Every Crime and Every Act of Kindness: Cloud Atlas, reviewed

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in "Cloud Atlas"

The film version of Cloud Atlas, says our reviewer Scott Mitchell, presents a surprisingly traditional view of karma and rebirth—“and so any attempt to figure out its logic is probably doomed.” (Click here to watch the CA trailer.)

Cloud Atlas is an ambitious film: one that is both compelling and something of a mental workout. In its attempts to convey both the broad scope of humanity across several centuries as well the intimate relationships between individuals, the film jumps from the distant future to the nineteenth century to the the not-so-distant past to another future to the present, interweaving six different stories with different casts of characters, tracing their multiple incarnations and connections.

Despite some moving and even funny moments, the film generally lacks subtlety. Much as they did in the two Matrix sequels, the Wachowski siblings (and their co-director Tom Tykwer) want to make sure we get the point — that everything is connected — a point they repeatedly drive home through earnest dialogue and voiceovers. And all the different characters are portrayed by the same actors in part by way of heavy makeup and special effects that leave the viewer feeling a little weird: There’s just something unsettling about Doona Bae playing a nineteenth century freckled red-head, or Jim Sturgess playing a twenty-second century Neo-Seoul revolutionary. As Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote, this “didn’t work when Sean Connery tried it, in ‘You Only Live Twice,’ and it sure as hell doesn’t work here, inching beyond embarrassment into insult.”

Nevertheless Cloud Atlas draws you in; the individual stories are compelling on their own, and over the near three-hour running time their connections become clearer. In some cases, these connections are explicit, drawing from the 2004 novel the film is based on; Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) in the 1970s is reading the letters a young Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) wrote in the 1930s who is in turn reading the journal of Adam Ewing (Sturgess) from the 1850s.

But this is also a movie about rebirth. And because the same actors show up in different stories as different characters, one wants to believe that these different roles are in fact different incarnations of the same person. Not that this always makes sense, mind you. Is Dermot Hoggins the direct reincarnation of Issac Saschs just because they’re both played by Tom Hanks? Seems unlikely, their timelines are too close. Or are they? This is the kind of movie that will attract a certain type of fan, I’m sure, who will see it over and over again and do their best to divine some logic from all the different narratives — and argue about it on the internet.

For my part, even though I’m likely to be someone who will see this movie again, I don’t want to dwell too much on its logic. Cloud Atlas presents a surprisingly traditional view of karma and rebirth, and so any attempt to figure out its logic is probably doomed.

Let’s clear the air a bit. Rebirth is a sometimes contested issue in contemporary Buddhist discourse. Some who may be uncomfortable with the supernatural aspects of Buddhism tend to interpret the teachings of rebirth as merely metaphorical or symbolic of inner psychic states. Some want to excise rebirth from Buddhism completely, arguing that the Buddha only retained these teachings because they were a widely accepted part of Indic religion at the time. Still others worry about the mechanics of it all; how do we reconcile the idea of rebirth with the Buddhist doctrine of anatman or no-self? If there isn’t a permanent self, what gets reincarnated?

If you’ve got the stomach for these kinds of debates, more power to you. For my part, I think they often miss the point. When the Buddha was asked, directly, about the soul and the cosmos and other metaphysical questions, he was pretty clear that these questions tend to get in the way of the real work — realizing the Four Noble Truths and undoing suffering.

Moreover, when we worry about the mechanics of it all, we miss the Buddha’s point in bringing it up in the first place: morality. Pre-Buddhist Indic views of karma were not necessarily moral in nature; they were more mechanical descriptions of how the world worked. The Buddha’s unique contribution to karma theory was his emphasis on moral intention. He was clear that some things are just morally wrong; and when we intentionally commit these acts, we’re sewing the seeds of future suffering.

This, of course, is one of those points that Cloud Atlas wants to drive home—”by each crime and every kindness we birth our future” says Sonmi-451 (Bae). Some characters in the film seem to be locked into cycles of bad behavior for centuries  — we’re looking at you, Hugo Weaving — while others work to overcome circumstances and do good in the world, no matter how small or inconsequential, and regardless of any apparent success.

The less-than-subtle aspects of the film (those earnest voiceovers and flashy special effects) might lead one to overlook smaller but no less important themes. The film’s intimate moments — quiet connections between characters, incidents of trust and of love — speak to the poignant importance of even the smallest of acts. But the sheer scope of Cloud Atlas suggests to me that the filmmakers are not just talking about individual karma but collective or social karma. There is not just the question of how should I act; how should we act?

Ultimately, these questions are unresolved — or at least one is left feeling dissatisfied by some of the stories’ resolutions. But then again, that’s samsara. There is no nirvana at the end of Cloud Atlas. Rather, there are merely unenlightened, imperfect beings doing what they can in their own times and places, for their families, for those that they love, for their societies, in the blind hope of making a better world. Which is the only thing any of us can do, really, especially when we cannot see all ends.

Scott Mitchell teaches at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and is co-host of the DharmaRealm podcast. Click here to visit him online.

9 Comments

  1. Mike
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Makes me want to see this movie even more now. I got the connection right away seeing the previews. Thank you!

  2. Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Gosh, I thought the film objectified the precious teachings of the Buddha—but I thank you for writing this article, and I enjoyed reading your ideas. I also personally found the use of egregious violence distasteful. I think Hollywood missed an opportunity to open up a thought provoking discussion into past lives with this film. The soundtrack coupled with the violence felt like an assault on the nervous system. This is not a film for energetically sensitive types!__I was reminded of a story told to me by a Tibetan Nun who had escaped Tibet via a trek through the Himalayas. She said that when she first got to the US, some new friends invited her out to see a movie. They said it was about meditation and that she would love it! About ten minutes into 'The Matrix' she was in tears, her nerves on edge. She spent the rest of the time doing Vipassina meditation and breathing, just trying to get through the film. __Why do we need so much violence to capture the American audience? Are we numb? Why do we want to insert these images, sounds, and emotional triggers into our subconscious? I know at the end of the day I am a very successful practitioner if I can maintain a calm heart throughout any type of tense situation

  3. Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    I got cut off—here is the rest——
    I know at the end of the day I am a very successful practitioner if I can maintain a calm heart throughout any type of tense situation; but when I go out to a movie on a Saturday night I am looking to enjoy, not to cope!

    In response to the exploration of past lives being a distraction away from the Buddha's teachings of the Four Noble Truths: I think that the Buddha gave many different levels of teachings. Some people can utilize flashbacks or memories from past lives to work with dissolving obscurations that prevent them from experiencing rigpa (instant presence)regularly. However, I completely see your point about intentionality!

  4. scott
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the comment, Lacey. Yes, this is a violent movie. I actually considered adding a warning to this review that there are some scenes that are shockingly violent, and at one point I even had to turn away from the screen. So, for those who haven't seen the film, keep that in mind!

  5. cmrok93
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Nice review. Watching this cast go to town on all of these roles is a great sight to see, as well as how all of the stories come together in a smart, but slight way. It’s a good film that definitely kept me watching from start-to-finish, even if I do think it’s not as much of a cinematic masterpiece as people have made it out to be.

  6. Posted October 30, 2012 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    Hey Scott, one more thought: What about the scene where hundreds of naked women hang up-side down, bloodied, on meat hooks?

    I have to say that scenes like this, regardless of their context, make me feel unsafe traveling in a woman's body. If films decide to feature images like this one where a woman's body is literally turned into processed meat, in my opinion, they reinforce the objectification of women. If something is dehumanized, it's easier to defile it. I enjoy turning to Buddhism as a refuge from all of this; I guess that is why I am so startled to see such a positive review on a Buddhist web site. I respect your opinion, and I enjoyed reading your piece. In fact, now I want to write something about the film, too; so thanks. I just have a deep wondering about the barrage of violent images that we process when watching movies like this, and I question if they are helpful for our practice, or, as you thoughtfully said—'our collective karma.'

  7. scott
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Hi Lacey,

    I really appreciate this comment. My experience with the scene you're talking about was this: I looked away. I saw it coming, and I just couldn't stomach it. And other scenes (the fate of the critic, for example) I found to be unnecessary. Having seen other movies by these directors, I can't say I'm surprised. But stil…

    I completely agree with your comment about how images such as these reinforce the objectification of women. And I really don't know what to do about it. Apart, of course, from talking about it, from bringing issues to light, and hopefully changing conversations.

    I wasn't trying to write a "positive" review here, rather, a balanced one. The more I reflect on Cloud Atlas, the more complicated I feel about it. It's a marathon of a movie, and at a certain point I don't think it makes sense to call such films either "good" or "bad." In addition to the violence in the film, the crazy race-bending they did (having various actors play different ethnic roles) was also really off-putting to me. It bordered too much on white actors in "yellow face" for my tastes (Doona Bae notwithstanding).

    Having said that, while being aware of the film's shortcomings, I think it's worthy of discussion, as evidenced by this conversation here! I think these kinds of conversations can actually be very helpful — maybe not to the culture at large, but at least for those us who are concerned and confused and hoping to make our world better.

    Thanks agin for your thoughtful comments.

  8. Elizabeth
    Posted November 2, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Hmm. I think I'll just read the book.

  9. Posted November 5, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Scott!

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