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Film Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas (2012; Directed by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer)

Widely-heralded as a stunning, ambitious head-scratcher of an epic by critics and audiences, Cloud Atlas is a film that snaps into focus if you’ve already read the book it’s based on. Adapted by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer from David Mitchell’s wonderfully-written, exquisitely-structured nested-doll combination of six separate but subtly connected narratives spanning the globe and many centuries, the film preserves as much of the writing as possible but does away a bit too eagerly with the structure. As remarkable, entertaining, and moving as the cinematic vision offered up in Cloud Atlas tends to be, its pristine waters are muddied, if only slightly, by the structural choices made in adaptation.

But first and foremost, let us gaze into those waters, and see our shimmering reflections in them. Whatever else they decide to do in translating Mitchell’s tremendous work to the screen, it is clear that the directors get precisely what the novel is about: human life, fate, morality, freedom, and all of its facets, universally applied in vastly different contexts. Maybe this is what all novels are about, ultimately, but Mitchell elevates these eternal themes to spiritual dimensions, interlocking his separate tales, ripping yarns all, in a way that suggests reincarnation, recurrence, and return.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis reuse their cast throughout all six sections, wherein the actor portraying the protagonist in one section makes a mere cameo in another, the selfless hero of one story plays the irredeemable villain in another (Wachowskis fave Hugo Weaving, of course, is always the bad guy). This technical choice informs the metaphorical meaning in other ways as well, as romantic attachments that end tragically in one storyline are completed happily in another, the same actors representing love consummated and interrupted. It’s a clever stroke that bears fruit again and again, often in ways unexpected even to someone familiar with the source material.

One should allow the expert storytelling of Mitchell’s tales wash over one’s mind of its own accord, but brief summaries of each narrative thread are necessary. The first section, chronologically, follows an American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) supposedly stricken with a Polynesian parasite aboard a sailing ship in 1849 being treated by a loquacious doctor (Tom Hanks) and interacting with a stowaway fugitive slave (David Gyasi). Next is the tale of a young disinherited bisexual composer (Ben Whishaw) in interwar Scotland, acting as amanuensis to a demanding old musical genius (Jim Broadbent) gone to seed. There’s a corporate-malfeasance detective tale set in 1970s San Francisco with Halle Berry as a plucky investigative reporter, a present-day comic yarn of a debt-ridden English publisher (Broadbent again) confined to an old-folks home by his bitter brother (Hugh Grant), a sci-fi dystopia set in 22nd-Century Korea, and a post-apocalyptic adventure featuring Hanks and Berry trekking through Hawaii on an uncertain quest.

At least, this is how Mitchell arranged them in his novel, taking each story to its halfway point before cutting away and paying it off later, in reverse order. Only the post-apocalyptic “Sloosha’s Crossin’” section remained whole. Tykwer and the Wachowskis elect to intercut between the tales instead, jettisoning the half-and-half structure for a form of narrative, thematic, and symbolic montage more suited to the cinema. Following the lead of Mitchell himself, who characterized Cloud Atlas as one story of recurrence and not six distinct (if linked) stories, the filmmakers connect, contrast, and juxtapose one story to another, often cleverly, sometimes profoundly, but occasionally dubiously. Meanings collide and evaporate, certain elements are emphasized when it would perhaps be better for the specific story or for the film as a whole if others were. Most unfortunately, Mitchell’s narrative prowess is diminished, as the intercutting structure jumbles and tangles the thread of the stories, rendering them less intelligible and easy to follow than they were on the page. I’ve read the book, so I had no problems picking things up, but I can certainly imagine viewers new to the material losing the plot.

This interweaving of the stories in editing also misreads how people tend to read the stories in the book and how they’re likely to watch them in the film: as six separate narratives, with similar ideas and points of intersection with each other, but fundamentally their own unique accounts with their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Every reader of Cloud Atlas has their favourite section, as well as their least favourite; despite the interspersed editing trickery, I suspect it will be the same for the film.

You break it, you buy it, boys!

The “Pacific Journals” section always seems to suffer in comparison to the others, as Mitchell’s  demonstration of his mastery of an antiquated epistolary style on the page turned away plenty of potential readers with its period language and punctuation. Despite its sweeping visual sense and strong turns from Gyasi and the make-up-disguised Hanks (technical Oscar nods will abound, but nobody can hope to compete with this film for the Makeup statuette), it also comes across as a bit stilted and precious onscreen. The “Letters from Zedelghem” portion (Whishaw and Broadbent as composers) suffers major modifying and excising, shifting from Belgium to the outskirts of Edinburgh, losing the daughter of the aged composer who attracts rakish Robert Frobisher’s eye, and missing out on great swaths of the singular, droll narrative voice that Mitchell provides for his young protagonist in this tale. What was a definite highlight of the novel becomes a drag on film, and it’s the movie’s greatest tragedy.

Tykwer rebounds from his failure with this section by turning the other two 20th-Century-set stories that he directs into straight-ahead, engaging genre exercises. “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is preserved nearly whole and anchored wonderfully by the perfectly-cast Broadbent as the persnickety title character, providing some much-needed levity. The “Luisa Rey Mystery” features Berry at her most appealing, and manages to twist the generic formula more than enough to remain interesting. These are the most uncomplicated sections, but they are rendered with effective skill by Tykwer (director of the propulsive Run Lola Run) and his actors.

So this is the dark future we were being warned about in “Gangnam Style”…

The more involved futuristic sections allow the Wachowskis free reign to practice their stylized violence and ponderous philosophy away from the period constraints of the “Pacific Journal” sequences they were also responsible for. The story of Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) and her resistance to the authoritarian power of Unanimity in the Neo Seoul of 2144 was Mitchell’s nimblest genre exercise in the novel, comingling dystopian classics ranging from Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury to Phillip K. Dick, Soylent Green (referenced directly in the Cavendish section), and (yes) the Wachowskis themselves into a dense homage to the form and a signature deepening of its possibilities. Of course the makers of The Matrix knock this material out of the park, crafting a reflexive homage to film classics like Blade Runner that works on its own merits, as well as transforming the usually-cuddly Sturgess (as Sonmi’s liberator from the Union Rebellion) into a badass action hero. That European-descended actors like Sturgess, Weaving, and Grant are done up as ethnic Asians may fit with the program, though, doesn’t make it anything but racially problematic (elsewhere, Bae also plays a Mexican lady, while Berry whites up as the Jewish wife of Broadbent’s aged composer).

The core of Cloud Atlas, structurally and hermeneutically, was always the middle section set in Hawaii, narrated in a broken-down regional dialect and inheriting the myriad themes, emotions, and narrative elements of previous sections. The central role is a tribal twist on Hanks’ usual everyman acting frame which goes otherwise unfulfilled here (which is fine; the guy’s got range that is generally underappreciated), and Berry as his foil from an advanced civilization does remote and unknowable rather well, even if she speaks the island dialect with the Southern drawl she picked up for Their Eyes Were Watching God. But its themes of guilt and forgiveness, redemption and escape, belonging and hope crystallize the similar elements of the other stories into a narrative that contains and reflects them all.

It may seem contradictory to say so after breaking it down to its constituent parts as I’ve done, but it’s as a complete, overarching work that Cloud Atlas succeeds best. Both its maximal scope and technical accomplishment smooth out the frequent wrinkles, and the sheer ambition and visionary quality of the picture is the conduit for its rare magic. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have made a memorable, often beautiful picture that does not telegraph its messages and trusts its audience to stick with it and put things together as they go. Structural issues aside, Cloud Atlas is a fine piece of work and an indelible cinematic experience, and film lovers can ask for little more.

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Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

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