Clones and Cloud Atlas

Posted by Pete Shanks on November 13th, 2012

Cloud Atlas is a remarkable movie adaptation of an extraordinary novel. David Mitchell's book is a complex nesting of half a dozen novellas covering several centuries, past, present and future. The film, by the Wachowskis of Matrix fame and Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run), intercuts all six stories to tell them simultaneously.

The cinematic tricks (involving extensive changes of which Mitchell thoroughly approves — he even has a cameo) do not hide the serious issues behind the sometimes flashy stories. At root, both book and movie are concerned with the ultimate mystery of what it is to be human, and with the dreadful depths and transcendent heights that individuals and societies can reach. One of the many disconcerting ironies is that the character who most specifically articulates this is a fabricant — a created, genetically engineered clone named Sonmi-451.

Sonmi-451and her identical colleagues were produced to be servers in a fast-food restaurant in Neo-Seoul. (Old Seoul has been drowned by the effects of climate change.) The genetic engineering is not intended to confer superhuman powers but rather to create subhuman simulacra of people who can be reliably enslaved by the “pure-bloods” and the corporations.

The book explains that fabricants are physically dependent on a drug whose intentional side effect is functional stupidity. But Sonmi-451 transcends her engineered limitations, joins (or is exploited by) a rebellion against the corpocracy, and composes a moving manifesto about human possibility. She becomes a martyr, and the ramifications ripple down the ages to the era of post-apocalyptic barbarism that comprises the sixth Cloud Atlas story, when some worship her as a deity. For a logical explanation of all this, read the book; for a visceral experience, see the movie.

You may want to know before you go to the movie that the same actors play different roles in each of the stories, and that sometimes they are so disguised they're hard to recognize. Halle Berry, who is wonderful as everything from a Pacific Islander to a German Jew, claims she actually failed to recognize fellow actors on set: "Oh my god, Hugh Grant, I had no idea that was you." Grant, in turn, claims that the chance to play (as one of his six parts) a 23rd-century cannibal chief was something he could not turn down: "There was very little throat-slitting in Sense and Sensibility, I remember."

Critical reaction to the film has been mixed. Roger Ebert calls it "one of the most ambitious films ever made" and insists it needs to be seen two or three times. Others are less enthusiastic, or even downright hostile; at Rotten Tomatoes, the audience rates it higher than the average critic. Despite the star-studded cast (Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, and others in addition to Berry and Grant), it's already slipping at the U.S. box office. So go see it soon.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in A "Post-Human" Future?, Arts & Culture, Bioethics, Inheritable Genetic Modification, Media Coverage, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Reproductive Cloning


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