To warn any reader, I am going to be even more ignorant in this piece than I usually am, for a couple of reasons. Let me enumerate them. Firstly, this is a movie review. Not only is this the only movie review I have ever written, but also, secondly, I know nothing about movies. At all. Thirdly, I am writing a review on a movie based on a book I openly confess not to have read, which goes to show how much of a scoundrel I am willing to be to write this review. So proceed with this caution: you reader, read the review of a most ignorant ignoramus. But I am writing this review because I am compelled, because the movie I saw today was the best I had seen in years. And perhaps for this reason this review may be more earnest than learned. As Terry Eagleton once wrote, it is better to be provincial than presumptuous. If my provinciality, dear reader, can convince you in but the slighest way to go to the theater, even if you have forsworn it, and to see the Wachowskis’ stunning masterpiece, happily ignorant an ignoramus I shall be for what little joy I should have thereby imparted.
To spare myself what would be in any case rather inept description of the movie, and keeping in mind my matchless incompetence here, I will quote the eminent film critic Roger Ebert’s terse but accurate summary of the movie: it is a movie that “relates six stories taking place between the years 1849 and 2346” in which “each segment is a refashioning of the story contained in the previous one [… A] repeated motif is that all lives are connected by a thirst for freedom.” The stories themselves are diverse, drawing on everything from a group of senior citizens, slaves and “fabricants” (genetically engineered humans) to a homosexual composer, a journalist, and a futurist tribesman.
Part of the advantage of being a critic in any discipline is not that one has so called “better taste” in what it is he studies–this is snobbery, not criticism–but rather that through his practice has developed a more complete hermeneutic–a conceptual apparatus and vocabulary, a keenness to style suited to the medium, a wider ken of allusions, references, comparisons, and associations–with which to interpret and judge what he studies. In short, the critic is better at seeing details that those untrained simply do not notice. Since I am not a film critic and have–other than this piece–no such pretensions, I do not have a developed filmic hermeneutic. Nevertheless, Cloud Atlas, in its linking the lives of its characters and weaving of narratives, immediately recalls the 2006 film Babel, though Cloud Atlas is much larger in scale, much grander in scope, whether we judge by the imaginative recourse it takes, the plot, the setting–it is larger in every way.
What may be of particular interest for Christian audiences are the strong and strange allusions to religion in the film. From the unmistably christological figure to the Buddhistic elements to obscure references to Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the movie is, as movies go, deeply sapped with religion. Inasmuch as it is religious, it is universal, portraying a syncretistic universalism which all religions have in common. For Christians, Babel, not the 2006 film but the biblical reference should be recalled too, since this film is in many ways an attempt to find some coherence, some common story in the babble that is uttered by such diversity as ours, and we recall the Holy Spirit it was that descended and resolved the problem of Babel. The religious story it tells is the universal story. In the film, when the christological figure broadcasts her testament, the futurish satellite which unfolds to broadcast it is unmistakably lotus-like, the lotus being a well-known symbol of the Buddha. Furthermore, insofar as the film is universalist, it is anti-supernatural. This almost certainly will be of discomfort for orthodox Christians: when, for example, the christ-figure around whom a supernatural mythology has developed, is shown to be a human being and nothing more. The film in this regard will challenge orthodox Christians, if not convince them.
But the universalism of the film was much larger than a religious universalism; it was Whitmanian. Indeed, there is no way religion presented as such could be otherwise. What is religion in the film, if not supernatural? It is part of the common myth, the common story of human beings–the big theme of this movie–in much the way a Joseph Campbell would have done it. This common story is remarkably simple. What is the story of human beings but the story of suffering, exploitation, friendship, and sacrifice, the story of how we learn to be free, and to have courage, the story of how by love alone is life made real–what else is the human story? What else is the human story but the sum of all which make it, or as one character says, “what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” Ocean is the right word, since this movie is oceanic. It is so large it resists petty criticism. No strict logic connects the stories, and the search for one, like Middlemarch’s Casaubon in search of the key to all mythologies, is all but chimeric. The scope of the movie, its hugeness, runs the risk of excess, and even if this movie does, it is in the grander scheme of it, a pardonable sin.
If orthodoxy cautions you from experiencing a largeness such as this, recall even orthodox theology has a category called general revelation, and this movie is nothing but general revelation. For all, orthodox and heterodox, religious and sacreligious alike, the film is of the type that will wound and stab us, and as Kafka says these are the only books worth reading, so this is, as far as this provincial ignoramus of all things film can tell, true for movies too. The Wachowskis have created a masterpiece.