I Hate Ayn Rand and Still Shrugged at 'Atlas'

He's looking at you.

Somewhere during the three hour running time, I lost count of the reincarnations. There’s Cambridge 1936, New Seoul 2144, London 2012, Where Ever in the future, When Ever in the past and fair share of “can’t care anymore.”

Like a more orderly Babel, Cloud Atlas organizes its constellation of stars to prove our interconnectedness. It’s a precious theme that's well suited to film, but Cloud Atlas overburdens the message with comically bad makeup and pounds of pop psychology, lobbing a weight on the theme it just can’t bare.

The actors play a game of musical chairs with archetypes: Hugh Grant is an evil energy baron in the past and a cannibal in the distant future (get it?). At some point most actors play Asians and almost all of them play the opposite sex. (Stick around for an absurd card game during the credits: yes that WAS Hugo Weaving in drag; no it wasn’t convincing.)

Along with the rotating sexes and nationalities, the six storylines give room to six protagonists, half of which are marked by a comet shaped birthmark. Jim Broadbent’s comet mark isn’t seen as he’s held against his will in a old age home, but the memoirs his escape inspires become a TV show that moves a comet marked Goddess in 2144 (missed opportunity: shoulda been watching Metropolis). The Cloud Atlas Sextet is written in obscurity and lost to the tides of time, but those who hear it in 1974 (especially Halle Berry’s star marked journalist) regard it as important. The light bringers seek to reveal truths and Soylent Green is People (I’m quoting), it’s a never-ending cycle Cloud Atlas answers by presenting it in never-ending movie form.

The larger story arc, if you believe there is one, shows how humanity dooms itself with the systems it creates. Though our systems excel at exploitation, imprisonment and destruction, our souls and intellects want for more and remind us of the greatness we could bring if only we work to preserve the good in life. In the meantime we’ll see some Matrixy “we’re just batteries to them” imagery and what might be a poetic thread about feeling our one-ness through art.

Maybe it’s a “minor chord,” to mix metaphors, but one of the film’s pet themes is the place of art as a beacon to guide us through darkness. The most poignant story explains why The Cloud Atlas Sextet didn’t change the world. Written by the amanuensis (Ben Whishaw) of a musical giant (Jim Broadbent), The Sextet felt so familiar, the composer’s employer believed it his own. “It’s as if we knew each other in another life,” the employer too-casually observes, and then demands his name go on the Sextet. The amanuensis refuses, and the employer, knowing the weight of reputation, threatens to ruin the upstart’s future. It’s the only segment to explore the notion art reminds us of our humanity--but even the light bringers (the young composer) finds ways to resist the greatness of his achievements.

Whishaw's upstart could have given the Sextet to the world under his Master's name. The world would have known the Sextet, but his ego stopped the transaction. You can't tell me this eternally gifted composer would never write again. What kind of artist would he be then? Still, we feel his plight very sympathetically. Whishaw isn't villainous like the slave driver, the cannibal or the corporate overlord, but he performs their duties when he stifles the beacon, if in a self-damaging capacity.

I understand this section was directed by Tom Tykwer and the way it doesn’t romanticize Whisham’s love-lorn tragedy is uniquely effective, as is the treatment of art as a universally accepted liberator of the human spirit (how European!). This is also the film's only love story; naturally love inspires us and suffers at our hands like all treasures.

I realize it seems mean to criticize something that intends such good, but critiquing a message and critiquing a film are not the same—I’m all for decency and human kindness, but I believe decency and kindness deserve a better vehicle.

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