“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.