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What you might have missed watching “Cloud Atlas”

Saturday, Apr 26th, 2014

Most people probably think it’s about reincarnation or something. Cloud Atlas has reincarnation in it, but isn’t about reincarnation. Sort of like how Star Wars has politics in it, but isn’t about politics. Or, perhaps a closer parallel is how Star Wars contains strong elements of eastern pantheism (the Force, everything being part of God, etc) but isn’t about eastern pantheism.

That being said, Cloud Atlas is less about bodily reincarnation and more about soul reincarnation. Less about identities recurring throughout time and more about ideals: “Fear, belief, love – phenomena that determined the course of our lives. These forces begin long before we are born and continue after we perish.” After all, it’s our ideas that make us who we are, not our bodies. Bodily reincarnation is questionable theory but idea reincarnation is indisputable fact.

The first idea is conceived by Adam Ewing aboard the Prophetess and it drives him to free the slave. In the Cavendish storyline, Ewing is reborn as a Scotsman. He still has the soul of the abolitionist, and the qualities of the abolitionist are awoken when he witnesses Cavendish and the old timers from the Aurora house being oppressed by their tyrannical nurses. When they ask for help (“Are there no true Scotsmen in the house?!”), just as the black slave asked for his help in a past life, he does not hesitate to free them, because his shtick is that he’s a freedom fighter: in his past life as a slave abolitionist, in the future life as the rebellion leader, and in the present, as a Scotsman. The action of freeing the slave is what made him this way. All his future incarnations embody that ideal.

Cavendish, finally being freed from captivity, writes a book about his experience in the Aurora house. The book is adopted into a movie. Thousands of years in the future, the movie or “disney” in future-speak is watched by the fabricants Sonmi 451 and Yoona-939. Just before Yoona is killed, she says “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse,” recited word for word from Cavendish’s disney. The inclusion of this line is meant to signify that her actions were inspired by Cavendish. Later, Sonmi, inspired by Yoona-939′s martyrdom, becomes a symbol of the revolution. Much much later, she is deified and becomes one of the moving forces in the islander storyline.

So you see, were it not for Ewing freeing the slave, he would never have become an abolitionist, Cavendish would never have been freed, the Disney never produced, Yoona never martyred and the revolution never begun. It all fits together perfectly, like puzzle pieces. Hence:

“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.”

There are multiple other threads to follow. The Ewing-Cavendish-Sonmi connection is only one thread. For instance, the slave in Ewing’s storyline is reincarnated as Luisa Rey’s father (the source of her inspiration and journalistic integrity) which has ties to both the Cavendish and the Frobisher storylines. You could spend all day charting out the numerous connections, the causes and effects. That is the central theme of Cloud Atlas: cause and effect. It’s nothing new, any well-crafted story can demonstrate cause-effect, but doing so across multiple timelines, with dozens of characters in dozens of different circumstances and dialects is what makes this movie unique. Cloud Atlas is an illustration of idea reincarnation.

At the end, Ewing’s father-in-law tells Ewing “No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.” The movie then cuts Sonmi 451′s execution, the climax of the revolution, which was in fact the very effect of Ewing’s actions. The hidden meaning is that Ewing’s “single drop in a limitless ocean” did have an effect all throughout time … and it all started with freeing the slave.

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