In Which I Review the Cloud Atlas Film Trailer

I liked David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas.

I reviewed it here in some detail, but here’s a brief overview:

Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas comprises six sections, each interrupted by the next section (with the exception of the sixth section), and then commenced again in reverse order (a simpler way to think of this might be a schema: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1). Sections 1-6 move forward chronologically and, significantly, each section represents a new literary trend. (Again, perhaps a schema with illustrating examples would work better here; for more detail, check out my review: 1: Melville-2: Modernism-3: Airport novel-4: Contemporary novel (Roth?)-5: Dystopian sci-fi (post-Orwell, shades of PKD)-6: Post-apocalyptic (language games, à la Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker)). In short, Cloud Atlas is an exercise in several genre styles, glommed onto a few ideas cribbed from Nietzsche: eternal recurrence, master/slave relationships, will to power, all that jazz. Ultimately—and more interestingly, I think—Cloud Atlas is an exercise in postmodernism-as-genre, a sort of critique perhaps (intentional or not), brought into even greater relief when one examines Mitchell’s novels Black Swan Green (a coming of age story) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (a straight-up historical romance), which are, again, genre exercises.

This leads me up to the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas, the long trailer for which dropped today.

I would embed the goddamn trailer, but it’s been blocked on YouTube and other similar sites by Warner Brothers, who apparently have absolutely no idea how publicity works.

You can watch the trailer here.

[Update] Here’s the trailer:

Did you watch it? Okay. I’m gonna riff a little:

I know that trailers have to advertise films to a wide range of potential audience members, and that often leads to overwrought musical cues and lines pulled out of context and big flashing words in all caps, but damn, this is cheeseball stuff. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a subtle book (at times), one that works best when the readers are allowed to do most of the work. The trailer suggests spectacle over nuance, bombast over substance. But again—just a trailer.

Not that the Wachowskis—who are directing and writing and producing (along with Tom Tykwer, whose films Run Lola Run and Perfume I recall enjoying)—-are known for restraint.

And, while I’m bringing up the Wachowskis: They are most famous for their visual inventiveness (these are the guys who did The Matrix), but great looking films don’t necessarily mean much. I mean, the last film they did was Speed Racer (okay, Cloud Atlas looks a lot more restrained than that fiasco, but still, these guys have major problems with storytelling).

Now, based on the trailer, the filmmakers seem to have done some significant rewrites. In Mitchell’s novel, each section (or sections 1-5, at least), exists as a narrative of some kind—fictional narratives, in a few cases. Each protagonist comes to find him or herself echoing or tracing or otherwise repeating or prefiguring the protagonist of another narrative—but there’s always the recognition of the textuality (and hence, metatextuality) to this patterning. Put another way, these are all characters in stories that are awfully familiar to us, and Mitchell strives to make the reader aware of this textuality: it’s a thoroughly postmodern move. 

The film seems to connect the characters in two ways: 1, it seems to use actors across separate roles (this could work) and 2, it seems to have characters from previous segments interact with each other across segments. I might be misreading the trailer when it comes to point 2 here, but I think that having characters actively puncture the nested narratives of Cloud Atlas is a bad idea. And, even if I am misreading this, the film clearly imposes a unifying style across the narratives—sure the dystopian sci-fi scenes will have different set dressing, etc., than the Pacific journal narrative scenes—but take note of how all the scenes seem to follow a unified visual sensibility. The joy of Mitchell’s novel is the way he plays with, parodies, adores (etc.) the narrative styles he’s reworking. For example, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery reads like a bad airport mystery (or at least a mediocre one). I was hoping that the filmmakers would attempt to do something similar with the film—actually play with the concept of genre, actually manipulate and amplify the distinct genre conventions at work in Mitchell’s book. Which, maybe they do. Again, I know: it’s just a trailer.

But it’s an awfully slick, shiny trailer.

Okay, perhaps I’m griping too much. All the characters seem to be there, and the casting doesn’t seem terrible. My curiosity is piqued, admittedly, but mostly because I want to know how the filmmakers will handle the nested narratives (also: how long will the movie be?). In any case, I’m sure this will be one of those movies where people sigh and say, “Yeah, the book is way better.”

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14 comments

  1. Arto · July 26, 2012

    Good write-up. You may well be right about that last line. Books like this very rarely translate well onto film. It’s hard to keep focused with the action spreading across so many levels and characters.

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  2. ccllyyddee · July 26, 2012

    I linked to the Warner Bros YouTube right after reading your comments in the next paragraph because I would rather get an idea of whether I’ll see the movie or not before reading the rest of your blog on the book. When possible, I prefer to see the movie before reading the book rather than the other way around, so that I can enjoy the movie without comparing it to how I would have filmed it and then read the book to appreciate how much better it is than the movie, which it usually is unless the book wasn’t that great anyway. I would like to comment on my take. It seems that Warner Brothers, like NBC and PBS are dealing themselves an early extinction by the way they relate to the internet. Too many stones, too many bruised expectations trying to navigate the site. I like to download videos for watching at a more convenient time. Not so with these videos. Would not come up on my download list. So, I watched them ‘live’ in the midst of much distraction. The directors blurb for watching the trailer wouldn’t entice me to watch the rest of that video, much less the trailer. had you not tweaked my interest in the story. I am not sure who it was designed to attract. Based on that video I predict a flop but a cult fanatic fan base. Then I watched the trailer. Could be a hit if the special effects are ‘new’ enough. Wonderful graphics. Confusing as to what the movie is about. Maybe a new age Groundhog Day? With pod people thrown in? Like so much art work of doomed civilizations, this one seems transcendental and surreal. Lots of lurid special effects. The trouble with visually over produced movies is that the script kind of withers in the background. Based on your comments this far along in your article I have the impression that this work’s interest lies in the storyline, not in the props. I prefer my mindless entertainment to be mindless, like a roller coaster ride, for example, and my ‘meaningful life changing’ theatrical experiences not to come in whiz bang effects. On with reading your article. I’ll try for the book and maybe watch the movie on tv a few years from now.

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  3. Rob Packer · July 26, 2012

    I spent about two minutes of that monster thinking “I want to watch this”. That was until it reached crescendo and the BIG THEMES started something I can only describe as an all-singing-all-dancing showtune with megaphones and high visibility jackets. I mean aesthetically it’s looks pretty amazing, but would I rather just read the book? Definitely.

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  4. Chris Kolbach · July 26, 2012

    Great article – the whole “missing the subtlety” part (or rather stamping it into the ground), was the first thing that struck me. Further to that, I think the casting of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in multiple roles is ridiculous – it is paint by numbers plotting for a lazy audience, not even allowing them to try to draw their own inferences, preferring instead to try to thematically ram them down our throats. Also can not stand the casting of American actors in European & Oriental roles. I hope to be proved wrong, but I think allowing the Wachowskis to make this film, is like getting a lumberjack to carve fine furniture.

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  5. Pingback: Family Groups Outraged Over Sex-Obsessed, Time Traveling Wizards in David Mitchell's Confusing New Film, "Cloud Atlas" | Daily Bleach
  6. miko · July 26, 2012

    Each story in the book is not just a different genre, but a different medium: journal (read by Frobisher), letters (read by Rey), novel (read by Cavendish), film (seen by Somni), deposition (heard by Zachry), and oral history (heard by Zachry’s descendants). Mitchell does these brilliantly in the book (though the Cavendish film is awkward to imagine — the story is all internal monologue). My concerns are 1. Tom Bloody Hanks (please let that voice over not be representative of the film) and 2. The overt reincarnation theme, which in the book I felt was a subtle metaphorical device to highlight the repetitive motifs in the stories rather than a literal plot mechanism.

    That said, I thought the trailer was beautiful and actually kind of moving, and since it is impossible to make a film of Cloud Atlas, I’m hoping for a visual/emotional experience inspired by Cloud Atlas that can be its own thing. It will be over the top and heavy handed, but that’s their genre. Hopefully the beautiful material they are working with will overcome their limited narrative abilities.

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  7. Josh A · July 26, 2012

    Yeah, all the themes that were subtle and tastefully done in the novel seem to be punched through your face in this trailer. Tom Hanks multiple rolls look laughable and cheesy at best. I’m glad they made it and through a bunch of money at it, but damn this a rough trailer.

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  8. ccllyyddee · July 26, 2012

    The Daily Bleach is a joke, right? All the parts of the film that they reported on that you didn’t write about make me want to see it. Are they watching the same trailer I watched? Same film, different universe? How can you tell if a fetus is gay or not? ????????

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    • ccllyyddee · July 26, 2012

      Oh, I get it, the joke’s on me. Seriously, now that Russell Brand has appeared as Jesus on a dog’s butt, does that mean I can eat my plate of spaghetti that looks like a stringy haired hippy Jesus now?

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  9. Mark Fitzpatrick · July 26, 2012

    After reading a review of The 1000 Autumns of Jakob De Zoet, I discovered David Mitchell’s books. I started with Ghost Written which is much more to the notion of reincarnation. Cloud Atlas is really not about reincarnation but orchestrates a continuity over time and genre between it’s stories as well as with the later book Ghost Written. There is no doubt, a movie version will fall short of the literary fabric that Mitchell creates between his stories, but it will be fun to see how the film makers attempt the translation.

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  10. Erica S.T. · July 26, 2012

    The trailer represents the film fairly accurately. And the film (you may have seen it by now) translates the book into a visual media while faithfully, and inventively, representing some of the main motifs of the book.

    A book can never be transformed into a film by being flung up onto a wall of light. The transition has to be a translation into a radically different tongue. You lose some stuff, and you gain the film makers’ sensibilities and insights.

    In the case of Cloud Atlas, I think the translation was a success. Your milieu may vary.

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  11. Pingback: I Riff on the Cloud Atlas Movie | biblioklept
  12. Fullerton Bail Bonds · July 26, 2012

    I watch the movie and its quite really hard to understand every piece of it so I end up reading the book, cause in movie they only pick the vital parts not the details. I agreed with Erica, the only thing why they made a movie cause they want people to buy the books.

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