“Everything is connected.” That’s the theme behind the new film by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski, Cloud Atlas. Based on the novel by David Mitchell, the movie follows the interrelated lives of several figures across time and space–from the letters of a young lawyer in the 19th century Pacific, to the far-flung future “After the Fall.” The Wachowskis and Tykwer do their best to bring a complex literary story to life on the big screen; how close they came to hitting the mark however is debatable.
I should note that I read the book before I saw the movie. So my critique is inherently affected by having examined the narrative in another medium. Not here to quibble over each individual change the directors made to the film–which are too many to recount. More problematic were the larger decisions made by the Wachowskis and Tykwer on how to translate the grandiose themes of this literary work onto the big screen.
Like the book, the film traces the lives of several main characters: a young 19th century American lawyer and his encounter with slavery in the South Pacific; a young, disinherited musician in the early 20th century who becomes entangled in the sordid affairs of an eccentric composer; a journalist trying to uncover deadly secrets at a 1970s nuclear power plant; a modern-day curmudgeon and snob of a publisher whose own misdeeds catch up with him when he’s committed to a nightmarish nursing home; a 22nd century clone (fabricant) who finds herself at the center of rebellion in the dystopian Corporatocracy Nea So Copros (New Seoul, Korea); and lastly, the ways in which the life of a superstitious “tribesman” in a far-flung post-Apocalyptic future is changed when he meets a dark-skinned Prescient woman, the last humans who still use and understand “smart” (technology). Within all of these stories are themes of difference, race, slavery, oppression, power, consumption and self-destruction–which seem to follow our protagonists (and thus humanity) through time and space. The many characters it turns out are reconnected, born again into different lives, crossing gender, race and sexuality, but trying to finish some ultimate story of mankind.
In the book, each of these stories is told in a half; then, starting from the last story, we read the second half in descending order which brings us back to the conclusion of the first. The film decides to do this differently, attempting to stitch the stories together at interesting moments, so the viewer travels through time–back and forth–continuously. This has some visually worthy moments, as when the young musician Robert Frobisher (actor Ben Whishaw) shares a split-screen with an elder future version of his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (actor James D’Arcy). The imagery of the two existing in different moments in time, unaware of the others presence, is poignant.
Too often however, even for someone familiar with the storyline, these dizzying (pardon the pun) quantum leaps became hard to follow. The effect of moving from character to character so quickly left a disjointed feel, offering little time to emotionally invest in the characters. Worse, many of the more complex issues surrounding these characters were never addressed fully. A glaring example is the storyline around the character Sonmi~451 (actress Bae Doona). In the book, this future world is fleshed out, and we see a decaying society where consumerism has become a driving philosophy and terms like “corporate” are spoken with near reverence: a stinging rebuke of capitalism and its eventual excesses–enough to jump-start a second Occupy Movement. The reader is allowed to learn all of this through the eyes of Sonmi~451 and experience her continued revelations and tribulations, as she attempts to find her denied humanity in the midst of a cold and calculating corporate-run world. But it’s done in such a rushed manner in the film, the actual criticism here is muddled at best if not somewhat lost.
After reading the book, it felt like I was now watching the “cliff notes” version–some bare essentials to help me get by and string together a coherent thesis, but not much more. Granted, the greatest problem in tackling this book adaptation is the sheer complexity of the narrative. The film was near 3 hours long; for it to pack in the character depth of the book, we would have needed to have added another 3 hours. I don’t know what the solution to this might have been (perhaps two movies, for which a budget would likely have been impossible to come by), but it left the film with an almost hollow and rushed feel.
In the book, the reader is given several hints to keep up with this notion of connected and reborn characters. Sometimes a character has a premonition through time. At other moments a story or song or letter is “discovered” by some other character in the future. And of course, there is the comet tattoo, which resurfaces on characters as they are continually reborn. The movie employs all of these, and they work well without hitting you over the head. However, as if the directors couldn’t leave well enough alone, they decided to go one step further. A bad idea is in the offing.
In the film, characters not only reappear through the mysticism of reincarnation and transmigration of the soul–they reappear through the use of facial prosthetic. Many of the main actors in the film–Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Bae Doona, Keith David, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess–appear repeatedly, bending race and even gender through Hollywood magic. The intent one supposes was to show, in a very simplistic notion, that “we are all the same”–driving home author David Mitchell’s point with a sledgehammer, in cause you didn’t get it the first time. The effect however was both distracting, wince-inducing and (judging by many in the audience) worthy of laughter.
I remember reading that in the original Planet of the Apes, the directors had a pre-screening of the actors and actresses in primate prosthetic make-up. There was a fear that the audience would simply burst into laughter at seeing the recognizable Roddy McDowall in chimp-face. To their relief, the audience took these “damn dirty apes” seriously and were able to suspend disbelief to engage the visuals. The directors of Cloud Atlas should have done the same. Watching Hugo Weaving transform into a mannish-looking nurse was one thing–a bit of perhaps intended humor. But watching him, and other clearly white actors, attempt to portray Asian-Korean residents of Seoul only made me cringe. The whole notion of “race-bending” and the sordid history of “yellow face” should have been enough to militate against this attempt. But once it was finished, someone had to have noticed how ridiculous the final product looked. As one person noted on a comment board, none of these white actors looked Asian–they looked more like Romulans! In fact, I kept wondering if perhaps they were supposed to be some form of mutated or oddly engineered humans.
And it wasn’t just them. I didn’t buy Halle Berry as a white woman (whose role was reduced significantly from the book) nor could I visually digest Korean actress Bae Doona as the freckled white daughter of a 19th century slave owner. Yeah, white face isn’t the same as black face or yellow face in the historical context; and in truth, with the reversal in power dynamics, it’s almost like a bit of racial reparations. Still, the whole thing reeked of a gimmick–as if the Wachowskis were trying to show they still had a trick up their sleeves since the revolutionary stop-motion fight scenes of The Matrix. Worse, it seemed to push a simplistic and inane ideology that deals with difference and “othering” by attempting to cancel it out. I’m all for boundary-crossing and hybridity. Sometimes–like that Michael Jackson video or Eddie Murphy in Coming to America–it comes across well. In this film, it just seemed plain wrong and entirely irksome, almost as much as Crash and for similar reasons.
The movie does have its highlights. The story of Timothy Cavendish (actor Jim Broadbent) is done well, enough so that you cheer on his character’s struggle for freedom. The tragic love story of Rufus Sixsmith and Robert Frobisher is also one of the more emotionally moving tales. The special effects (except for the use of facial prosthetic) are spectacular without being overwhelming. Much the same can be said for the action scenes. And with a star-studded cast, while there were no absolute “break out” moments in the acting department (though Tom Hanks was allowed a great deal of versatility), everyone performed their roles well.
In the end, I won’t call the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas “bad.” The better description might be underwhelming, mostly because it could have been so much more. I suppose attempting to translate something this complex to film is a gargantuan feat. And even the most skillful directors can fall short.