Where to begin with Cloud Atlas, the ambitious new film spanning at least five centuries? A movie so sprawling it took three directors to tackle it? One in which actors portray ages, races, and even genders that are not their own? An adaptation of David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel that many assumed was unfilmable?
Where, oh where, to begin?
Cloud Atlas is like watching six movies at once. You could probably save time by just viewing each simultaneously on six different TV screens. Though it spans nearly three hours, it is an ideal film for anyone with ADD. And yet… not. Because as in the source material, the connections between these stories are not immediately clear, even when directors Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer take extra efforts to make this feel like a unified movie (like casting the same actors in various roles, even when there’s no narrative reason to draw a parallel between them). It begins in the 1800’s, on a voyage through the Pacific; it ends, shall we say, someplace very far away from there, several hundred years later.
I have indeed read the book, and am happy to report that Cloud Atlas is a mostly faithful (but not too faithful) adaptation. The book unfolds in eleven chapters, starting with the earliest story and moving forward to the one set in the most distant future, then heading back again. That’s it. The movie doesn’t preserve this structure, which likely wouldn’t have worked on screen — it takes no great care with what order the events unfold, finding thematic or visual or dialogue cues to help segue between segments, most often. In a way, I wish the editors had employed a slightly more disciplined approach, as the book does; all the cutting back and forth makes it difficult to get very emotionally invested in any of these stories as they’re unfolding. Instead, we’re meant to care more about the meaning of it all, the larger story of humanity as a whole than any of these individuals.
Thanks to the book, nearly all of these stories are interesting enough to be their own movie, and they easily hold our attention. But despite its grand themes, Cloud Atlas is really more like a ride, albeit a rather high-brow intellectual one. It’s a smart story dumbed down somewhat for the silver screen, because there’s no way to present something as complex as this novel in even three hours. The subtlety of the book is blunted to make a rather obvious statement about race and such — it’s like a gussied-up Crash (and hey, I liked Crash). I’m not sure it’s necessarily the point Mitchell himself was trying to make — at least, not this overtly. But I have to admire the film for even trying to say a anything at all, and for preserving enough of the curious energy of the book.
I thought it most appropriate to review this film in six brief segments, since it’s almost impossible discuss it as a whole in any coherent way:
The book begins here, though the film doesn’t. It’s one of the harder to read sections of the book, potentially scaring off a lot of readers. Tom Hanks plays an exceedingly ugly, creepy doctor who is secretly poisoning our narrator, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess). I’m not sure how satisfying this story is, in either the book or the film. The most interesting aspect of both is Adam’s relationship with an escaped slave stowaway, Autua (David Gyasi), and while this does eventually intersect with the poisoning storyline, they don’t feel like necessary components of the same character arc. The movie makes the message incredibly blatant, in one of Cloud Atlas‘ few truly bad moments (which is not in the book). The filmmakers clearly didn’t trust the audience to put two and two together on their own, making this probably the weakest of the film’s segments. There is a nifty scene featuring Autua swinging from some ropes as he puts the sails up, though.
In both book and movie, things pick up in the second segment, concerning a young composer (Ben Whishaw) who offers himself as protege to a sick, eccentric maestro (Jim Broadbent). The story unfolds as a series of letters from young Frobisher to his confidante and lover, Sixsmith (James D’Arcy). Frobisher is bisexual enough to also take his master’s wife as a lover on the side, though it’s an afterthought in the movie (but not in the book). Its connection to the previous segment is Frobisher’s discovery of half of Adam Ewing’s journal, which he becomes engrossed in.
This section actually takes quite a few liberties with the book, cutting out one major character (the composer’s daughter) and completely changing what happens near the end. Cinematically, the changes work and were probably even necessary, though they call more attention to the homosexual angle than the book ever does, and again it feels like the movie trying a bit too hard to send a message about equality. Whishaw and Broadbent are terrific here, and this is the segment that gives the film its title — throughout, Frobisher composes his “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” which we’ll hear in the next section.
Luisa Rey is a reporter for Spyglass magazine, who literally stumbles upon the story of her career when she’s trapped in an elevator with an old man named Sixsmith. (Yes, the very Sixsmith we met in the last section.) It’s the 70’s, so the aura of All The President’s Men-type journalist heroes is very much present. Luisa finds herself seeking a controversial report with far-reaching connections to many wealthy, powerful corporate types — we’ve seen this kind of thing before, of course, so what’s interesting is how this genre tale fits into the puzzle of the larger story. Luisa reads Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith and gets her hands on a copy of his “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” but not much is made of this, ultimately. One wishes her journalistic instincts had uncovered a bit more of a connection for us to take with us; the one she arrives at is fairly trite.
This third segment was the most compelling in Mitchell’s book, perhaps because it’s a mystery and mysteries tend to work really well in literary form. They can be great in movies too, of course, but unfortunately a movie with this structure isn’t able to capitalize on the book’s John Grisham-esque page-turner quality. Instead of being immersed in Luisa’s story, we’re always taken out of it to another time and place, and effectively killing the tension. That isn’t to say that this section is bad, exactly, but Halle Berry doesn’t really do much with Luisa, and I’m not sure he had the grit implied by the book. (I see her as more of a Michelle Rodriguez type.) Once again, the movie Cloud Atlas tries to make more of a connection than the book did by having Luisa’s young neighbor author the book; it’s a little too cute. Obviously, the screenplay streamlines a lot of twists and turns from the book, but for whatever reason it just isn’t as gripping in movie form. This is the segment that suffers the most from book-to-screen translation, though it’s far from a disaster.
Probably the most faithful of any of the segments, but is that a good thing? This chapter is an oddity; it takes place in 2012, yet also contains a distinctly old-fashioned Britishness that feels like it could be set any time in the past century. A weaselly publisher gets lucky when his client throws a critic off the roof at a party, prompting the book’s sales to skyrocket. But the author’s brothers come to collect the fortune Mr. Cavendish has already spent, inciting the “ghastly ordeal” of the title. Cavendish checks into what he believes is a hotel, only to discover he’s actually signed away his freedom to a prison-like nursing home. What follows is a Great Escape-like caper.
This segment is broadly comedic, in a way that feels out of sync with the rest of the movie. It’s jarring. Cavendish is made a prisoner here, which perhaps is meant to liken the way we treat the elderly to the way African-American slaves were once treated (the first section), the way homosexuals were treated (second section), the way the general public is treated by the rich (third section), and so on. Broadbent is fantastic as always, though this is the chapter that feels least essential as a piece of this story, and there’s a happy ending tacked on that just feels completely wrong for this story. (It’s not in the book.) The connection to what came before, with Cavendish running across a mystery submission about Luisa Rey, is also underplayed.
This, I propose, is the centerpiece of both the book and the movie, the one where its intent comes most crucially to light. In a dystopian future, a former fast food employee clone recounts an adventure in which she escaped from her thankless destiny and became influential in an uprising that somehow results in an even bleaker future. The world-building of this futuristic world is pretty awesome, which shouldn’t surprise considering it’s coming from the creators of The Matrix. It’s also the section that allows for the most action, which also livens up the story and works on a cinematic level.
Unfortunately, there’s not really any way to translate the interesting linguistic aspects of this part of the book — a few changes to the English we know and love, most notably that many common words are now referred to by a brand name (a movie becomes “a disney,” for example). The movie we actually see is an adaptation of The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish, starring Tom Hanks. Again, a lot of the rich detail of the book must be excised from the film, but I was really fascinated by both the book and movie retellings of this compelling story. Sure, there are several elements of it that we’ve seen in other fictions, but what’s interesting is how it fits into the tapestry with the five other sections, and something about this one really hits home. Doona Bae’s central performance is particularly effective.
And here’s the segment that wraps it all up. Kind of. After something called “The Fall,” in which humanity basically fell to pieces, leaving only a handful of survivors, people are basically living the way we did hundreds of years ago, except with a few technological twists. In book and film, it’s an interesting vision of the future, and the film does a good job of preserving the book’s unique language, which only somewhat resembles English. (It actually makes this chapter of the book quite difficult to read, though it’s quite rewarding once you get the hang of it.)
The story concerns the arrival of Meronym, part of a more advanced segment of the population, in this primitive society. She is revered by all but Zachry, who is skeptical (in part thanks to the voice of the devil in his head, embodied by Hugo Weaving in a strangely literal — and green! — representation). The filmmakers nearly ruin this section of the movie by casting Hanks as Zachry, even though the character is supposed to be a teenager. His storyline works much better if he’s a younger man, but Hanks does what he can and since it’s also a rather cinematic story, it does manage to come to life despite this detrimental change. Zachry’s people worship the goddess Sonmi, proving that the revolution she began in the last segment was successful at least in part, and bringing this story essentially full-circle. It is unfortunately saddled by a pretty awful final scene that again makes this all seem a lot cuter than it needed to be; the ambiguity of the page is replaced by a few thudding lines of dialogue that might as well have come from a fortune cookie.
But oh well. Despite my criticisms, Cloud Atlas is one of my favorite films of the year for all its ambition and scope. It’s not a perfect adaptation of the book, but how often does that happen, anyway? The best aspects of the book are preserved, and the fact that it’s even a movie in the first place is astounding. I wish the film had been cast differently — the whiteface, yellowface, and so on isn’t offensive as some have decried, but nor is it convincing. And I wish the filmmakers had been brave enough to not tie so much of it up in a neat little bow, with happy endings for most replacing (and almost undoing) the book’s darker intent. The score to the film is mesmerizing, and there are enough riveting cinematic moments to fill six blockbusters or Oscar contenders, even if the connective tissue between them isn’t always up to snuff.
I’d much rather see a beautiful, sprawling film like Cloud Atlas, warts and all, than another predictable one that holds no surprises. I’m not sure it’s accessible enough to be a big factor when the Academy Award nominations are announced — especially because of the disappointing opening weekend at the box office — but I hope it is, because, to compare it to a film that’s almost certain to be nominate, it’s everything that Argo isn’t. (Yes, including “a mess.”) But you wouldn’t you rather watch an original, beautiful mess than a tidy tale you’ve seen before?