Our Lives Are Still Our Own: A Nietzschean Reading of Cloud Atlas

This is the short essay I wrote for Film Philosophy at Amsterdam University College. I have pasted the introduction and conclusion here. 


The 2012 movie Cloud Atlasis an ambitious production combining six interconnected stories of various time, location and genre. Instead of committing to one story, the film simplifies causality in sub-stories and attempts to establish a meta-causality connecting all sub-stories. Featuring an ensemble cast performing multiple roles across sub-stories,1the film discusses the significance of individual actions when one’s struggles are destined to recur in different lives. In this essay, I explore how the narrative structure of Cloud Atlas helps to demonstrate Friedrich Nietzsche’s arguments about the death of God and eternal recurrence. Moreover, I consider how the film, inspired by the Buddhist concept of karma,2challenges Nietzsche’s individualistic solution to nihilism and how Nietzsche may respond to the challenge.


In conclusion, Cloud Atlasis a thought-provoking film that invites Buddhism and Nietzsche to a meaningful intercultural dialogue. Admittedly, Buddhism is a chief source of inspiration for Nietzsche’s philosophy (Elman 682), and that explains why the film, with a Buddhist underpinning,5can also demonstrate the death of God, nihilism and eternal recurrence from Nietzsche’s philosophy. Still, despite their agreement on the circularity of life, they have very different opinions on human condition and its cosmic significance, as demonstrated by their contrasting solutions to nihilism. While Cloud Atlasattempts to establish a meta-causality between individual actions in different lives, its nevertheless optimistic assumption about human existence cannot invalidate the Nietzschean individualism.


1. The six stories happen in 1849’s Pacific Islands, 1938’s Cambridge University, 1973’s San Francisco, 2012’s London, 2144’s Neo Seoul and 2321’s Hawaii (or 106 winters after The Fall). The same actors perform multiple roles in various sub-stories.

2. Karmais a Buddhist concept meaning action, work or deed. It refers to ‘the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual influence the future’(Wikipedia).

5. Besides the film’s reference to Karmaand Samsara, it also includes six sub-stories while six is a special number in Buddhism that signals reincarnation. The film experimentally applies reincarnation not on individual life, but on the level of human civilisation.

Works Cited

Cloud Atlas. Tom Tykwer; Lilly Wachowski; Lana Wachowski, directors. performances by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Bae Donna, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012. Film.

Elman, Benjamin A. “Nietzsche and Buddhism.” Journal of the History of Ideas44.4 (1983): 671-686. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, ed. Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs. Trans. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.The Gay Science with a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Edited by Bernard Williams. Translated by Josefine Nauckhoff and Adrian Del Caro, Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

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