Boy, does Cloud Atlas look like an ambitious film. A new trailer for the film — which we’ve spotlighted here and here — dropped today, and it’s somewhat confusing to watch if you don’t know that the book it’s based on is made up of six tightly interconnected, time-spanning stories, as you get exactly zero sense of a plot in any traditional sense. But that’s not the real point of what’s going on here:
The trailer is trying to thread a peculiarly difficult needle: give a sense of the movie’s time-spanning multiple-story arc, introduce its Big Ideas, and reassure the viewer that emotionally resonant human stories won’t be lost by the wayside in the process. Each of these elements, unsurprisingly, feels somewhat underserved by the trailer, and Cloud Atlas will succeed inasmuch it manages to effectively juggle all three missions. Judging from the expanded five-minute trailer, I’m cautiously optimistic. There’s a surprising amount of pathos (no doubt helped by the stellar cast) for something that’s fundamentally throwing up a bunch of random scenes with a voiceover about the connections between past and future.
Further piquing my interest is the film’s approach to political history seems connected to a particular philosophical view that isn’t engaged with very much in popular culture. Questions like like “is it OK to restrict some rights in the name of security” or “can economic inequality ever be fair?” are common, but there’s another way of approaching thinking about political justice, most famously associated with Robert Nozick, that sees political morality in terms of a sort of historical fairness. The most relevant moral questions, for Nozick, aren’t who gets what but rather whether the historical processes by people got what they have were fair. Cloud Atlas‘ overarching narrative about the connections between actions in the past and the lives and welfare of people down the line suggests it may be grappling with the sort of questions that consumed Nozick. Moreover, Nozick’s theory is designed to provide a philosophically sophisticated case for libertarianism, but it’s not all that clear that it succeeds at this on its own terms. It’d be interesting to see whether lines like “Our lives are not our own…and by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future” suggest an alternative way of viewing justice across historical boundaries.