October 24, 2012
‘Cloud Atlas’ explores meaning of our lives
What is a life? What gives it meaning? Do we live more than one life?
Profound questions never have easy answers, but the new film “Cloud Atlas,” based on the best-selling novel by David Mitchell, makes an intriguing attempt.
Hugo Weaving, best known for his role as Agent Smith in the “Matrix” trilogy and as Elrond in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, portrays six characters in “Cloud Atlas,” making an appearance in all of the film’s time periods — 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144 and 2346.
“The characters I play are all agents of control, enslavement and selfishness,” explains Weaving, whose characters range from an assassin to a domineering female nurse in the film. “I didn’t envision the link between the characters, except in themes. But there’s a journey that the meta-soul represented by the characters goes on, starting with Haskell Moore, a businessman of good standing who believes in the ladder of civilization, and that there’s a different race on each rung of the ladder.”
From the prejudice of Moore in 1849 to Tadeusz Kesselring, a conductor in Nazi Germany who doesn’t stand up for what he believes in 1936, to the assassin Bill Smoke in 1973, we see people who make decisions by choosing selfishness over humanity. In 2012, the theme continues with Weaving’s portrayal of Nurse Noakes, who believes everyone in her charge should be treated like children. In 2144, Weaving’s Boardman Mephi is the bureaucrat who upholds a dystopian status quo in the future.
Weaving’s sixth character is a scary-looking fellow named Old Georgie, who taunts Tom Hanks’ goatherd Zachary, as he decides whether to help Meronym (Halle Berry), a representative from an advanced human community called Prescients in 2321.
“Old Georgie’s really the idea in your head that stops you from being free, that rejects change, and says you must be a certain way,” Weaving says. “So my characters make the journey from human to pure repressive idea.
“Personally, I don’t believe in the idea that I might be born inside the body of someone else. Reincarnation strikes me as a little too neat. I do believe energy is not lost. It goes somewhere else, and is a force that maintains itself in some form through time.”
If Weaving’s characters fail to change the tenor of their decisions over time, Susan Sarandon’s characters become more questioning and more evolved over time. Sarandon, known for her portrayal of strong, intelligent women in films like “Bull Durham” and “Thelma and Louise,” appears in four of the six stories in “Cloud Atlas.”
“I loved exploring the idea that the spirit is more than gender, color or race,” Sarandon says. “All my characters questioned the place of women.”
There’s Madame Horrox, a suppressed woman in 1849, who disapproves of her husband’s cavalier treatment of women and slaves; Older Ursula, the long-lost love of a small-time publisher (Jim Broadbent), and the Abbess, who carries the spiritual wisdom of her people in 2321.
“I also play a male character (Yusouf Suleiman) who is a spiritual leader in 2144,” Sarandon says. “His philosophy that fabricants (genetically-engineered women) have souls — whether they’re born in the womb or a tank — influences the fabricant Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), who influences our heroines.”
The actress says “Cloud Atlas” explores what it means to be truly human, and shows the cyclical nature of the human experience.
“I think how you spend your energy, and how you frame your life creates the human being that you are,” she says. “To be human, in my mind, is to be generous, kind, and present. When you see periods of history where genocide and racial cleansing is accepted, it’s crazy. Today, we have a great deal of compassion fatigue. Society has started to accept things that should be unacceptable, and we have to fight that.”
Sarandon points to a legacy of war that can be seen in veterans from the Vietnam War helping today’s soldiers in Iraq.
“I wonder, will we ever learn?” she says. “Is greed always going to be the short-term path we’ll be on? Hugo (Weaving)’s characters are all of a piece where fear is used to control. We’re living in a fear-based society now, which is why things are so partisan. There’s a big disconnect between morality and power.”
Sarandon loves the words of Sonmi-451, read by her character, the Abbess, in the dystopian future of “Cloud Atlas” — “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.”
This film, like life, is disjointed in the beginning, but if you hang in there, the stories and themes come together to deliver a thoughtful message about the often unseen ways in which we all are connected.