Speeches about freedom, human dignity and the equality of all people—not excepting people grown in a vat—figured in two of the big movies released at the end of this year’s campaign season. Coincidence or fate? You would be bound to choose the latter if you were to take Cloud Atlas seriously, as its makers, fortunately, don’t always do. Adopt their premise provisionally, though, and both the film world and the elections take on the appearance of so many airborne water droplets, which in late October 2012 shifted into position within a vast meteorological pattern and so looked very like a whale.
And if you were to take Lincoln seriously? Then you would be in harmony with filmmakers who fool with none of the movie all of the time. Solemnly denying that weather is anything more than a circumstance, the Lincoln team sees history not as a grand design in the heavens but an endlessly uncertain struggle in the mud. As the editorial writers would put it, the contrast is stark. The contrast seemed pretty stark in the elections, too—and this may have had something to do with my having welcomed Cloud Atlas and Lincoln almost equally, as I certainly couldn’t do for the candidates. Here, at least, I had no obligation to decide and then hold on grimly for the results. The movies let me enjoy the struggle for freedom both ways, as historical meditation and epic silliness.
To be fair, not all of Cloud Atlas is silly. Much of it strikes me instead as preachy—more so than Lincoln—though never leadenly so, given how the team of writers and directors (Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski) translated the source novel by David Mitchell into the realm of flagrant movieness. If stars are the constants in commercial cinema, and individual films merely instances of the adventures that celebrities live, then Cloud Atlas is a little film industry all in itself. To watch it is to play a game of hide-and-seek with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, finding them underneath the different applications of costume and makeup as they go from story to story.
There are six stories in all, which on the most clever but least substantial level form a chain across the ages. Its links are the artworks and tales that one generation leaves behind for the next. For readers who want to know the sequence of these testimonies—those who don’t should drop down a couple of paragraphs—I will unpuzzle them.
A young American attorney, sent to a plantation in the Pacific in 1849, comes to recognize the evil of slavery. He writes an account of his experiences—and in 1936 this book becomes the bedside reading of a supremely talented young English composer who is raffish, gay and trapped in fealty to an old tyrant in Edinburgh. The musician’s letters, along with the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” that he composes as his artistic legacy, find their way into the hands of an investigative reporter in San Francisco, who in 1973 takes heart from them as she goes about uncovering wrongdoing at a nuclear plant. By 2012, this reporter has been absorbed whole into a story, as the heroine of a series of mystery novels—and so her valor becomes known to a shambling London publisher, whose laughable misdeeds land him in a nursing home that’s run like a prison.
A late-life burst of courage enables the publisher to escape his captivity and write a memoir, which is later made into a movie starring Tom Hanks, or someone like him. (“I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!” Hanks thunders, apparently as his way of checking out of a posh hotel.) In the year 2144, in Neo-Seoul (Old Seoul by this time is mostly under water), this scrap of antique cinema falls illicitly into the hands of a member of a genetically engineered underclass. Fascinated by it, she becomes the figurehead for a group of insurgents and makes her own heroic address, which by the time of the final story in Cloud Atlas—two centuries after the Neo-Seoul rebellion—has become sacred writ. In the wake of a global catastrophe, the twenty-second-century Korean slave is now regarded as a prophet by a band of neo-Neolithic villagers, who live in terror of painted cannibals and a top-hatted devil. As Cloud Atlas ends, the bravest of these sci-fi pastoralists spins his own yarn, and so creates the next version of life’s ever-evolving travelogue-symphony-whodunit-movie-manifesto.