“All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended,” intones one of Cloud Atlas’ ubiquitous voiceovers. It sounds trite or, worse, meaningless, a point the film’s harsher critics have delighted in making. But for all of Cloud Atlas‘ bombastic presentation, its actual argument is a subtle meditation on the tortured relationship between power and emancipation, one that marries two seemingly inconsistent approaches to the world into a novel notion of human freedom. That the film dunks this argument in a vat of sentimentality obscures the point, but it’s there. And it’s entrancing.
The movie’s six interconnected stories, spanning the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future, all share a habit of conveying the movie’s basic moral point — everyone should help each other be free! — in the cinematic equivalent of all caps. I, for one, was delighted by this, but I can see why others might complain that this isn’t much intellectual heft for a movie purporting to be about ideas. But there’s a danger in assuming any movie’s most obvious message is the only thing has to say. Cloud Atlas is a case in point.
Take the plot centering on Adam Ewing, a pre-Civil War lawyer stuck on a merchant vessel in the Pacific Ocean. In a certain sense, it’s the bluntest moral arc in the film — through his friendship with escaped slave Autua, Ewing goes from chatting about racist theories of history at the dinner table to abandoning his father-in-law’s slavetrading business in favor of a life as an abolitionist activist. Your garden-variety contemporary American morality tale, right?
On the surface, yes, but the ways in which Autua’s struggle prompts Ewing’s evolution betrays a nuanced understanding of what it means to have power over another person and when it’s right to use it. Autua convinces Ewing to help him stow away on the ship not by a direct, simple appeal to their shared humanity — indeed, he tries that and it fails. Rather, Autua takes out a knife and puts it to his own throat, demanding Ewing slit it rather than leave him to the more terrible death that stowaways face after they are, inevitably, discovered. Forced to confront the fact that his inaction will kill Autua as surely, and more horribly, than murdering him, Ewing feels compelled to become Autua’s advocate. Autua survives not by killing Ewing or winning him over with words, but by embracing the desperation of his own situation. Autua found power in his own seeming powerlessness.
If this analysis of power sounds familiar, that’s because it’s straight out of influential social theorist Michel Foucault’s work. Foucault’s mantra is that “power is fluid,” by which he means that it’s a mistake to think that force, constraint, and privilege are the only avenues to change the world. In his view, the power to change the world can be found anywhere; those who seem beaten down often have unexpected and unpredictable ways to turn the tables. But there’s a dark side as well — because power (understood as the ability to direct the behavior of others) is everywhere in human interactions, it also can constrain those who believe themselves to be free. Methods of domination, for Foucault, can often be as unexpected and invisible as opportunities for freedom.
Foucault’s understanding of power is nearly omnipresent in Cloud Atlas; many of the stories critically involve finding power in unexpected places. Robert Frobisher, the brilliant gay composer, escapes his debts by becoming an assistant to the more famous Vyvyan Ayrs. The relationship appears to be mutually beneficial; a friendship built on deep intellectual appreciation of music. But that move ends up trapping Frobisher further, as Ayrs exploits Frobisher’s dependence on him to demand the younger composer credit Ayrs with his original work or else be ruined. Frobisher’s response, an escape to finish his work and then suicide, is the film’s only tragic ending, but nonetheless a small victory in the sense that we see in 1975 that Frobisher succeeded in claiming his masterpiece.
The other stories, excepting the formulaic 70s detective yarn, are suffused with an optimistic Foucaultian idea that unexpected wells of power allow for liberation from overt repression. In the 22nd century’s corporate-totalitarian Korea, Sonmi-451, a member of a genetically engineered slave class destined for industrialized murder, delivers a political address that’s forceful both for its content and because it upends the expectations of what eloquence and insight someone considered subhuman can marshal. In post-apocalyptic Hawaii, we see that Sonmi won, her message of hope of shared humanity becoming a holy writ for the people who survived beyond the fall of Neo Seoul. Likewise, book publisher Timothy Cavendish escapes his authoritarian nursing home (itself a rather Foucaultian idea) by playing on his oppressors’ expectation that the elderly are liable to keel over to set a trap for the brutal Nurse Noakes. Perceived weakness once again becomes a source of strength.
Notice that in each of these stories, the goal of the protagonists is the same — a desire for freedom that remains constant throughout time and space. This quite overt theme evokes nothing more than Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, who believed that what people wanted, at their core, was recognition as equals by others. For Fukuyama (and Cloud Atlas), people across time have always wanted others to treat them and their desires as worthy of respect, which means giving them the freedom to pursue their dreams. Human nature is at its core a desire to be free. Cloud Atlas represents this abstract idea quite literally, by taking six stories involving people of different races, classes, and genders, and making every hero’s quest about freeing themselves and others from bondage and oppression.
Ironically, Foucault condemned thinkers like Fukuyama that believed in a constant human nature. For Foucault, freedom came from “never [accepting anything as definitive…No aspect of reality should be allowed to become a definitive and inhuman law for us.” The notion of a universal human nature was dangerous, something that had historically been used to control and dominate people that don’t fit the model. So Cloud Atlas, then, is doing something quite ambitious – attempting to sympathize two competing strains of 20th century thought into one consistent strain; developing, in essence, a universal Foucaultian theory of human freedom, opposed by the declarations from Hugo Weaving’s various villains that “there is a natural order to things” where one group of people control the fates of the rest. That’s hardly the intellectually anemic film some critics would have you think!
This intellectual framework can help us understand Cloud Atlas’ most controversial feature: its casting of actors to play characters of races and genders not their own. It’s not for me, a white man, to determine whether or not the directors succeeded in handling this in a way that’s appropriately sensitive to the fraught history surrounding (for example) yellowface. But given that the directors say they were inspired by Foucault, I can understand what they were aiming for, even if they didn’t achieve it. Foucault believed sexual identities were social constructs, notions produced by culture rather than biology. Several thinkers, most famously Edward Said and Judith Butler, haves used Foucault’s arguments about sexuality to argue that race and gender were similarly imposed on people rather than natural parts of their identity. Casting actors outside their “normal” race and gender could seem a pretty powerful way of pointing out the artificiality (from a Foucaultian point of view) of these categories, even though it might slight the very real value that many people derive from the gender and racial identity.
And it’s easy to see why Lana Wachowski, in particular, would see this move principally as liberatory rather than offensive. While the film was being created, Lana herself was famously undergoing gender transition, a concept she herself hesitates to use because of “its complicity in a binary gender dynamic that I am not particularly comfortable with.” As Lana explains, the experience of being locked into conventional gender boundaries felt like imprisonment: “I couldn’t find anyone like me in the world and it seemed that my dreams were foreclosed simply because my gender was less typical than others.” To someone with that experience, playing with actors’ gender and race seems like a way of telling others who felt their dreams were foreclosed by socially imposed categories that they were not alone; that there was a world where people could be free to define themselves however they want. Gender and race bending in this context helped, from her point of view, the quest for respect and freedom in Fukuyama’s sense.
But here, the film’s extraordinary ambition may have caused it to run aground. While Lana can speak with authority with respect to Cloud Atlas‘ genderbending, its racebending is a different kettle of fish. The film doesn’t take the time to draw a clear distinction between experiencing race and gender as categories, and hence may not have treated each with the subtlety and respect they deserve even if the filmmakers had the best of intentions. Again, that’s not for me to say.
That serious caveat noted, I can appreciate, and even revel in, the film’s intellectual ambition. Marrying two opposing intellectual traditions and challenging conventional gender boundaries is more than one can hope for in a graduate thesis, let alone a three hour film. That Cloud Atlas could make a compelling stab at both while at the same time delivering some real emotional gutpunches is nothing short of extraordinary.