I Riff on the Cloud Atlas Movie

Cloud-Atlas-Poster

1. Cloud Atlas is neither the bizarre trainwreck I thought it might be, nor is it a disastrously wrong-headed reinterpretation of David Mitchell’s novel.

2. It’s actually about as faithful an adaptation as one could expect.

3. A major deviation from the novel:

The filmmakers (the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer) of Cloud Atlas chop up and rearrange the novel’s six sections such that each section’s individual arc (e.g. exposition, climax, dénouement, etc.) runs concurrently with the other narrative arcs—like braided strands—whereas the novel nests them—like matryoskha dolls.

It’s very clear why the filmmakers would wish to use a more traditional grammar, but the effect is often more taxing than rewarding—the work’s themes of eternal recurrence are overstated (yet somehow underdeveloped), pressed repeatedly on the viewer. There’s little breathing room.

4. Another (possible) deviation from Mitchell’s novel:

The filmmakers cast their company (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving) in multiple roles, so that each actor portrays a new character in each section. Mitchell’s novel played with the idea of eternal recurrence subtly, using a comet-shaped birthmark as a linking signifier. The film adaptation overloads the theme, creating the impression of a system that simply doesn’t inhere through the plot unless the viewer chooses to impose it (granted, certain actors tend to be cast in villainous roles or heroic roles—but there isn’t a coherent system of correspondences between the actors and the characters, despite what snippets of dialog would wish the viewer to believer).

5. The biggest problem with casting actors across a variety of roles:

The effect is extremely distracting—especially when actors are playing characters across gender or across race (especially the film’s notorious use of “yellow face,” which is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that the make-up and prosthetics just look awful—and the part of the yellow face that’s worst to me (and perhaps the least-remarked-upon) is the awful fake “Asian” accents that the white actors use, with mangled intonations, etc. Disastrous).

The gambit may have worked (only may) if the filmmakers had cast actors who could actually pull it off. Denis Lavant, Tilda Swinton, and Gary Oldman all come to mind as actors who inhabit their roles to such a degree that the character transcends them (in plainer language: Gary Oldman is excellent at not looking like Gary Oldman). Tom Hanks—well, Hanks is wonderful at balancing charm with profound gazes—but he looks just like Tom Hanks in every damn scene he’s in, whether he’s playing a contemporary British gangster (maybe the low point of the film) or a post-apocalyptic tribesman (which, let me just shoehorn this in here real quickly—I imagined the Zachry of the novel to be like, much, much younger than mid-fifties). Halle Berry looks like Halle Berry, even in white face. And Hugo Weaving doing his Nurse Ratchet impression…well, leave it alone, leave it alone.

6. One thing the film does very well:

Stylized action sequences. We might expect this—the Wachowskis gave us The Matrix trilogy—but I was surprised at how well these moments fit into the film. There must have been a temptation to wedge shootouts and battles and cool cityscape sequences into the film, but these pockets of action are used sparingly, effectively buoying the film.

7. Another thing the film does well:

Explore the themes of slavery (and slave-master dynamics) that are central to Mitchell’s text.

8. The biggest thematic short-coming of the Cloud Atlas film:

Its muddled handling of eternal recurrence. In my review of Mitchell’s novel, I suggested that the book was overtly investigating the relationship between Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence and his infamous and often misunderstood übermensch. Granted, the film does posit history as a cycle of domination and submission, and also suggests that figures who wish to break or disrupt or upset this cycle will be assassinated or martyred—but the film elides the novel’s Nietzschean impulses in favor of New Age contours. There’s a broad, hippy-dippy streak of faux-spiritualism to the film that’s too syrupy to swallow. (In full disclosure, dear reader—I prefer a healthy dose of bitter with any sweets).

9. Another problem:

The music. It’s not that the score by director Tom Tykwer and two collaborators is bad—it’s fine, I suppose—it’s that the filmmakers rely too heavily on music to stitch their story strands together. The effect is at times simultaneously dulling and claustrophobic.

10. An extension of the previous point:

This is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of Cloud Atlas: Its compression. The film runs to an epic three hours, but somehow feels rushed.

There’s not enough space for characters to develop, and because the film has created a system through which characters are essentially reiterations of previous “selves,” the changes that the characters do undergo seem like fore drawn conclusions. Perhaps the most drastic example comes in the fabricant Sonmi-451. She’s an emblematic character to the narrative, a messianic figure, and her catechism provides the novel’s perhaps strongest exploration of what it means to be human and free. While the film hardly botches the Sonmi-451 segment, it doesn’t devote enough time to showing her revolutionary arc.

11. I know, I know—the film is already three hours, and here I am asking for more.

Suggestion: Cloud Atlas might have been much stronger as a twelve part miniseries, giving its characters and themes room to breathe and grow.

Another suggestion: Cloud Atlas as a one-man theatrical show starring, I don’t know, Gary Oldman (?). 75 minutes tops.

12. My criticisms might seem overly nitpicky, and to be clear, they are from the perspective of someone who read and enjoyed the book first. Still, I hate to fault the Wachowskis and Tykwer for their ambition, scope, technical prowess, and, oddly, their restraint. The film is far more focused and coherent than it has any right to be and its themes come through clearly. The filmmakers show a deep respect for Mitchell’s novel as well as the film’s audience while at the same time offering their own personal interpretation of the source material. When Cloud Atlas stumbles or outright fails, it does so on its own terms—which is why I think the film ultimately succeeds.

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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.”