collection of separate spiritual entities who are, at a higher level, all one; excuse the cliché, but it is an accurate description. See: The soul reflects on itself by incarnating into these various alternating experiences.

The film takes a lot of stamina to watch and the most common criticism laid out is that it’s too long and complicated. It is epic in length, a hundred and seventy two minutes, and the film makers treat the viewer very roughly, but is this a bad thing? They want us to think and they demand the effort from us to do so. They consider the viewer an intelligent intellectual and provide a challenge that they feel is appropriate; they consider us up to the job and so push us hard. What a relief that is from a media whose role is normally the opposite! Cloud Atlas is definitely an art-house flick, not a general release film aimed simply at the mass market; if anybody doesn’t like it they can go vegetate themselves in front of Battle of Los Angeles! It is an independent production by the German producer Tom Tykwer; he also co-directed it along with the Wachowskis, and he composed its award-winning score. It’s one of the most expensive independent movies ever made, its $102 million budget coming mostly from German arts company sponsors. The production was deeply troubled; it almost went bankrupt and the film came perilously close to being cancelled more than once, but the cast and crew were determined to finish it and they even had a whip-round to fund some of it out of their own pockets; the thing was funded partly out of donations from the actors you see on the screen and the people behind the cameras who made it happen. I’m pleased to say that the film has so far grossed $28 million, with the DVD newly launched and home sales yet to come in. Along with the money problems were the logistics. The multiple scenarioes would have taken a couple of years to film with a single unit so the film was shot in parallel. The obvious problem was that any miscalculation of the schedule means that the actors or crew-members could be double-booked. Suppose the unit in the studio in Germany told Hugh Grant, or an indispensable technical expert, they needed him at the very same moment the location team in Edinburgh did? It must have given Tykwer nightmares! 
In discussing the plot it’s easiest to name the characters by the souls they have inside them through the entire film, not just the characters they play in the separate scenarioes. I’ve already mentioned Soul TH, played by Tom Hanks. The others I’ll call Soul HB, played by the actress Halle Berry; Soul JS, played by actor James Sturgess; Soul DB, played by actress Doona Bae; Soul JB, played by the actor Jim Broadbent; Soul BW, played by actor Ben Whishaw; Soul HW, played by the actor Hugo Weaving (Smith in the Wachowskis’ Matrix films of course); Soul JD, played by actor James D’Arcy; Soul ZX, played by actress Zhou Xun; Soul KD, played by actor Keith David; Soul DG, played by actor David Gyasi; Soul SS, played by actress Susan Sarandon; and Soul HG, played by actor Hugh Grant.

Scenario 1: This opening scenario is set in the South Pacific in 1859. Adam Ewing, Soul JS, is young newlywed lawyer from San Fransisco who is seeking his fortune as part of his father-in-law’s business, the slave trade. He sails to an island and falls ill from shock while witnessing the mistreatment of black slaves, including Souls DG and HB. He is treated by the ship’s doctor, Soul TH, a Dr Goose, who secretly tries to poison him while pretending to cure him. Luckily one of the slaves, Soul DG, stows away on board the ship and rescues him from the doctor’s clutches. He persuades the ship’s captain, Soul JB, to take him on as a member of the crew. His friendship with the slave causes him to question the morality of slavery. His father-in-law, Soul HW tells him that he is violating a “natural order”, a statement that recurs several times throughout the film. In fact there’s a quote first uttered by Dr Goose, Soul TH, which comes back more than once: “There’s only one rule which binds all people: the weak are meat and the strong do eat”. This is the basis of Social Darwinism and the “It’s a dog-eat-dog world, Man!” ideal, see: The outdoor scenes of Scenario 1 were filmed in the Mediterranean on the Balearic Islands.
Scenario 2: Souls BW and JD play a pair of homosexual men in Cambridge University in 1936 called Rufus Sixsmith and Robert Frobisher. As a gay couple in those days they have to keep their relationship secret, but they are eventually separated for good when Frobisher goes to Scotland to work for a famous, but elderly, classical composer Vyvyan Ayrs, Soul JB. Frobisher goes through a straight phase and has an affair with Ayrs’ younger wife Jocasta, Soul HB; but his musical partnership with Ayrs only really breaks down when Ayrs tries to plagiarize ones of Frobisher’s own compositions, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, which is also the score to the movie. When Frobisher challenges him, Ayrs threatens to publicize Frobisher’s homosexuality and disgrace him. Frobisher shoots himself after a very moving sequence in Edinburgh where he comes close to being reunited with Sixsmith. Sadly their plans are thwarted by the brief appearance of an avaricious hotelier, Soul TH, back on Earth as a similar person to Dr Goose. This part of the film includes an abstract scene in which Sixsmith and Frobisher are in a china shop breaking everything; it is very reminiscent of the scene in V for Vendetta where V topples dominoes. Oddly enough Frobisher comes across the published journal of Adam Ewing and becomes enthralled by it; this happens in all the scenarioes, a physical as well as a spiritual link, bonds each one with the previous one.
Scenario 3: This is set in San Francisco in 1973 but was in fact filmed in Scotland, mostly around Glasgow; I know somebody who went to watch while they were doing the street scenes there. Soul HB comes back as Luisa Rey, a roving reporter who lets nothing stand in the way of a good story. She is the daughter of a famous war correspondent, Soul DG, now deceased. She discovers that the manager of a nearby nuclear power station, Soul HG, who along with Soul HW, seems to always incarnate as unpleasant people, is secretly working for an oil company and wants to stage a nuclear accident to keep people using oil and not alternatives like nuclear fission power (This is not a real alternative in my view, but that’s a big subject that I discuss elsewhere, see: Like many TV detectives she has a young child as a side-kick, a boy called Javier. She’s also helped by Soul KD, a former solider whose life was saved by her father, and an older Rufus Sixsmith, the only character who appears in more than one scenario as the same physical person. In this scenario, Soul DB plays a brief but essential role; she becomes much busier later on in the film. The most remarkable sequence is where Luisa meets up with Soul TH incarnate as a very different person, Isaac Sachs, the aforementioned mild-manner scientist. They’ve never met before, but they experience a strange and sudden sense of recognition. This has happened to me when I meet new people sometimes. The strange thing is that Souls TH and HB have not encountered each other before in the timeline, but they become very close indeed later. So they effectively experience a memory that is not from a past life, but from a future one! Along with Sachs she very much warms to Sixsmith too and uncovers the love letters he exchanged with Frobisher. She goes out and buys a rare vinyl disk copy of his Cloud Atlas Sextet. The man serving behind the counter has it on in the shop at the time. He says: “I only played it to check it wasn’t scratched, but I can’t stop listening to it.” This might be because the salesman is Soul JD and he composed it himself in a previous life.
Scenario 4: London 2012. This contemporary segment has a very different feel to the others; it’s much more light-hearted in style, almost a comedy. Soul JB is Timothy Cavendish, a successful publisher who is promoting his newest author, a rough and choleric Irishman or Gypsy called Dermot Hoggins, Soul TH, who has written his autobiography. At a party on the top floor of a hotel, they run into a critic who recently panned the book. Hoggins is so angry that he throws the critic off a balcony where he falls to his death. The scandal that erupts makes the book an overnight bestseller. Hoggins is in jail and so cannot earn royalties; this allows Cavendish to make even more profit, but unfortunately Hoggins’ brothers are not in jail and they are as violent as the author. So they come to Cavendish and threaten him for the money. Cavendish can’t afford to pay them and so asks his brother Denholme, Soul HG, to hide him in a hotel. There he hopes to continue his next project, a manuscript submitted by Javier, Luisa Rey’s kid detective right-hand man, an adult now of course, about the intrigue in Scenario 3. Things get worse when it turns out Denholme has tricked his brother into being signed into a secure old people’s home for Alzheimers sufferers, which oddly enough is Vyvyan Ayrs’ old mansion converted; this is because Cavendish had a secret affair with his wife previously. Cavendish and a few of the other residents have to make a jail-break style escape and are thwarted by Nurse Noakes, a huge, violent and very physically powerful woman, Soul HW. At the end Cavendish finds his long-lost childhood sweetheart, Soul SS, and goes to live with her. The interesting part of the story is that just before Hoggins attacks the critic he catches eyes with a nameless woman at the party and stops to look at her. This woman is actually Soul HB and he must have experienced another subconscious memory of her like he did when they met in Scenario 3.
In Scenario 5 we see Soul DB in her biggest role in the film, this segment features two Asian actresses, the South Korean Doon Bae and Chinese Zhou Xun, in their first major international parts. The setting is a megacity called Neo Seoul in Korea in the year 2144. Soul DB is a Sonmi-451, a genetically-modified human clone who is used as a slave in a tacky fast food joint. She breaks her programming when she forms a friendship with Yoona-939, Soul ZX, another clone who does not have the usual mind control that is supposed to be inbred in clones. She introduces Sonmi-451 to free thought; together they watch films, including a movie made about the adventures of Timothy Cavendish in Scenario 4, played by an actor animated by Soul TH. The customers at the burger bar treat the clones with contempt, insulting them and sexually harassing them for their amusement. Yoona-939 is killed by the manager, Soul HG, when she strikes back at one of the customers. She says: “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!”, a line from Timothy Cavendish which she picked up from the film. Sonmi-451 is rescued by the leader of the anti-government resistance. It appears that the world, or at least Korea, in that future date is ruled by a despotic regime called “Unanimity”. The clones are fed from packets of processed food that are made in secret from the bodies of other clones who have been killed when they are no longer useful to the system. Oddly enough this obscene nutritional concoction is nicknamed “soap”; and when Cavendish is under the brutal charge of Nurse Noakes she threatens to force-feed him soap flakes. If I recall, the symbolism of soap comes up another time in the movie and other such curious connotations are woven into the story. Sonmi-451 escapes with the resistance leader, Soul JS. They go to Hawaii where Sonmi-451 makes a broadcast to the whole Earth and its colonies in space just before she is captured and executed.
Scenario 6 is set in the year 2321 in Hawaii, although it was filmed by the same unit who filmed Scenario 1 on Mallorca and the other Balearics. Zachry, Soul TH and his sister Rose, Soul ZX, live in a post-apocalyptic pastoral society on the Big Island of Hawaii. They speak in a peculiar constructed dialect that is very hard to understand; for instance “true-true” means “truth” “yeasoe” means to approve of something, “cog” means “to know” and “keeping eyewise” means to watch over somebody. This language is not subtitled and following it is one of the biggest challenges of the film. The community is unfortunately preyed upon by a tribe of violent cannibals called the Kona whose leader is Soul HG. To make matters worse Zachry, is tormented by visions of a demonic entity called “Old Georgie”, Soul HW; we get a bit of Karma or future-life-memory because the demon tells Zachry “the weak are meat and the strong do eat” like he, Soul TH, told Adam Ewing in Scenario 1. However they have a history in their society and they worship the memory of Sonmi-451, although they misinterpret her as a religion. The priestess of this religion is called the “abbess”, Soul SS. Zachry’s culture has contact with outsiders who have a much more technologically advanced civilization and they visit the island occasionally to trade. One of these is Meronym, Soul HB, who wants to locate the transmitter from which Sonmi-451 made her broadcast, and to find out if any of the off-world colonies still exist. Zachry takes her there and they receive a signal. The film begins and ends in Scenario 6 with a brief prologue and epilogue. At the start an elderly Zachry is relating a tale over a campfire in a troubled tone. At the end we realize that he is actually telling this story to his enraptured grandchildren and there’s a heartwarming scene in which we realize that he has moved to an off-world colony himself with Meronym, with whom he has fallen in love and started a family. Maybe this is why, as Isaac Sachs and Dermot Hoggins, he recognized Luisa Rey and the woman at the party. They were, quite literally, his soulmate.
Cloud Atlas really is a supreme cinematic achievement, if you don’t mind me lapsing into the kind of pretentious pseudo-intellectual terminology “duh cwitics” always use. The real critics are completely polarized over this film; it seems to be the kind of movie you either love or hate. When it premiered at the Toronto Film festival it received a ten-minute standing ovation, but others have called it “an honourable failure, but a failure nonetheless”. The Guardian said it “carried all the hallmarks of a giant folly” and Slant magazine considers is “a total and unparalleled disaster!” In my view, as a writer of fiction myself, the only way to deal with the critics is to develop a very thick skin and ignore them, see:; however tempting it might be to throw them off a balcony like Dermot Hoggins. I have nothing but praise for this mind-expanding, inspiring and uplifting movie. It has been nominated for several anti-prizes, such as the “Movie you Most Wanted to Love but Couldn’t” and the Village Voice Worst Film of 2012, but it won every German film award on the books and also got several accolades for its make-up. Best of all, it won a Golden Globe for its score, the classical Cloud Atlas Sextet, which was composed both inside the story and behind the scenes; like the film it is divided into six movements. The beauty of the score perfectly complements the joyous and adventurous spiritual intrigue of the film itself. It has a scope beyond what is almost comprehensible, and yet it is strangely so logical and tangible. “Everything is connected” is the motto of the movie. It means what your great grandfather’s postman decided to do on just one occasion can decide the outcome of a global revolution three hundred years later. This is not a new idea; on the contrary, the notion behind the story of Cloud Atlas is one of the most primeval themes in human thought. It can be found in the most ancient wisdom teachers of India and Ancient Egypt. The notion is that mankind is far more than the sum of its parts. Its parts being isolated physical beings, which come from oblivion and return to it having no effect we are not able to immediately induce with the brute force of our hands; an effect which fades back into the matrix of chaos soon after it is enacted. The more force, the longer delay before its inevitable extinction; the “bungled and the botched” of Friedrich Nietzsche’s worldview (in Bertrand Russell’s commentary). It is instead the perennial philosophy, one which came down from the Orient and Egypt; one which has always been the basis of indigenous cultures across the world and inspired and the wiser minds of Greece and Rome. It can be found in the gnostic heresy of Christianity and Islam, heresies for which their proponents endured lingering deaths and genocide at the hands of the Vatican authorities, because they merely spoke it. We are all spiritual beings having a human experience; this is a formula repeated so often that it has almost lost its meaning in the New Age and Spiritualism, despite the fact that it is so important and true. This is what I think Jesus learned during nearly all of his life that was edited out of the Bible, between his childhood and the last few months before the Crucifixion; did you really think that was all there was to him? I think he spent those years with the Essenes, the Jewish gnostics who lived mystical lives beside the Dead Sea and wrote Mary Magdalene’s lost gospels of Nag Hamadi. All these eternal and ubiquitous themes are explored in this magnificent film, Cloud Atlas. Not only the deep and profound, but the simple and everyday feelings, the divinity in the very ordinary humanity of people, especially in Scenario 4. Mr Meeks who helped Tim Cavendish break out of the old people’s home where his brother had imprisoned him, only uttered one thing for nearly all of the film: “I know”. But those two words sum up the entire film. “The weak are meat and the strong do eat” are the words Soul TH both uses and has to hear, the words of social Darwinism, the ethics of the Illuminati who have made it their “Great Work of Ages” to keep ancient knowledge from the people. The manifesto of Sonmi-451, Soul DB, are the death knell for everything they have done. We are coming close to a time in history when films like Cloud Atlas will truly be the illustrations of the end, and the new beginning. Sonmi-451 was a nameless, faceless GMO clone who spent every waking hour flipping burgers for “consumers” who were almost as mindless as she was expected to be. But she became one of the most important people who ever lived once she understood the secret that has been kept from us to maintain our servitude. We are all Sonmi-451’s; all of us are nobodies and all of us are everything. That is what Cloud Atlas describes and illustrates better than any film I’ve ever seen. So, do go and see it; it’s still showing in a few small picture houses and the DVD is now on sale in all good shops, and can be purchased online: