Saturday, September 07, 2013
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Practical Joker" (September 21, 1974)
The U.S.S. Enterprise conducts a routine geological survey of “Type 4” asteroids, but comes under surprise attack from Romulan forces.
The Romulan commander accuses the Federation starship of violating its territorial space, and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) engineers a dangerous escape by ordering the Enterprise through an “unidentified energy field” of “highly-charged subatomic particles.”
Although Kirk’s ship and crew are safe from further Romulan attack, his ship begins to suffer from a series of strange practical jokes. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) ends up with black-eye circles on his lids after gazing through his library computer hood, and the food dispenser throws a pie in Scotty’s (James Doohan’s) face.
Meanwhile, Bones (DeForest Kelley), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Sulu (George Takei) become trapped in the Enterprise’s rec room, which is able to create any environment known to man by rearranging matter and energy. Soon, they find themselves moving from one environment to the next, including a blizzard, in an attempt to stay alive.
Kirk and Spock soon realize that an alien entity from the space cloud -- a practical joker -- now inhabits the Enterprise’s main computer. Worse, the Romulans are back!
The Star Trek: The Next Generation plot-device of the “holodeck malfunction” gets its first try-out in this Star Trek: The Animated Series episode from 1974.
In “The Practical Joker,” the audience witnesses members of the Enterprise crew visiting the so-called “rec room,” and there’s even an early version of the control arch seen in various frames (though it is a stand-up console, and not a door-arch.)
I’ve always considered the holodeck to be a writer’s crutch on The Next Generation, so I’m not thrilled to see it here, but this episode undeniably forecasts the use of the plot device (and the idea of crew men being caught in a blizzard, a notion re-visited in “The Big Goodbye.”) In a sense, this plot-line actually goes back to Original Trek, and the episode “Wolf in the Fold.” There, a non-corporeal life form (Jack the Ripper) “possessed” the ship’s computer. Virtually the same thing happens here, except the entity is not evil, merely naughty.
Impressively, “The Practical Joker” also manages a budget-buster that only the format of animation could have achieved and afforded in this era. One scene reveals the Enterprise crew experiencing weightlessness when the alien being begins to play with the starship’s gravity control. Star Trek fans would have to wait for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) to see a starship crew (Klingon in this case…) rendered weightless in live-action..
Less enjoyable by far is the underwhelming depiction of the Romulans in “The Practical Joker.” In this story, they attempt to start a war with the Federation, even though the Enterprise never wandered into the Empire’s territory. In “The Survivor,” the Romulans used a similar gambit, with the same lack of success. It seems odd that the Romulans of the Animated Series are so hell-bent on luring the Federation into a war, and using the Enterprise as the flash-point of such a conflict.
Finally, the episode’s valedictory conceit, that the alien cloud/practical joker should be transferred to an enemy, the Romulans, is a clear reflection of the resolution in the original “The Trouble with Tribbles.”
Next week: “Albatross.”
Friday, September 06, 2013
Historically-speaking, the science fiction and fantasy cinema has battled high camp -- a form of art notable because of its exaggerated or over-the-top attributes -- for over five decades.
That long battle is definitively lost in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), a tongue-in-cheek film adaptation of the pulp magazine hero (or superhero) created by Henry W. Ralston and story editor John L. Nanovi (with additional material from Lester Dent) in the 1930s.
The seventies movie from producer George Pal (1908 – 1980) and director Michael Anderson brazenly makes a mockery of the titular hero’s world, his missions, and even his patriotic belief system. That the film is poorly paced, and looks more like a TV pilot rather than a full-fledged motion picture only adds to a laundry list of problems.
First some background on high camp: when camp is discussed as a mode of expression, what is really being debated is a sense of authorial or creative distance. When a film is overtly campy, the author or authors (since film is a collaborative art form…) have made the deliberate decision to stand back and observe the property being adapted from a dramatic and in fact, critical distance. They find the subject matter humorous, or worthy of ribbing, and have adapted by that belief as a guiding principle.
Notably not all creative “standing back” need result in a campy or tongue-in-cheek approach, and instead can help a film function admirably as pastiche or homage. In movies like Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and even Scream (1996), there is a sense of knowing humor at work, but a campy tone is not the result.
In short, then, the camp approach represents sort of the furthest artistic distance a creator can imagine him or herself from his or her material. Worse, that great distance often seems to emerge from a place of genuine contempt; from a sense that the adapter is better than or superior to the material being adapted…and thus boasts the right/responsibility to mock said property.
Although Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong (1976) and Flash Gordon (1980) are often offered up on a platter as Exhibits A and B for “campy” style big-budget science fiction or fantasy films, those examples don’t actually fit the bill very well.
Rather, close viewing suggests that Kong and Flash boast self-reflexive qualities and a sense of humor, but nonetheless boast a sense of closeness to the material at hand. In both films, in other words, the viewer gets close enough to feel invested in the characters and their stories, despite the interjection of humor, self-reflexive commentary or rampant post-modernism. When King Kong is gunned down by helicopters…the audience mourns. And when Flash’s theme song by Queen kicks in and he takes the fight to Ming the Merciless, we feel roused to cheer at his victory. We may laugh at jokes in the films, but we aren’t so far – distance-wise - that we can’t invest in the action
However, a true “camp” film negates such sense of meaning or identification, and instead portrays a world that is good only for a laugh, no matter the production values, no matter the efforts of the actors, director, or other talents.
Doc Savage: Man of Bronze is such a campy film, one that, post-Watergate, adopts a contemptuous approach to anyone in authority, and, in facts, makes heroism itself seem ridiculous and unbelievable. There are ample reasons for this approach, at this time in American history, but those reasons don’t mean that the approach is right for the Doc Savage character. After all, who can honestly invest in a hero who is so perfect, so square, so beautiful that the twinkle in his eye is literal…added as a special effect?
Although many critics also mistakenly term Superman: The Movie (1978) campy that film revolutionized superhero filmmaking because it took the hero’s world, his powers, and his relationships seriously. Certainly, there was goofy humor in the last third of the film, but that humor was never permitted to undercut the dignity of Superman, or minimize the threats that he faced, or to mock his heroic journey.
Again, Doc Savage represents the precise opposite approach. The film plays exceedingly like a two-hour put-down of superhero tropes and ideas, and wants its audience only to laugh at a character that actually proved highly influential in the World War II Era. The result is a film that might well be termed a disaster.
"Let us be considerate of our country, our fellow citizens and our associates in everything we say and do..."
International hero Doc Savage (Ron Ely) and his team of The Fabulous Five return to New York City only to face a deadly assassination attempt upon receiving the news of the death of Savage’s father.
After dispatching the assassin, Savage decides to fly to Hidalgo to investigate his father’s death. He and his Fabulous Five are soon involved in a race with the nefarious Captain Seas (Paul Wexler) to take possession of a secret South American valley, one where gold literally bubbles-up out of the ground…
"Have No Fear: Doc Savage is Here!"
With a little knowledge of history, one can certainly understand why Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was created in full campy mode.
In 1975, the United States was reeling from the Watergate Scandal, the resignation of President Nixon, the Energy Crisis, and the ignominious end of American involvement in Vietnam. The Establishment had rather egregiously failed the country, one might argue, and so superheroes – scions of authority, essentially – were not to be taken seriously. You can see this quality of culture play out in the press’s treatment of President Gerald Ford. An accomplished athlete who carried his University of Michigan football team to national titles in 1932 and 1933, Ford was transformed, almost overnight, into a clumsy buffoon by the pop culture. It was easier to parse Ford by his pratfalls than by his prowess.
High camp had also begun to creep into the popular James Bond series as Roger Moore assumed the 007 role from Sean Connery, in efforts like Live and Let Die (1972) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). And on television, the most popular superhero program, TV’s Batman (1966 - 1968) had also operated in a campy mode
But, what films like Doc Savage fail to do, rather egregiously, is take a beloved character on his or her own terms, and present his hero to an audience by those terms. Instead of taking the effort to showcase and describe why Doc Savage’s world exists as it does in the pulps, the film wants only to showcase a world that easily mocked. The message that is transmitted, and which, generously, might be interpreted as unintentional is simply: this whole superhero world is silly, and if you like it, there’s something silly about you too.
In some sense, Doc Savage is a reminder of how good the British Pellucidar/Caprona movies of Kevin Connor are. Their special effects may be poor by today’s standard, but the movies take themselves and their world seriously. You can see that everyone involved is generally working to thrill the audience, not to prove to the audience how silly the movie’s concepts are.
Alas, camp worms its way into virtually every aspect of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze. An early scene depicts Savage pulling an assassin’s bullet out of a hole in his apartment wall, and knowing instantly the caliber and the make of the weapon from which it was fired. In other words, he is so perfect (a scholar, philosopher, inventor, and surgeon…) that his skill looks effortless…and therefore funny.
Yet the pulp origins of the character make plain the fact that Doc Savage achieved his knowledge through hard work, and rigorous training. When you only see the end result in the movie, his intelligence and know-how is mocked and made a punch-line. The movie-makers didn’t need to do it this way. Savage could have undertaken an investigation, but it’s funnier just to make him all-knowing, to exaggerate his admirable qualities as a character.
Another example of how camp undercuts and mocks the heroes of the film occurs later in the action. Doc and his team of merry men (The Fabulous Five) are invited aboard the antagonist’s yacht for a dinner party. While the bad guy, Captain Seas, and his henchmen drink alcohol, Savage and his men drink only…milk. Again, this touch is so ludicrous when made manifest on screen that it only succeeds in stating, again, the essential “silliness” of the Doc Savage mythos. Worse, Batman had done this joke, and better, in its 1966 premiere. So the milk joke isn’t even original.
Perhaps the campies aspect of the film involves the atrocious soundtrack. The movie is scored to the work of John Phillip Sousa (1854 – 1932), the “American March King.” Rightly or wrongly, Sousa’s marches have become synonymous with Americana, Fourth of July parades and firework displays, with the very archetype of patriotism itself. To score Savage’s silly adventures to this kind of stereotypical “American” march is to say, essentially, that one is mocking that value.
I have nothing against mocking patriotism, if that’s your game. I can’t pass judgment on that or you. For me as a film critic, the question comes back to, again, the sense of distance created by the adapters, and whether that distance serves the interest of the character being adapted. In the case of Doc Savage, I would say that it rather definitively does not serve the character. The choice of soundtrack music essentially turns all action scenes -- no matter how brilliantly vetted in terms of stunts and visuals -- into nothing more than grotesque, unfunny parody.
Why do I feel that the character Savage is not well-served by this approach? Consider that all five of Savage’s “merry men” are important, philosophically not in terms of raw strength or athleticism, or even super powers.
Indeed, one is a legal genius, one is a chemist, one is a globe-hopping engineer, one is an archaeologist and one is an electrical wizard. Throw in Savage -- both a man of action and also a surgeon, for example – and consider the group’s original context: post-World War I.
These men survived the first technological war in human history, but a war – like all war – spawned by irrationality and passion. Their quality or importance as characters arises from the fact they are a modern, rational group of adventures, dependent on science, the law, medicine, and other intellectual ideas…not emotions or super abilities. In 1975, the world certainly could have used such an example; the idea that being a superhero meant rationality and intelligence. But the movie completely fails to deliver on the original meaning of the characters it depicts. Instead, Doc Savage makes a mockery of these avatars of reason, and fails to note why, as a team, they represent something, anything of importance.
Some of the camp touches in Doc Savage are also downright baffling, rather than funny. One villain sleeps in what appears to be a giant cradle, and is rocked to sleep. The movie never establishes a reason -- even a camp one -- for this preference.
Although it is great to see Pamela Hensley -- Buck Rogers’ Princess Ardala -- in the film, I can think of almost no reason for anyone to re-visit Doc Savage. Who, precisely is this film made for? Fans of the pulps would be horrified at the tone of the material, and those who didn’t know the character before the film certainly would not come away from the film liking him.
In 1984, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai successfully captured what was funny about characters like Doc, while at the same time functioning as an earnest adventure. Indeed, though I often complain about all the doom and gloom superhero movies of today, and what a boring drag they are, they are, as I have often written, a valid response to the era of Camp.
What is needed for the genre now, I think, is some kind of judicious middle ground. The humorless, joyless, mechanical, special-effects laden superhero movies of today are a drag on the soul (and the patience), and yet I am so glad to be rid of the mocking humiliation of high camp.
At either extreme -- camp or angst -- the superhero film formula proves almost immediately tiring and unworkable, it often seems. A clear exception is Chronicle, which is the most original, dynamic, high-flying superhero-themed film we’ve had in years.
Thursday, September 05, 2013
Next week -- from Monday September 9th thru Thursday September 12th -- the blog will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chris Carter's The X-Files. I'll be presenting brand new reviews of popular episodes, and digging deep into the blog archives to commemorate the first two decades of Scully and Mulder.
The truth will be right here, 9/9 - 9/12/13, so I hope you'll join me for the big event!
Wednesday, September 04, 2013
Before the Star Wars Kenner toy craze of 1977 - 1983, Mego ruled the science fiction toy world (with some competition from Mattel and Kenner) with great action figures and playsets from such movie and TV franchises as Star Trek and Planet of the Apes.
On the latter front, Mego manufactured and marketed a whole slew of great Apes-centric playsets. These included my favorite, the Forbidden Zone Trap, and a Planet of the Apes tree house.
The only Mego playset I didn't own came out at the same time as the Apes TV series (1974 - 1975): The Planet of the Apes Fortress.
This crudely pyramid-like structure stands a whopping twenty-seven inches tall, and consists of two fully-detailed play levels, upper and lower.
As the box trumpets, the Fortress also comes with an array of equipment and props for the Mego action figures, including 3 rifles, 3 control sticks, 1 Planet of the Apes flag, 2 ladders, 1 table, 1 gun rack, and 1 detention pen (or jail cell.)
The neatest item, however, is the Fortress's (working) sun reflector, which actually appeared as a simian signalling device in one episode of the short-lived series. Galen (Roddy McDowall) used the device to send a false message to a gorilla patrol, if memory serves.
Today, the Planet of the Apes Fortress playset and all its gear often sell on E-Bay for over three hundred dollars, a factor which likely means I won't get my hands on one until I'm independently wealthy. But one can dream, right?
Below is a vintage commercial of the Planet of the Apes Fortress.
Tuesday, September 03, 2013
All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention, if only can first conceive of doing so.”
- Cloud Atlas (2012)
The 2012 Wachowski/Tom Tykwer science fiction film Cloud Atlas is a sprawling, three hour epic, and a dedicated adaptation of David Mitchell’s award-winning novel of the same name, first published in 2004. The novel tells six stories (or a sextet, if you prefer), set in six different time periods, ranging from centuries ago to centuries in the future.
It is necessary to describe these six stories briefly, so you have a full sense of them, before I continue to review the film.
“We cross and re-cross our old paths like figure-skaters.”
First, there’s “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” set in the South Pacific in 1849. Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is the son-in-law of a slave-trader (Hugo Weaving). Adam falls grievously ill on his return home to England, but is deliberately made sicker by a con-man, Dr. Goose (Tom Hanks), who wishes to steal his wealth. Fortunately, Adam has befriended a black slave and stowaway on the ship, one who is grateful for Adam’s kindnesses, and comes to watch over him.
The second story, “Letters from Frobisher” is set in 1936 Scotland, and involves a brilliant young musician, Frobisher (Ben Whislaw) who creates a sextet called the Cloud Atlas while mentoring with one of the world’s greatest composers, Vyvian Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). When Ayrs recognizes his talent, however, he uses Frobisher’s homosexuality to extort him and imprisons the young man in his home until he hands over the Cloud Atlas. Frobisher’s lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) tries to save Frobisher, but fate rips them apart.
The third tale, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is set in San Francisco in 1973, and features a dedicated reporter, Luisa (Halle Berry) who learns a dangerous secret about a nuclear plant that will soon go into operation. She attempts to report the truth, but the head of the plant, Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant) orders her assassinated.
The fourth tale is “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.” Set in London in 2012, this tale finds a fly-by-night book agent Cavendish (Broadbent) unexpectedly incarcerated at a diabolical nursing home. With the other exploited old folks in the home, Cavendish engineers an escape from custody, and sells the movie rights to his story.
The fifth story, “An Orison of Somni-451” is set in New Seoul in 2144 AD, as old Seoul succumbs to the ravages of global warming. There, a female “fabricant,” Somni-451 (Doona Bae) regularly endures slavery and exploitation but nonetheless honors the First Catechism: “Honor They Consumer.” Soon, she experiences an awakening about the fabricants’ plight, and the connections between human beings. She conveys these thoughts to the world at large after being rescued by the people’s union. Through this orison or prayer on viral video, Somni, in later generations is worshiped as a prophet.
In Cloud Atlas’s sixth and final story, set in the post-apocalyptic Hawaii of 2346 AD, a grizzled old storyteller, Zachry (Hanks) recounts by campfire the tale of how his tribe ended up in a new home, starting a new life. His story involves a gang of fearsome cannibals called the Kona (led by Hugh Grant in terrifying war-paint…) and his fateful decision to help a “prescient,” Meronym (Berry) on a long and dangerous trek to a mountain summit. There, she believes, an answer regarding mankind’s future may exist. But Zachry’s got a devil on his back, one insistent on causing Meronym’s mission to fail…
“Fear, belief, love…phenomena that determined the course of our lives. These forces begin long before we are born and continue after we perish…”
The movie version of Cloud Atlas adapts all six stories highlighted in the book, but takes the unusual step of doing so -- as the descriptions above indicate -- with the same eight or ten actors appearing in all segments, namely Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Jim D’Arcy, and Jim Sturgess.
Now, just to be crystal clear, these actors are not playing the same character in each story; but rather entirely different individuals, a fact made abundantly plain by the creative and jaw-dropping make-up effects featured on-screen.
So Halle Berry plays both a black woman of the year 2346 and a white, Jewish woman of the year 1936.
Likewise, Tom Hanks plays a murderous English thug for the story set in 2012, a movie star in the year 2144 AD, and the post-apocalyptic story-teller, Zachry, in the post-apocalyptic finale.
The question regarding this particular approach is: why?
Why vet these six very different stories in such a way that the same repertory actors perform all the parts?
The answer ultimately comes down to the film’s application of Buddhist philosophy, or what the dialogue terms “Eternal Recurrence.”
Buddhists will immediately recognize this concept as something akin to the Samsara, which Wikipedia describes thusly: “
“…Samsara is defined as the continual repetitive cycle of birth and death that arises from ordinary beings' grasping and fixating on a self and experiences. Specifically, samsara refers to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another within the six realms of existence, where each realm can be understood as a physical realm or a psychological state characterized by a particular type of suffering. Samsara arises out of avidya (ignorance) and is characterized by dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dis-satisfaction). In the Buddhist view, liberation from samsara is possible by following the Buddhist path.”
You may notice something important encoded in that definition above. The Samsara is said to have six realms of existence, and Cloud Atlas likewise consists of six story-lines set in six time periods.
Thus the movie’s epic tapestry serves as a deliberate re-creation of the Samsara, and the actors each portray multiple individuals or characters. But the argument could be made, I suppose that they are playing…only one soul moving through the six realms, from past to future (and in one fascinating case of prescience, future to past…).
This fact means that the Tom Hanks character in the first, third and sixth story are different people/individuals but are perhaps the same soul, experiencing avidya and dukkha in a different state of existence, or level of the Samsara.
Another way to describe Cloud Atlas’s thematic conceit: each main character in the film is re-born into one of the six realms and based on his “kindnesses” or “crimes” writes his soul’s very future going forward.
Again, what’s the benefit of structuring the story this way? Well, the directors are more easily able to examine the ripple effects of moral or immoral decision-making over a long period of time or history, for one thing.
For instance, the soul portrayed by Jim Broadbent in the tale set in 1936 Scotland does something terrible to another person and his soul eventually suffers for it. Specifically, Vyvian Ayrs, a famous composer, imprisons Frobisher -- a young man of great talent -- in an attempt to steal his work.
But then, in the 2012 story, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” the same soul (for which actor Broadbent is the visual avatar) receives his karmic comeuppance: Cavendish is imprisoned in a nursing home of the damned.
His soul’s evil acts in 1936 were paid forward to the next realm of the Samsara and thus the next iteration of his soul, Timothy, suffers grievously. And the manner of the punishment is equal to the crime. The soul goes from victimizer to victim, from jailer to jailed.
|In one life: a jailer and exploiter.|
|In the next life: jailed and exploited.|
Similarly, the soul symbolized by Hugh Grant undergoes his karmic comeuppance across two stories and two epochs. As Lloyd Hooks, a nuclear plant manager in 1973, this soul willfully plans to murder thousands of people in a meltdown…all because he is being paid by the oil industry to sow mistrust of nuclear power.
By the time this corrupt soul reaches 2346 Hawaii, however, he is a half savage beast and a cannibal, the Kona Chief. His actions in life have made his journey through the Samsara all the more horrible. By his sixth go-round he has not evolved or transcended, but actually devolved into something barely human, something very nearly animal.
|In one life a killer by proxy.|
|In the next, a killer by hand...and teeth.|
To fully understand and appreciate Cloud Atlas it is necessary to understand the Buddhist underpinnings, the concept of Samsara (or “eternal recurrence” in the film’s lingo), and even karma. The viewer must realize he or she is witnessing the march of souls from 1849 to 2346 and that each stop or each story along the way is an opportunity for those souls to deliver kindnesses to others and evolve to the next step, or deliver a crime, and continue in a realm of suffering going forward.
As you are no doubt tired of reading here on the blog, my highest aesthetic or critical criterion is that form must echo content in film, and that visuals must reflect the story.
Cloud Atlas is so brilliant and worthwhile a science fiction initiative, I submit, because it asks us -- through its casting and re-casting of the same actors as souls in various incarnations -- to understand one possible aspect or force of universal, constant human existence.
Perhaps the there is no sphere of the afterlife at all. Perhaps our souls ride the wheel of the Samsara, hopefully achieving wisdom as that wheel turns. And what we do here, now, affects where our soul lands when we return to this plane of existence.
Had different actors played all the important parts in Cloud Atlas, viewers would have no visual signifiers by which to recognize the same soul in different stories and different eras, and therefore we’d be unable to track their moral progress on the Samsara, in the “eternal recurrence” of human life.
The film thus suggests, by casting the same actor as different individuals over a long span of time, that our lives stretch beyond this moment of now. They go on. The flesh is mortal, but the soul is not. We keep repeating the same mistakes, surrounded by the same souls, until we learn to change our behaviors, or until we reach the outcome we desire and need.
None of this philosophy would be evident, however, without Cloud Atlas’s complex structure. The film reflexively notes its own complexity in an early voice-over narration by Cavendish (Broadbent): “While my extensive experience as an editor has led me to disdain for flashbacks and flash forwards and all such tricksy gimmicks, I believe that if you, dear reader, can extend your patience for just a moment, you will find that there is a method to this tale of madness.”
That line of dialogue -- that explicit request for patience and understanding -- is at the heart of Cloud Atlas’s ambitious strategy to chart the full human experience. Since “we’re all connected,” the film requires the audience to engage with its creative strategy. This task of engagement and attention is richly rewarded however. Audiences that meet the film half-way will feel part of a process of discovery…and then experience joy and awe as that discovery unfolds, and layer after layer of meaning blossoms.
“I knew someone who had a birthmark similar to that…”
Much of the challenge and joy that arises from an engaged viewing of Cloud Atlas involves noting and cataloging the little touches or grace notes that connect souls from one story (or level of the Samsara) to the next.
For instance, a comet-shaped birth mark appears on one character in each of the six tales, and then the film ends with a shooting star -- a comet of sorts -- as its valedictory composition. Is this comet-shaped birth mark ticking off the levels of the Samsara, ending with a valediction in the cosmos, in Eternity itself? Is it a signifier of the same soul, moving through various levels of the Samsara? Again, the film opens itself to various stimulating and challenging interpretations.
Similarly, a jeweled button that appears in “The Pacific Journal of Patrick Ewing” re-appears again and again throughout history (or the future), owned by different individuals.
And all six levels of the Samsara are connected by a work of art featured prominently in the previous level of existence.
Frobisher in Story #2 reads Ewing’s diary from Story #1
Luisa Rey in Story #3 listens to Frobisher’s musical composition, Cloud Atlas, from Story #2, and so on.
Not only does music play a crucial role in the film, but a movie version of Cavendish’s tale appears in the fifth story, and a viral video from the fifth story plays a role in the sixth and final vignette.
In toto, therefore, Cloud Atlas seems to note that art -- whether literature, music, film, or even a web video -- is the thing ties humans together on the Samsara from one life or level to the next.
In other words, our art is as immortal as we are, and it carries our stories and histories into the unbound future.
We can learn from that art if we heed it, and we ignore it at our own peril. This notion of art outliving individuals and proving of great value to future generations is transmitted beautifully in a line of dialogue: “My life extends far beyond the limits of me.”
That extension of life may be in the soul itself, or it may be in the thoughts transcribed in a book, or the musical notes of a composition. It may be in a movie that speaks to the future, though it was made in the past.
What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?
The interconnections between the six stories in the film stretch even further. In all six tales featured in Cloud Atlas, a crime is committed based on craven selfishness and thirst for power. This selfishness or power-thirst is tellingly described in at least three different stories as being part and parcel of “The Natural Order.”
The Natural Order permits for the slave-trader, Haskell, to do his exploitative work.
The Natural Order permits for the murder of whistle-blowers and the furtherance of avaricious corporate goals in 1973 San Francisco.
The Natural Order allows the State to abuse and cannibalize its Fabricants in New Seoul, and so forth (a fact foretold, uniquely, by a joke about Soylent Green  in the previous story, set in 2012).
Virtually every conflict in every story featured in Cloud Atlas lands a pair of soul-mates up against proponents of some Natural Order. And the Natural Order always seems to possess the superior hand.
As Haskell, the slave trader notes in the first story: “There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. This movement will never survive; if you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you will exist a pariah to be spat at and beaten-at worst, to be lynched or crucified. And for what? For what? No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.”
This plot-line represents the film’s embedded social critique of “Natural Order” and the so-called “Natural Order’s” vehicle on this mortal coil: anarcho-capitalism for lack of a better term.
An out-of-control and merciless capitalist buys and sells human flesh in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.”
The importance of status -- or “reputation” -- in a capitalist class-system is what drives blackmail and exploitation in “Letters from Frobisher.”
The desire to control energy resources (at the height of the Energy Crisis in 1973, no less) is what drives Lloyd Hooks to contemplate the murder of thousands of innocent people in “Half-Lives…”
Timothy Cavenish ends up at the nursing home while running away from a $60,000 dollar debt in “Ordeal.”
The economic system of New Seoul mass produces people to be slaves to hedonist “consumers,” and then cannibalizes those man-made people when they can no longer work, in “An Orison of Sonmi-451.”
And finally, the battle to control food and other resources dominates the final story, with the Kona Clan operating as the ultimate corporate raiders/cannibals.
More than once in the film, we hear the mantra of Natural Order spoken aloud, and with hungry salaciousness: “The weak are meat, and the strong must eat.’
The point to all this is simply that when the goal of humanity is to control power or own supreme wealth rather than better oneself (and find true love…), crimes are born instead of kindnesses…and karma’s a bitch.
In at least three of the stories (“Letters from Frobisher,” “Half-Lives” and “Orison…”) the meeting of souls together in true love is brutally curtailed by the forces of the so-called “Natural Order.” In other stories, however (Ewing’s, Cavendish’s and Zachry’s), true love is victorious over the Natural Order because kindnesses, not crimes, carry the day.
|Soul-mates threatened by the "natural order."|
|The same soul-mates, in another place and time.|
The answer to the question posed by one character in the film – “why do we keep making the same mistakes?” – is simply that Natural Order, aligned with the levers of power, often seizes the day over the better angels of man’s nature. But it’s a constant battle, and for that reason, our souls “cross and re-cross our own/old paths,” trying to achieve justice…and happiness.
“This world spins from the same unseen forces that twist our hearts…”
In the second story, Frobisher composes “The Cloud Atlas,” a sextet, and from this work the film derives its title and its structure.
But today, I gaze at a science fiction film of such scope, ambition, and convention-shattering that I can’t help but think of “cloud” computing too. With cloud computing, a program can run on multiple computers at the same time, networked together.
That technological term therefore seems like a good analogy for our “interconnected” souls. We’re all here on this planet together, right now, and according to Cloud Atlas “the gulf between us” is but an “illusion.” In how we treat each other, we create a map -- or atlas -- a network of bonds, of loves and hates, stretching outward and into the future, and reverberating through the very corridors of existence.
In the end, like Frobisher suggests, perhaps we all become, art or music.
And if that is the case, wouldn’t you rather your eternal song be one of harmony, not dissonance?