Cloud Atlas

A Pale Blue Dot

A Pale Blue Dot

I watched the movie Cloud Atlas last night. It is a long (almost three hours), confusing, but also deeply interesting picture. Now that I’ve seen it once, I want to watch it again. Then maybe I’ll consider reading the original book. As a story, Cloud Atlas is really six interrelated stories in one. I am told that in the book, the six stories are introduced in chronological order. Each story is told only halfway, and then in the second half of the book, the stories are concluded in reverse chronological order. Leaving the readers at the end where they began. The movie chose a different path. It intersperses the half-dozen different stories, leaving them jump-cut stitched together. The movie also uses the same cast throughout the movie, recycling actors across multiple characters. Seeing the same actors in different roles offers both continuity and a continuum. Here is s brief synopsis:

  • Hawaii, 1849 – Adam Ewing, an American lawyer from San Francisco, has come to the Islands to conclude a business arrangement. He witnesses the whipping of a slave, who later stows away on his ship.
  • England and Scotland, 1936 – Robert Frobisher, is a bisexual English musician. His lover is Rufus Sixsmith. He finds work as an amanuensis to an aging composer, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” One of the books he finds there is titled The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing but it is ripped in half and it drives him crazy, because, as he says, “A half-read book is a half-finished love affair.”
  • San Francisco, 1973 – Journalist Luisa Rey meets an older Sixsmith, now a nuclear physicist. Sixsmith tips off Rey to a conspiracy regarding the safety of a new nuclear reactor. Rey finds and reads Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith, resulting in her tracking down a vinyl recording of Frobisher’s “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.”
  • United Kingdom, 2012 – Timothy Cavendish, a 65-year-old publisher, has a windfall when one of his authors murders a London critic and is sent to prison. When the author’s brothers threaten Cavendish’s to get his share, Cavendish asks for help from his brother. His brother, tired of his recurring requests for help and money, tricks him into a nursing home.
  • Neo Seoul, Korea, 2144 – Sonmi-451 is a genetically-engineered fabricant, a human clone created to be a slave worker, living a compliant life of servitude as a server at a futuristic fast food restaurant. She recounts her memories before an interviewer, telling how she was exposed to ideas of rebellion and liberation (based on Cavendish’s adventures) from a curious co-worker, and was released from captivity by a rebel movement.
  • The Big Island, 106 winters after The Fall – Zachry lives in a primitive society after most of humanity has died during “The Fall”. The tribesmen worship a goddess called Sonmi, their sacred text taken from the broadcast of her manifesto. His village is visited by a member of a remnant of an advanced society still holding on to the last remnants of technology. Her mission is to find a remote communication station called Cloud Atlas.

The movie also tacks on a prologue and epilogue, set some years after the last story. To paraphrase Churchill’s description of Russia, Cloud Atlas “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” As Roger Ebert wrote about this film, “Oh, what a film this is!” I was going to use a photo I had taken of fluffy white clouds above Indiana farmland. Instead, I chose this photograph of Saturn, backlit, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft, with Earth just below the rings, a pale blue dot. This picture was taken this week from a distance of 1.4 billion kilometers away. It more than adequately conveys through the medium of space the majesty that Cloud Atlas engenders with time.

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