Digital Faith: Visual Effects and Religion in ‘Cloud Atlas,’ ‘Life of Pi,’ and ‘Prometheus’

Equipped with ever-improving technology and visual effects, filmmakers have often used new tools to turn back time. As Svetlana Boym notes in The Future of Nostalgia, filmmakers used developments in computer-generated imagery to recreate the past: the titular sinker in Titanic, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the Colosseum in Gladiator. Faced by a perceived acceleration of time in the age of modernity, progress “didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it,” Boym says. As I have previously explored, David Fincher has also employed cutting-edge digital technology to revive the San Francisco of the past and literally reverse the life cycle of one Benjamin Button.

In 2012, a different trend emerged. If a desire to turn back time is implicitly rooted in a fear of impending death, then last year’s visual effects–driven cinema offered an alternative: transcending time and death. All released within months of each other, the big-budget features Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi, and Prometheus explored issues of faith and religion and asked questions about our existence.

The intersection of visual effects and spirituality is nothing new. Stanley Kubrick’s visual effects milestone 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) explores the entirety of humankind in relation to a higher, monolith-ic power. Both What Dreams May Come (1998) and The Lovely Bones (2009) employ cinematic trickery to imagine life after death. Historically, though, these films have been exceptions rather than norms. What makes 2012’s releases so interesting is its unprecedented number of effects-heavy major studio releases dealing with death and religion. Three films might not seem like much, but it is truly remarkable considering the resources and labor that went into them. Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi, and Prometheus all use their computer-generated images to show the impossible, to explore where we come from and where we are going. These releases suggest an alternative response to the accelerated rhythms of life, made by and for people examining their place in a rapidly evolving digital world.

The visual effects of Cloud Atlas might be the most conventional of the three films I have mentioned. It was the only one shot in 2D and on film, and the film’s images of the future are stunningly rendered but hardly original. The Neo Seoul of 2144 echoes the dystopic science fiction of Metropolis and Blade Runner, while the post-apocalyptic story set “106 winters after The Fall” largely resembles “primitive” civilizations of days past. Instead, Cloud Atlas distinguishes itself by intertwining six stories of human resistance throughout time. Its crosscutting seems borrowed from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, but it takes further steps to narrativize reincarnation, venturing into the distant future and reusing actors in all of the individual stories.

As if simply turning back time weren’t enough, Cloud Atlas positions itself as a master of time, moving forward and back across centuries at will. And by moving forward into the future, with the same souls reincarnated in different bodies, the film suggests how human spirits echo ahead into the future. Much of this is achieved by simple editing, but by recontextualizing two effects-enhanced visions of the future, the film works through anxieties of mortality. Maybe our stories and our actions might someday be preserved in a book, a movie, or a renewed faith, like those of Halle Berry’s Luisa Rey, Jim Broadbent’s Timothy Cavendish, and Doona Bae’s Sonmi-451. It is an existential fantasy of life after death, looking to the future not in fear of mortality but anticipation of the possibilities.

Digital effects more directly visualize spiritual fantasy in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. The end of the film questions the truth of Pi’s epic story, which details his survival on an emergency raft in the lone company of a Bengal tiger. Young Pi tells an alternative story, featuring murder, cannibalism, and humans instead of animals. His fantastical story of the tiger becomes a metaphor for religious faith. The tale is a kinder, more optimistic choice compared to the more “realistic” story, and as Pi himself suggests in the present day, there is no concrete evidence of either account. In this film, visual effects are used to animate the incredibly lifelike tiger and the beautiful sites of the journey—lighting striking the sea, jellyfish floating through the ocean. While the events of this story are certainly possible, they are not probable. Lee’s story helps to make the improbable tangible, bringing a religious parable to life.

Both the Wachowski-Twyker collaboration and Lee’s film present an alternative worldview to explain the tragedies of reality using special effects. Cloud Atlas explores the persistence of prejudice and oppression throughout all time, but by presenting six unique stories from different time periods it offers a sense of hope. The battles of the past and the present might not be won, but there’s continued hope for our future lives, imagined with the aid of stellar CGI. And similarly, Life of Pi sidesteps humanity’s more violent, animalistic impulses in favor of a tale of interspecies cooperation, one that gives us permission to believe in miracles and perhaps even an afterlife. With the aid of visual effects, these two films seem to suggest that we need not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will care for itself.

But if these two films offer optimistic visions, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus presents something a bit more sinister. A Christian with a cross around her neck, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw goes looking for answers about the origins of humanity. But it is the ship’s android David (Michael Fassbender) who stumbles upon the star map of the engineer giants who created human beings. A large 3D hologram reveals to both David and the audience how the universe came into existence. Possibly the most impressive visual effects of the film, this computer-generated imagery allows the movie to visualize a fictional answer to our most profound existential questions.

Ultimately, the crew of the scientific vessel Prometheus discovers that the engineers fully intend to destroy their creations. Elizabeth had misinterpreted the invitation of the engineers as one of love rather than profound disappointment. And yet, she is still not contented. Neatly setting the stage for a sequel, Elizabeth ventures off to now learn more about the engineers and determine why they want to destroy humanity. Dissatisfied with the answer to her question of her species’ genesis, she clings to her faith and continues to search. If Life of Pi affirms religion when there is no evidence to the contrary, Prometheus suggests that humans continue to search even after finding proof of an ugly truth.

Prometheus conveniently provides a closing exchange that very bluntly articulates the odd relationship between digital effects and faith in these big-budget spectacles. David simply cannot understand why Elizabeth still continues her search, even though the answers to her questions are ultimately irrelevant for her everyday existence. She replies, “I guess that’s because I’m a human being and you’re a robot.” On-the-nose but telling, this line posits the constant search for answers as fundamentally human. With this in mind, the thematic parallels, intersections, and contradictions among Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi, and Prometheus seem more inevitable than surprising. And just as Elizabeth needs the technological David to help her continue her soul-searching journey, the filmmakers of the movies discussed here needed digital tools to project the future, reimagine present lives, and see our creation in days long past.

Author bio:

Todd Kushigemachi received his BS in Journalism at Northwestern University, where he also minored in Film and Media Studies. He is currently a first-year MA student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. With a background in entertainment journalism, he still writes features for Variety as a freelancer. His interests include the work of Woody Allen and trends of nostalgia in both classical Hollywood cinema and contemporary visual effects.

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