interpretation: Cloud Atlas

I’m honored to introduce a new segment here at called “Interpretation.” In this section, we will discuss themes and plot points from films we love. These articles are meant to be read only after you have seen the movie we’re discussing – they will, by their very nature, contain major spoilers and I would encourage you not to read them before you’ve had a chance to watch the movie. I’m happy to be able to start the segment with my favorite film from last year: Cloud Atlas.

The film Cloud Atlas has made me think ever since I first saw it in theaters. I’ve now seen it four times and each time I continue to catch something new and different. In this interpretation, however, I would like to focus on the theme of oppression within the film and the way the themes are revealed through the use of binary juxtapositions – each story has another story that is in some ways meant to be its mirror image.

Cloud Atlas is a film that is most deeply rewarding after multiple viewings. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

In each story, our lead character usually overcomes oppression in some way, even if it means their death. Adam Ewing finds the courage to stand up to his father-in-law and to fight against the institution of slavery. Robert Frobisher prevents Vyvyan Arys from stealing his “Cloud Atlas Sextet” and publishes it under his own name. Luisa Rey is able to successfully publish Sixsmith’s report. Timothy Cavendish is able to escape from Aurora House after being imprisoned there. Sonmi-451 spreads a message of freedom out to a humanity that desperately needs it. Finally, Zachry overcomes his inner-darkness (Old Georgie) and helps to save Meronym and her people.

Initially, it seems that each of these stories has this struggle in common, but it is interesting that the stories each have a mirror image. In “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” it is the “civilized” who are taking advantage of the “uncivilized” and yet in “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” (the story after the fall) it is the “uncivilized” tribes (exemplified by Hugh Grant’s character) who are oppressing the “civilized” people, exemplified by Zachry and his family.

Likewise, “Letters from Zedelghem” is the story of the young Robert Frobisher being abused by the elderly Vyvyan Arys, an almost identical narrative to that of a quick aside in Adam Ewing’s story in which the Captain (played by Jim Broadbent, like Arys) is seen abusing a cabin boy played by Ben Whishaw. This story is reversed in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” in which the elderly Cavendish is frequently hurt by the young – by the Hoggins brothers at the beginning and the younger members of the staff at Aurora House for the rest of the segment. The entire segment is set in a retirement home that is said only to be running because of a desire to make money from people who want to lock up their own elderly parents.

Finally, arguably the most interesting parallel is between “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” and “An Orison of Sonmi~451″ in which the battle is between the consumers and the corporations. In “Half-Lives,” it is the consumers who will die in such large numbers if the nuclear plant fails, yet in the Neo Seoul story, it is the corporate slaves who are told to “honor thy consumer.” The consumers are the ones abusing the fabricants – abuse that Yoona~939 calls “criminal” in the same vein as the abuse of Cavendish in the previous story. Yet in Luisa Rey’s narrative, it is the corporations that are seen as engaging in criminal action, with Joe Napier saying that the oil corporations want as much carnage as possible.

This leads me to conclude that the film is more a comment on the inherent duality present in all people more than anything else. Although Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving play almost universally villainous characters, I think the argument being made is that we all have the potential to both become like them or to overcome their oppression. Jim Broadbent is seen as both the oppressor and the oppressed in his two main storylines. Likewise, Tom Hanks finds emptiness as a violent character (he is killed in the Adam Ewing storyline and his profits all go to Cavendish in that narrative) but finds meaning only in the stories where he acts honorably – he finds love briefly in “Half-Lives” and ends up living a long, happy and meaningful life in the story after the fall.

Ultimately, I believe that Cloud Atlas is an eloquent argument that we are all capable of great good and great evil. No particular group is more or less evil than any other – each  group is shown as both the oppressors and the oppressed – but it is truly the choices of the individuals, not the groups, that matter. With every kindness, as Somni-451 says, the characters shape their futures.

For the next film in our Interpretation series, we took a look at Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.


Above photo courtesy of via Wikimedia Commons. Given the artistic criticism contained in this article, we believe our use of the images within constitutes fair use. If you own the rights to this image and wish have it removed, please contact us.