This analysis of Cloud Atlas (my favourite film of 2012) was written as an assignment for my Film Structure class at U.C.L.A. taught by Professor Emeritus Howard Suber.
‘Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others,
past and present. And by each crime and every kindness,
we birth our future.’
Cloud Atlas is an epic story of love, kindness, and the circle of life. It is the story of how our actions in the present resonate for years to come, and how our lives are bound to others not just at this point, but in the future. The movie deals with this overarching subject by exploring the lives of six groups of people over six eras – through the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, the letters by Robert Frobisher to Rufus Sixsmith, Half-Lives – A Louisa Rey mystery, The ghastly ordeals of Timothy Cavendish, Revelations of Sonmi-451 and the story being told by Zachry to his grandchildren. Each story, while bring physically connected through books, letters and stories, is also inexorably linked to the other by a bond of compassion and human suffering. While they don’t realise it then, by their effort to challenge the existing social order, they inspire each other. Adam’s Journal keeps Frobisher company and gives him the courage to complete his composition. Frobisher’s letters and music inspire Louisa to fight for a man she barely knows. Louisa’s story inspires Cavendish to go against the establishment, who in turn powers Sonmi to refuse being subjected to ‘criminal abuse’. Sonmi comes to be revered as a Goddess, whose revelations become the tenets that the valleyfolk live by.
‘There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well.’ Each story begins with a description of the world it is set in, a world with a pre-existing social order. From slavery at the time of Adam Ewing, to ‘replicants’ serving ‘consumers’ (purebloods) in 2144 – every human era has one social order – the strong rule over the weak. Even in the years after The Fall, the Meronyms are considered a higher social order over the valley folk, which live in fear of the cannibal tribes, the Kona. (Not surprisingly, in this story, the more advanced race are dark-skinned, reflecting the idea of circle of life.) The Hero in each story, in the beginning, understands this ‘natural order’ and complies with it, quelling all internal doubts. Adam Ewing pretends to understand the ‘natural order’ of slavery in spite of being uncomfortable with the idea. The rebel, outcaste musician, Robert Frobisher understands the laws of his society that is governed by reputation and does not approve of his sexual orientation. He knows that the only way for him to gain credit is to work with a master musician. Louisa Rey lives in an era where her sex resigns her to report for gossip magazines instead of serious journalistic work. Timothy Cavendish is forced into Aurora House, where age and strength are all against him – is they were in the outside world as well. Sonmi-451 understands the governing catechisms of the replicants’ lives and is an ideal server at Papa Song’s. Zachry, tormented by the devil and terrified of the Kona, allows his brother in law to die at their hands.
‘Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes, over and over.’ All the characters realise fundamentally the uneven balance of power. But they are all reluctant to be the catalyst for that change. They have a seed of compassion, however, that leads them to the inevitable trap. Adam saves Autua and allows him to hide in his storage cabin with him, thus forging a forbidden friendship between a white man and a black slave. Robert begins work on his own composition, braving the future and a potentially harsh society. Louisa decides to explore the mystery surrounding Sixsmith’s death in spite of knowing that this mystery was probably the cause. Cavendish decides to join the alliance with some other inmates and makes plans to escape. Sonmi-451 does not report her friend’s transgressions as a replicant and instead keeps them a secret. Zachry offers to take Meronym to the mountains even though he believes the devil lives there, so that she would save his niece.
‘The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.’ Eventually, they all find themselves trapped between their own actions and the social order, where the strong hold power. Adam is trapped between his act of compassion and the men on board, as well as his friend, Dr. Goose. Similarly, when Vyvyan forces Frobisher to allow him to take primary credit for the Cloud Atlas Sextet, Frobisher is trapped between his dream and his reputation in society. Louisa is trapped between the need to expose the dangerous truth behind the Swannekee project and her life. Cavendish is trapped within Aurora House due to his former misdeeds and by the dictatorial staff. Sonmi-451 is trapped between staying behind and getting discovered, or escaping to the outside world illegally. Zachry is trapped between his fear of the devil and his curiosity and promise to Meronym.
‘I am not genomed to alter reality.’ – ‘No revolutionary ever was.’ Through reading and knowing of each other’s travails, our heroes begin to question the so-called natural order. They realise the innate cruelty within the order, the skewed reality and misconceptions that abound. They begin to face and conquer their fears. The creation of an order has been an oft-repeated mistake over generations, but if the order had changed before, it surely could change now. Adam’s life is saved from the clutches of the man he considered a friend by the slave Autua, changing his perceptions of the man he considered barbaric. Frobisher accidentally shoots Vyvyan and runs away with his composition, finishing it alone in a hotel room. Louisa overcomes the attempts on her life and goes in search of Sixsmith’s niece. Cavendish, along with his mates, plans and executes his escape from Aurora House. Sonmi, having realised the cruel nature of her existence, decides to reveal the truth and to lead the revolution. Zachry overcomes his fear of the devil and the cannibals, fighting and killing them in the woods.
‘What is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?’ Each hero understands that his actions alone may never make a dent, but even if it affects all but one other person, their act of rebellion will not be in vain. Adam knows he alone cannot end slavery, but his action will count towards it. Frobisher knows that many may not hear his music, ‘I’m a spent firework, but at least I have been a firework’. Louisa knows that her attempts may kill her, but also that if she did not try, thousands would be killed. Cavendish knows he can never go back to the city, but now understands that ‘it is attitude, not years, that condemns one to the ranks of the undead.’ Sonmi knows her mission is bound to fail and people may not believe her truth, but someone already does. Zachry is aware that Meronym’s call for help may never be answered by the offshore colonies, but he moves with her for a better life and future and away from what remains of his home.