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Cloud Atlas in the Time of Coronavirus

Released in October 2012, “Cloud Atlas” was a box office bomb that was derided by critics—Newsday wrote that “the quasi-profound message of cosmic connectedness isn't worth all the trouble,” and the New Yorker questioned, “Even as we applaud the dramatic machinery, are we being kept emotionally at bay?” But the timeline fusion epic, directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, has an empathy worth celebrating, especially with the advent of social distancing and the coronavirus (COVID-19). At a time when social distancing instructs us to remember our connectivity to others, “Cloud Atlas” plays like a stark premonition.  

Adapted from David Mitchell’s same-titled novel, the sextet narrative criss-crosses over a mosaic of centuries and settings, from the Pacific Islands in 1849 to the Big Isle, 106 winters after The Fall (2321). Its characters are loosely affixed, often appearing and reappearing as reincarnations who sometimes change race and sex from one life to the next. The only clue to their linkage resides as a comet-shaped birthmark stamped onto their bodies. Each actor plays multiple characters, and these figures do not retain the birthmark the next time we see them, i.e. the people they’re playing aren’t necessarily direct reincarnations. 

However, the quasi-rebirth element is the macro component explaining why consequences reverberate beyond their origins. For instance, there’s Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), the son-in-law of slaver trader Haskell Moore (Hugo Weaving). Ewing opens the film on a voyage to buy Moriori slaves in 1849. On his voyage, in which he's slowly poisoned by the conniving Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks, in one of his best roles), Ewing saves a slave named Autua (David Gyasi). That slave later rescues him from the murderous physician. Through all of this, Ewing records every moment in his journal.

That journal is published and read by composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) in 1936, which partly inspires him to write the Cloud Atlas Sextet before committing suicide. Later, Frobisher’s former lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) befriends reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) in 1973, sees she has the same comet birthmark Frobisher possessed, and enlists her to uncover the environmental dangers of a nuclear power plant run by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant). In short, a simple journal born from saving a slave influences a cascade of events for the next 124 years.

This cosmic series of occurrences can metaphorically be extrapolated over social distancing, a practice calling for a conscious effort to limit close contact with others in a bid to limit community transmission of a virus, in this case, the coronavirus. While some with the virus might display symptoms, others might be asymptomatic. Social distancing predicates itself on the proven theory that though a person might be asymptomatic, they might still infect others. That is, one person’s actions—going to a concert or other social gatherings during a pandemic—might lead to an unforeseen chain of events. In the case of “Cloud Atlas,” a journal. In the real world, a bar packed with unwittingly infected people.

Like our world, “Cloud Atlas” is governed by two distinct philosophies, one of them being “the meek are weak. The strong do eat,” an echo of Charles Darwin’s often misunderstood maxim, “survival of the fittest.” The phrase is used by Haskell Moore, Dr. Goose, and the subconscious demonic specter known as Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving), who haunts Zachry (Tom Hanks), a simple villager evading post-apocalyptic cannibals in 2321.

Like some city dwellers, those who packed into Brooklyn bars and Nashville concerts during the coronavirus pandemic, this survivalist philosophy relies on a self-centered belief of “I’m young. I’m strong. I’m healthy. Who cares?” When Zachry watches from behind a fallen tree as his brother-in-law Adam (Jim Sturgess) is slaughtered by the cannibalistic Kona Chief (Hugh Grant, his face painted for his most adventurous role of his career), he chooses his own life over that of his friend. Later, as he climbs a mountain to an abandoned satellite with Meronym (Halle Berry), who originates from an advanced civilization, he must decide whether to let her die or save her as she hangs by a rope over a craggy cliff. While people not practicing social distancing aren’t cannibals, they’re targeting the most vulnerable just the same: the elderly and those with autoimmune diseases. 

Another more empathetic philosophy is celebrated in “Cloud Atlas,” and it seeps into Zachry’s 2321 timeline: “The Revelation of Sonmi 451.” In Neo Seoul, the year of 2144, Sonmi (Doona Bae) is part of a race of manufactured Asian slaves working in an underground cafe under the ironically-named government “Unanimity.” She’s later freed by a rebellion officer Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) and is enlisted by the resistance to deliver a speech:

“To be is to be perceived, and so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other … Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

Long after her death, Soonmi’s message inspires a new religion by Zachry’s time. It, like social distancing, pleads for the listener to remember their importance in the lives of others—for good or for bad. But more so, in the futuristic Asian nation, where these slave workers are killed and later fed to future generations of the indentured, it asks for the strong and privileged to see the under-seen. Right now, during the coronavirus pandemic, that includes the homeless, the immigrants in holding cells, the elderly, the immunocompromised, nurses and doctors, public transit and airport employees, and the service workers left out of a job every day the pandemic continues, everyday someone doesn’t practice social distancing. Privilege is a movable goal post, but what constitutes vulnerability isn’t.                                

To love “Cloud Atlas,” for a time, was to approach without cynicism its 172-minute message of shared experiences bound by love; to not disregard the interlocking narratives as a folly built upon platitudes or as confusing and repetitive. But the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s earnest meditation on our connectivity is now nothing short of prescient, especially considering the brutal coincidence of Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson contracting the virus, among hundreds of thousands of others. While this pandemic will pass, our awareness of each other should not. “Cloud Atlas” is finally at the right place, at the right time.   

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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