Cloud Atlas: The Smear of Liberal Guilt

Gen x Review of Cloud AtlasIt has been a year of bloated, self-important movies that are almost universally applauded though very rarely understood, but no amount of shoveling bullshit up a hill can prepare you for Cloud Atlas.

This elaborate mess explores six separate narratives divided by space and time. Actors reappear in each story as different characters – sometimes different genders or sexes; even occasionally as other species – to hammer home the point that we’re all, like, the same under our skin.

Yes, it really is that trite and silly.

The movie is secular liberal humanism explained through identity politics. It tells a bunch of stories about how different classes of people have been prejudiced against. The filmmakers use reoccurring actors and a few physical signs attached to characters (a birthmark in the shape of a comet) to tell us that spirits have been reincarnated into different bodies.

So the Halle Berry that is a hot ’70s reporter in one narrative becomes a less hot extra from Logan’s Run in another, but remains essentially just eye candy and the spirit flickers away from incarnation to incarnation. The process of reincarnation itself – and the possible religious underpinnings of the idea of a gigantic celestial bureaucracy keeping track of where our spirit lands – is unimportant stuff compared to our lust for love and acceptance.

But what might otherwise be a giddy PoMo celebration of the fluidity of identity becomes an anxiety over bodies. We scrutinize these selves who reappear here with buck teeth, there with a nasty scar, elsewhere as a terrible middle-aged actor playing a cartoon version of a Guy Ritchie character. In every scene we’re looking for the offensively stupid birthmark that shows us who our hero really is.

This has the paradoxical result of making us care more about race and gender than we might otherwise. This wouldn’t be bad if the film didn’t approach these topics with the subtlety of a hammer to the head. Every slave trader is, of course, irredeemably evil, but how stupid do we have to be to congratulate ourselves in being offended at a society misogynistic enough to treat their women like cows at the slaughter?

No, people who make a lot out of race or sex in the film are buffoons, monsters and unmitigated villains. They jail the old, blackmail the queer, poison the just and literally kill and dismember women. These are not people you would want to share a drink with and yet we are among them as we chuckle at the inordinate and obvious efforts to erase gender and race.

We’re punished for noticing that the filmmakers have decided to make Halle Berry a white debutant or South Korean actress Doona Bae a Mexican for absolutely no reason at all. By the time Hugo Weaving appears as Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest we are literally paying attention to nothing but bodies.

These details may not be important to writer Lana Wachowski (formerly a dude with the same last name), but they do matter to us so we must be shallow. (Because, we assume, sex and race are so unimportant to Ms. W. that she underwent a complex, dangerous and expensive gender re-assignment surgery). We should follow the bouncing ball of spiritual reincarnation and pay attention to the liberal themes of universality and love, says the movie, not fixating on the race/gender card Wachowski plays in every scene.

Instead of the existential discontinuity of, say, Being John Malkovich, where bodies and identities are in uncomfortable flux, Cloud Atlas is liberal utopianism at its worst. Evolutionarily, the final expression is a Hanks literally blinded into a proper vision of life, a man who has lost his ability to see difference, a sort of priest of multiculturalism and diversity.

He is the new first man, sitting in his eco-village among scores of multiracial children, having finally escaped the poisoned Earth. “Can’t we all just get along,” he craws to his progenies as though this is an obvious option that we have chosen to reject.



+1 #1 Stefanie 2012-11-09 00:21
This review, and other comments I have heard about the movie, reinforce my decision to stick with the book by David Mitchell and skip it on the big screen.

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