Published October 26, 2012
Have you ever wanted to soar through time and space? You know, sail across centuries, continents, and even galaxies? Have you ever had the feeling that your horizons are too limited--that the world, as it is, is getting you down? Then “Cloud Atlas” is the movie for you.
And in the same spirit of imagining things, there’s another movie to look forward to in a year or so, “True Skin.” A four-minute video of that name--in effect, a treatment for the film--went viral in just a week, and a major studio has snapped up the project.
But the big news, of course, is “Cloud Atlas,” which opens Friday. If Hollywood is the dream factory, then “Cloud Atlas” is a turbo-charged mass production, all crammed into one three-hour package. Not too many films have six different plot lines spanning five centuries, but “Cloud Atlas” spans all the way from the 19th century to the 23rd century. And for that matter, not too many films have three directors, including the Wachowskis, Andy and Lana, best known for the “Matrix” movies.
How to describe “Cloud Atlas”? The simplest way describe it is--well, there’s no simple way to describe it, other than to say that it’s based on a 2004 best-seller by the British author David Mitchell. It’s six stories, ranging from the heroic to the comic to the tragic--from shipmates in the Pacific in the 19th century, to artists suffering for their art in England in the 1930s, to investigators unraveling a crime in the US in the 1970s, to publishing houses and nursing homes in the England of our time, to a bio-totalitarian Korea in the 22nd century, and, finally, to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii in the 23rd century.
And yet the point of the film is that in some crucial, cosmic way, all the characters, good and bad, are linked to each other. To underscore that point, the cast--featuring such well-known stars as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, and Susan Sarandon, as well as cult fave Hugo Weaving and a slew of newcomers including an eerily pretty South Korean, Doona Bae--plays multiple roles in the sextet of stories, crossing racial and gender lines. The message of the movie is that while each of us might be just one tiny drop of water, we are all in the same ocean, and the currents of the past can become the waves of the present--and the flood of the future.
Such philosophizing will strike some as precious, even absurd, but for those who enjoyed the “Matrix” movies (especially the first of the trilogy), or other ambitiously wide-scale films--including “Blade Runner,” “Brazil,” “Forrest Gump,” “Inception,” “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” and “Tron”--then “Cloud Atlas” should also be an enjoyable experience. If nothing else, it thinks big.
Of the six stories, perhaps the most compelling is set in “Neo-Seoul” in 2144. In that era, the capital of South Korea has been recreated as an electronic wonderland--even more so than it already is--but with a horrible twist. In this cinematic telling, the same pell-mell rush of technology that characterizes today’s Asia has migrated beyond computers and phones; in the future world of Neo-Seoul, synthetic humans are being cranked out as quickly as gadgets. In this fearsome new world, the “fabricants” are treated as slaves--or worse.
Then comes a slave rebellion... And what happens then? As Tom Hanks, in one of his incarnations, tells us, summing up the movie’s point of view: “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
One specific lesson of Neo-Seoul is that transformative technology must always be tethered by ethics and morals--and simple human decency. And yet, sadly, that’s a lesson easier to preach than to practice. Indeed, in the film, another lesson comes clear: New technology, including biotechnology, is coming. So what to do in the face of this technological onslaught? That is the question.
And this question is underscored by what we can see so far of “True Skin.” That four-minute video is soon to be a major motion picture, and so we will all get a chance to see how one energetic imagination foresees the next few decades.
“True Skin” covers some of the same territory as “Cloud Atlas”--the bold new world of biological wonder-working. In “True Skin,” set somewhere in the relatively near future, the plastic surgeries and prosthetics of today have been superseded by mass-produced manufactured body parts--legs, arms, eyes, faces--that can be quickly added to a living body.
So people can not only hide their identity, but also improve their well-being and longevity. This bio-enhancing doesn’t seem to be entirely legal; perhaps that’s why the central character is on the run in the back alleys of Bangkok.
And yet as the character explains, “This trend is here to stay. I mean, let’s face it ... no one wants to be entirely organic. No one wants to get sick and old and die. My only choice was to enhance.”
The idea of bio-enhancement is restricted by heavy cultural and legal taboos, and rightfully so. And yet at the same time, many feel the lure to improve on what nature has given to us--or what time threatens to take away. Is there anything wrong with dentures? Or a heart pacemaker? Or a hip replacement?
And if the answer to those questions is “nothing,” then fast-moving science poses another question: Where, if anywhere, do we draw the line, as technology and capitalism combine to create new products?
How do we continue to improve the lot of humanity, while not creating a new race of Frankensteins? Moreover, just as we don’t want to create future cyborg tyrants above us, neither do we want to create a new race of slaves below us.
So while “True Skin” is fiction, the trendlines it points to are very real: Today, people are continuously inventing the reinventing of the human body, and while various practices might be outlawed here and there, they might well be legal over there--in, say, South Korea or Thailand. We just don’t know what’s coming next, and in a world in which futuristic technology is widely distributed, we never really will know--until it hits us, for better or for worse.
Yet out all that new technology--differentially understood and differentially received--will inevitably emerge new, and perhaps savage, inequalities.
For now, we can say that it would be wonderful if the benefits of medical research could become the common property of all humanity--that’s a hopeful “Cloud Atlas”-type thought.
By contrast, the bleaker “True Skin” puts on notice: The future is coming, ready for it or not.
The dream of science-based physical and medical transcendence will never be denied, for as long as people are human--and probably after that, too.