Cultural Doggie Bag: Cloud Atlas and Natural Law

Cloud Atlas is one of those movies I have a love/hate relationship with. I love it because of the complex and well-crafted storyline made up of interwoven time periods and because this craftsmanship itself is there for the sake of underscoring the film’s message. On the other hand, I disagree with most of that message because of my own views on natural law, and on top of that, the movie even inadvertently disagrees with itself before it’s finished.

Towards the beginning of the film, a question is asked: If God made the world, how much of it are we allowed to change? In other words, it raises the question of ordinance—is the world supposed to be a certain way by design, and if so, to what extent? The film explores the issue through a series of narratives that take place in different times and involve different characters, but are nevertheless connected by reincarnation, historical continuity, and a familiarity of circumstance in which a person or people is oppressed by “the way things are.” The narrative in the 1800’s deals with slavery, the one in 1930’s Scotland with homosexuality, 1970’s America with misogyny and corporatism, present day England with the marginalization of the elderly (though the purpose of this thread seems mainly to be comic relief), 22md century Korea with the subjugation of androids, and a post-apocalyptic 23rd century dealing with religious superstition. In each narrative, the harm and injustice the protagonists experience are brought about and rationalized by people’s belief that such things are simply moral ordinance—the nature of things that cannot be changed.

Each narrative also involves the protagonists breaking free of this oppression by changing the perceived ordinance in favor of a new one, “From womb to tomb, we are all connected,” a phrase that’s repeated more often in Cloud Atlas than “With great power comes great responsibility” in a Spider-Man film. This interconnectedness of humanity is further emphasized by the interconnectedness of the different time periods as the story progresses. For this reason humans (and androids) band together to help one another and free themselves and their neighbors from whatever oppression they happen to be facing (usually personified by Hugo Weaving). They overthrow each ordinance in favor of a singular ordinance which the movie portrays as more fundamental. In effect, the film’s answer to the initial question seems to be that the only real ordinance is love.

But can love really be the only ordinance? If so, then what is love? It is at this point that the film cheats on its own message, for all of its examples of love are incarnate within ordinance. The emotional impact of the film is not generated by evoking relationship as such but by evoking specifically loving relationships that fit a natural order. The good guys behave in ways consistent with being husbands, fathers, friends, wives, daughters, and so forth while the bad guys interfere with those relationships. The film would have you believe that it’s moral gravitas hinges entirely on “From womb to tomb, we are all connected,” but its narratives would not be compelling at all unless some connections were more loving than others. But if some connections are more loving than others, then that implies the existence of other unstated ordinances.

Nowhere is this more clear than in 1930’s Scotland, which ends up being the most disjointed narrative of the group precisely because it alone eschews reliance on typical ordinance. Robert Frobisher is a homosexual composer who leaves his lover to pursue his artistic vision. This piece of the story is tied together by Robert’s narration of letters to his lover as he describes the trials and tribulations of his attempts to compose and publish the Cloud Atlas sextet. Their love is portrayed in typical romantic fashion as something that is too pure and noble for this cruel world—just like Robert’s artistic vision, for which he runs himself ragged and then kills himself when finished. But what is it that makes Robert’s relationship loving besides the glowing self-description in his letters? He sleeps with his boss’s wife out of convenience to his ambition while he assures his original lover that it doesn’t have anywhere close to the deep spiritual meaning their own liaisons had. He attempts to sleep with his boss as well, but his boss is uninterested and demands credit for the Cloud Atlas in exchange for keeping his homosexuality a secret. Robert flees to a run-down hotel room to finish his composition on his own. The narrative reaches its climax as Robert’s lover, upon learning that he is in trouble, desperately searches for him. Robert knows this and even watches his lover’s desperation from the shadows with a smile on his face, but intentionally avoids him, only to go back to his hotel room and kill himself, thus ensuring for himself his fame and the credit for his music. In the end, what does the audience have to make them think that Robert actually loved his pen pal? He isn’t faithful to him, or even terribly considerate of him in general. He abandons him twice purely for ambition, and never expresses any concern from him outside of the text of the letters themselves. In other words, it commits the literary sin of telling instead of showing because it has nothing real to show. Without ordinance, love is an abstraction that never touches the real world.

Having abandoned natural law and the God who authorizes it, Western society has been seeking a new basis for morality for some time. But however hard they try, they eventually need to absentmindedly rely on the very natural law they eschewed. The person who says “you can do anything you want as long as you don’t hurt anybody” has said nothing at all unless he and his audience know what “hurt” means. In the same way, “from womb to tomb, we are all connected” is a catchy phrase, but is meaningless unless “connected” is defined. Unfortunately, the more seriously the audience takes Cloud Atlas, the less it has to say.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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