Cloud Atlas (2012) was an interesting film on several levels. Fans of both the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer will quickly recognize the fingerprints of all three, especially philosophical elements of the Matrix trilogy. From the perspective of moral assessment, there is much in the film that I object to, but artistically speaking, I think it was excellent. On a deeper, symbolic level, the film also has a wealth of beautiful imagery that alone made it worth watching, while on an even deeper, esoteric level, it is clear as to its meaning: metempsychosis and gnostic deification. The history of western esoterism has long been obsessed with the notion of reclaiming lost knowledge and technology, all the way back to Plato’s Timaeus, and its legends of Atlantis.
Though I have not read the novel, I can divine its meaning from the film. While audiences the land over appear to be bewildered, the knotted yarn can easily be untangled. Early on, we are clued into a reference to Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence,” a shooting star birthmark that recurs in characters over different generations, and a highly significant musical piece being written, known as the “Cloud Atlas.” In total, six different time periods with a handful of reincarnated persons all interconnect, leading from 1846 to 2346. The other element that stands out is that each of these periods includes some system of oppression. The first, 1846, involves slavery and human trafficking, with a good Christian man helping save the life of a good-hearted slave. In the next, a Cambridge University gay couple battles the system of post-Victorian era “sexual oppression,” which leads to one of the two writing the “Cloud Atlas” musical piece.
From there, a hot 1970s journalist Halle Berry interacts with one of the gay lovers who has documentation to expose a large nuclear facility that is planning on a false flag event to make nuclear power look bad, for the benefit of big oil. Next, we are introduced to a publisher in 2012 London who engineers an escape from an old folks’ home, and from there, we move to a dystopian Korean future where a one world government known as “Unanimity” rules with technocratic iron fist. In this timeline, Sonmi-451 is a genetically engineered clone that works as an acolyte in the religion of the future: Fast Food. From there, we move to a post-apocalyptic unknown continent that has been destroyed by what appears to be a nuclear disaster or war of some kind, in which the future future Tom Hanks must guide a future future Halle Berry to the location of a Sonmi “temple,” which is actually the technology to go offworld.
Without getting bogged down in the details of the non-linear narrative, and exactly how they connect, the viewer should understand that the story is told in a non-linear fashion to associate the viewer with the idea of eternal return. The narratives are non-linear like the philosophy: each character is thus reincarnated into different roles and forms, based upon the decisions and roles made in the last life. Death, as Sonmi-451 (the film’s prophet-philosopher), explains, is just a doorway to the next life. The decisions you make in this life, determine the birth in the next, she explains. This is metempsychosis, and the ancient transmigration of souls taught by Plato and the Eastern mystery religions. The wheel of birth and death can only be transcended by enlightenment and right living, the general philosophy goes, which will lead to the recovery of the lostgnosis, or in this case, and in some of western esoterism, lost technology.
The eternal recurrence is thus working out the flaws and mistakes made in previous lives, ultimately giving the souls an experience of all phases and stations in life. In some eastern religions, this includes reincarnation as animals as well, but the focus in Cloud Atlas is the progressive evolution of mankind from the modern period (the post-Enlightenment/revolutionary period), to the star period. There are thus elements of Crowleyanism, as well as Jacobinism, as we eventually discover that all forms of laws and rules are to be broken. In Sonmi-451’s philosophy, all separation is illusion, so laws, which set boundaries are viewed as oppressive. All forms of hierarchy and difference are also “oppressive,” so we scenes like the gay couple smashing expensive vases, while they explain that form and matter also oppressive and “natural,” and natural law must be destroyed. Likewise with the slave system, Hugo Weaving explains that hierarchy and caste are natural: they cannot be destroyed. Note as well that Weaving plays the hierarchical male oppressor in several of the timelines, and was the same role in the Wachowski’s The Matrix. Weaving thus signifies the oppressive demiurge of created matter and law that the gnostics (borrowing from Plato) complained so often about.
This transmigration of souls is also prominent in Greek literature, as well as in the modernist work of James Joyce, Ulysses.There are several philosophical problems with the doctrine of soul migration, one of which is the increase of the population. If the world’s population has increased by the billions over the last few decades, from whence come these new souls? That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no possible way in which the inhabiting of souls by other entities occurs, as many religions believe concerning demons and spirits. We simply do not understand the nature of the inter-dimensional interactions in the next life, but they are able to influence and act in this dimension.
However, in regard to Could Atlas, the overall narrative is explained in the fact that all the events and actions of the different characters in the different time periods all work together for a common end. The modern world has moved away from the idea of telos, or purpose, but as Wolfgang Pauli explained, purpose must eventually return to science, and he felt confident physics would eventually rediscover the Aristotelian idea of the final cause. In this regard, Cloud Atlas is presenting a kind of providence or predestination, insofar as all things are moving towards a certain goal, yet not in a linear fashion.
The Jewish tradition differs from the pagan traditions precisely (but not solely) in this regard: for them time is linear, while for paganism, time is essentially an illusion, and the universe is trapped in an eternal cyclical wheel of life and death, good and evil, and dualistic struggle for all eternity. Telos is thus intimately bound up with the idea of a finality, or omega point (although Aristotle did not deny the eternality of the present universe). Cloud Atlas presents a cyclical history, yet also seems to point towards the possibility of deification and the transcending of the limitations of time and space.
In this sense, it resembles 2001: A Space Odyssey, as Starchild evolves from Dave (victorious in the struggle with HAL 9000 for the next level of evolution), transcending the limitations of time and space. Cloud Atlas, then, is about attaining the clouds. An Atlas charts one’s course, and the destination is the clouds – space. This is why the film begins with modernity, and doesn’t weave together periods of past earth history, say from the Middle Ages. The first limitation to be transcended is space: can we go off-world and establish human civilizations on other planets? Can we go to the clouds?
Cloud Atlas is more so a film about how this is destined to occur. It will occur through the Promethean striving of humans to transcend all limitations and boundaries and reach the stars. What holds humans back are the bad decisions they make, the belief in multiplicity and the forces of law and order that seek to oppress. Here the film makes its Jacobin/revolutionary message clear. As mentioned, in each time period the actions of the characters working toward freedom set in motion the chains of events that effect each era towards greater levels of freedom, increased technology, and greater challenges.
By the time of Sonmi-451, as mentioned. the world is run by an oppressive dystopian government that clones people and in turn feeds the populace dead clones, run behind the facade of a perverted culture that worships the fast food they are given. Here, eugenics and transhumanism have come full circle, with the cyclical nature of the clone plant perfectly embodying the cyclical nature of temporal reality the film intends to present. Note also that her name is “451,” echoing the dystopian novelFahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury with the same theme of a controlling, oppressive state. Sonmi-451 is created solely for the purpose of feeding people in the fast food liturgy, with the hope of being exalted to a kind of ethereal heaven for faithful service. When she discovers that Unanimity are recycling the clones, she becomes the model of the united rebellion’s revolution, a kind of oracle.
Sonmi’s revolution had achieved the ability to go offworld, we discover, and by future future Tom Hanks’ period, earth has reverted to a primitive state of tribalism that worships a goddess and has preserved Sonmi-451’s revelations. There is a figure of the goddess that resembles the statue of liberty and looks like Sonmi, which we later learn is merely the symbol of liberty and her revolution. Future future Tom Hanks is presented with this truth, and must battle his own mental prison and tribal superstitions in a pivotal climactic scene, where a demonic form of the Hugo Weaving demiurge pressures him to kill a highly advanced future future Halle Berry, sent to find the Sonmi gate which will take them offworld. Berry’s character in this world is the remnant of the elite, highly advanced humans who are seeking offworld passage to another planet, as the earth is forsaken, deadly and run by wild savages.
Future future Tom Hanks decides to reject his tribalism and superstitions for science, accepting liberty, or the gnostic Sophia,leading to the salvation of the doomed human race. At the close of the film we are shown a new human civilization built on another world, with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry together. From an esoteric perspective, the two divided anima and animus,female and male principles, have been reconciled through Sophia, leading to theosis, or deification. The right use of science, according to the film, is the real purpose behind religion, leading to the eventual victory over the forces of darkness, the laws of nature and oppression. We are shown the star birthmark on Hanks, and then a shooting star, which echoes the old occult doctrine expressed by Crowley as “every man and woman are a star.” The return to the stars also hearkens to Plato’s doctrine that our souls are associated with a certain star from which we came before birth. In Neo-platonism there is in fact a return of all particularity to the One, a feature adopted in many monotheistic religions as well, as the progress of phenomena in time are in fact a resolving of multiplicities back into the One.
My central problem here is that the Jacobin message of the atheistic revolutionaries and French Illuminists is not really one of freedom. It is freedom that leads to moral and mental slavery to nihilism. Back of all this scientific gnosis and pantheism is just classical occultism and superstition. The basis for modern progress in science is not Jacobinism, evident in the fact that modern “scientific” regimes have not produced freedom, but state totalitarianism, far worse than even the totalitarianism of the French Terror. The French Revolution’s Committee for Public Safety murdered tens of thousands, while the modern statists of the twentieth century murdered hundreds of millions.
Some laws are good: it is not law and boundary themselves that are the source of oppression and violence, it is the lack of virtue and choice of evil on the part of moral agents that are the source of evil and oppression. So while there are so many brilliant elements of the film I recommend, the big irony is that the very philosophy of revolution-ism espoused by the filmmakers is a mixed bag. If revolution itself is the end point of revolution, then a counter-revolution against the revolutionaries would also be good. But in the morality of Cloud Atlas, everyone experiences all sides of the moral compass, so good and evil are relativized.
In fact, in Cloud Atlas, the entire point of the musical piece is that all events are part of the plan. Just as a symphony or orchestral piece is made up of a bunch of disparate parts that work together to produce a complete auditory tapestry, in like manner the events of history work together to produce the events that will take us to the stars, leading to man’s apotheosis. In this respect, the tyrannies become in a sense necessary, as they are the means that lead to the end. But if morals are conventions, as the film says at one point, why would oppression be wrong? Why would the filmmakers object to human trafficking? If homosexuality is a good thing, and gender itself should be rebelled against, why fight against the supposed oppression of those limitations? Ultimately, the answers here are irrational in a system (scientific humanism, shall we say?) that is supposed to be preeminently rational.