Cloud Atlas—A Tale of Fractals, Fracturing and Friendship #cloudatlas


“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.” Sonmi-451

Last Friday I went to the opening night of the movie Cloud Atlas, the new movie by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski (The Matrix, V for Vendetta) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). I saw it again this evening because it has been haunting me for the past few days.

Here are my thoughts on the three themes of the movie that have resonated with me.

1. Fractals

A cloud is an example of a natural form that can be mathematically expressed as a fractal, a fractional dimension that is somewhere between the familiar two dimensions of an outline or shape and the three dimensions of a solid. The characteristic of a fractal such as a cloud, mountain, or snowflake is that its general shape tends to be repeated at smaller and smaller intervals. Take a look at the timeline of the six stories that make up the architecture of the overall story represented as one of the arms of a giant snowflake, with the framing tale of those six stories in the center. The characters, the themes, and even the music in each of those six stories at the periphery form patterns that repeat themselves throughout the other individual stories in the “snowflake”.

That’s why you can gain more of the texture of the story on repeated viewing, like hearing overtones off the main harmonic note of a song. Since I have not yet read the book by David Mitchell, the closest thing I can think of that I have read that gave me a similar feeling of echo throughout the work was James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which each chapter has a distinctive style all its own, and yet the characters and themes of the different chapters carry through the entire book.

Fig. 1 Timeline, Location of Cloud Atlas stories

2. Fracturing

One of the biggest themes running through the story is that of a society which is fractured, where socioeconomic forces are causing a centrifugal effect which separates different parts of the society from each other, with the result that one part tries to exploit the other. This necessitates the section of society that is doing the exploiting to see the other as something less than human, and absolving itself in any complicity in this exploitation by saying that it is a “natural order.”

You can see this in the 1st story as the white Yankee traders foster the enslavement of the peaceful tribe of the Moriori tribe by the warlike Maori, in the 2nd story as Nazi Germany embarks upon its persecution of Jews, and in the 5th story as the humans (“purebloods”) exploit the clones or replicants. I thought this a compelling theme for this day and age because I am now reading the book by Rick Perlstein called Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, which tells the history of Nixon’s role in the so-called Southern Strategy, the exodus of the so-called Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party into the Republican Party, a conservative backlash against the civil rights movement whose consequences we still live with today. And on the economic side, the high-water mark of the middle class reached in the 1960s has been receding for decades here in the United States. It was H. G. Wells in The Time Machine who dared to ask the provocative question, “What if the middle class were to disappear?” You see this scenario played out in the 6th story of Cloud Atlas, where there only goat-herders & cannibals on the one hand, and the technologically advanced people called the Prescients, with nothing in between.

3. Friendship

However, against this centrifugal force separating society into its various factions, the movie plays the main characters as those who make the leap of compassion and reach out to those “others” in such a way as to point the way towards healing the society back together again as a whole. In the 1st story, the hint is that the main character will become an abolitionist who will help abolish the slave trade, and the 5th story has the replicant Sonmi 451 inspiring a revolution that will end the exploitation of the replicants at the hands of the “purebloods” or humans.

This was very satisfying to me because in my networking and my volunteer work to help those who are looking for employment in these difficult economic times, I come across those with different political and religious backgrounds than myself. But as we talk about the practical needs of survival and reach out to help each other, such ideological differences seem, at least to me, to fade away in importance. That is why the movie is inspiring to me, because it really encourages you to go out and reach out with compassion to others.

4. Conclusion

The mythologist Joseph Campbell once mused how it was that one person can give his life so freely for that of another, even a stranger, in the moment of crisis. He found the answer in the writings of Schopenhauer, who said that in such a crisis moment, the “natural order” of self-preservation is suddenly dissolved, and there is a metaphysical realization that you and the other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life, and that your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time.  Our true reality is our identity and unity with all, and each other.

This is a philosopher’s words speaking this truth, but it takes a true series of artists like the directors of this film to bring this truth home to us in the a series of stories strung together like a necklace of precious stones, each one reflecting the light of the other.

Everything is connected, after all.

UPDATE:   I had the pleasure of reading David Mitchell’s book, which connects the stories both sequentially, by linking the stories from one age to another by various means, for example, having the first story told in a series of a letters that the character in the second story reads, or having the movie version of the fourth story being watched by the character in the fifth story.    But in an interview with the directors that I watched, they had to dispense with the sequential order of the stories and go directly to a radial structure where the stories are more bound by particular incidents or images.    However, the book does definitely give me an echo of Ulysses in that each story is told in a distinctive style of its own, and this stylistic difference between the way the stories are told also carries over into the film.    What you get from the book that you don’t get from the film is more depth into the themes of the work, the socioeconomic “fracturing” and the healing “friendship” that tries to heal those breaches, as described in the paragraphs above.    I can understand why it was  chosen as such excellent source material for a movie by the directors.    It was the same way of sensing, but a different way of telling, the truths of the novel.

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