A watchable, beautiful failure: Review of Cloud Atlas, the movie

Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Wishaw, James D’arcy, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant.

Opening October 26th, 2012

Cloud Atlas, the film, is a sprawling, stunning, ambitious effort that manages to impress and disappoint by turns. Because the film is based on the novel by David Mitchell, one of my all-time favourite books (so much so that you can read along section by section with me here), I made sure to be in attendance for an advance screening at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend.

Cloud Atlas has been consistently referred to as one of the most unadaptable-to-the-big-screen books out there. How, then, to adapt it? A set of six distantly connected tales told in six different styles, in six different times and geographical spaces, the book is a masterpiece of chameleon-like storytelling that touches on major themes, including the way humans prey upon one another at both the individual and societal level, as well as the universality of human experience, from love and hope to weakness and sorrow. Directors Lana and Andy Wachowski (who were introduced to us at our screening as the team behind landmark movies including The Matrix trilogy and, I kid you not, Speedracer) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run and Paris, je t’aime) kept the times and places the same as the book but significantly changed the structure and simplified the stories.

We move from a ship in the south Pacific in the 1850s to a far post-apocalyptic future over a hundred years after “The Fall” of humanity. In between are a gifted young British musician in the 30s working with an ailing composer, an investigative journalist in the 70s bent on exposing deception at a nuclear facility, an older British editor in the present accidentally imprisoned in a nursing home, and a cloned slave in a sci-fi future-Korea throwing off her shackles.

As a fan of the book, I’m bringing a fair amount of expectation with me. And overall, I liked this movie a lot. But I didn’t love it. It is, in a lot of ways, a worthwhile, watchable failure. The actors do brilliant jobs of assuming different roles in different stories. Each member of the cast acts their heart out to bring to life their characters against absolutely stunning backdrops. The artistic direction is second to none, and the movie is worth seeing for its sweeping vistas alone, especially its 1850s New Zealand and its 2100s Tron-like Korea.

One of the strongest elements is the connection between characters within narratives. In particular, the friendship between Jim Sturgess’ American notary Adam Ewing and David Gyasi’s Moriori ex-slave Autua is deeply affecting, as is the all-for-one schemings of the old folks in the nursing home-cum-prison of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent). Doona Bae is a revelation as Sonmi~451. Her journey from terrified slave to angry prophetess is believable and formidable; her vulnerability as she listens to Hae-Joo’s heart beating is moving. The lack of chemistry between Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, however, left me rooting less for their various meetings and connections across the ages.

As an experiment in visual storytelling, the success of the film falters. Each story on its own is interesting, but so much is going on all at once, with six narratives to follow, that apart from these moments of connection between characters, it’s often difficult to connect as a viewer and become emotionally invested. A movie, of course, can’t and shouldn’t be a direct transcription of its source material. This version of Cloud Atlas certainly succeeds in giving visual life to well-imagined scenes and settings, but does it really add anything in the adaptation?

In the book, we move chronologically through the first halves of each of the stories until the far-future tale, told in its entirety, and then we move back out through the stories’ second halves in reverse chronological order, ending up back in the 1850s where we started. In the movie, the directors have decided to tell the tales concurrently, likely the most sensible way to show these disparate novellas as part of the visual whole. So we get the opening of each of the six tales, the hook of each, the progression, the climax, and so on, and in doing so, the directors draw distinct parallels between the characters, situations, and themes across the stories, imposing a coherence and homogeneity to the telling and the style that the original book was never meant to have.

In making the choice to tell the stories concurrently, the themes of reincarnation and universality are highlighted in a heavy-handed way, while the nuances of predacity, of the many different ways and levels we can both help and exploit one another, are lost entirely. The bad guys are two-dimensionally bad across the board, and while the ideas that love conquers and all and that one brave soul can change the world are resounding, they also feel cliched and, perhaps unintentionally, hopeless. If we’re doomed to repeat mistakes, if every iteration of society has evil that must be overthrown, is there a point to striving for goodness in the first place? This is an important question, but one that is glossed over entirely.

Indeed, a lot of the nuance is lost. The problems of colonialism and slavery are barely touched upon in the 1850s narrative; the idea of all-powerful corporations and consumerism, of the wasted West and the political intrigue, become forgotten notes in the background in the story of Sonmi~451; and the character of Robert Frobisher, the young composer, has been altered quite a bit from the source material. His original nastiness and the ways he exploits his older mentor just as much as his mentor exploits him, don’t exist here.

Further, while the acting can’t be faulted, the use of the same cast over and over smacks of gimmickry, and overemphasizes the idea of reincarnation. Certainly, we have the gentlest of hints that we’re following the story of one soul in the book, that these lives are “criss-crossing” each other across the grander scale of time and human experience. But using the same faces over and over is too pat, too limiting an idea. It draws one-to-one comparisons of who people “are” in each of the six narratives, which I don’t think serves the loose and far-reaching connections of the original at all. It leaves you wondering: if this is what happens with this one particular group of interconnected people, why don’t we all have these crushing moments where we realize that we know one another from another life? It’s too simple, too easy.

The vastness, the ambition, of bringing all of the narratives to the big screen is enough to make the movie worth watching. It is grand, and it is beautiful, and it has a few important things to say. Perhaps in another incarnation, it would be served better as an epic television miniseries, a different section done in a different style over the course of 11 or 12 weeks, and with more trust that the audience will pick up on a subtle clues and connections. Cloud Atlas, the novel, is akin to looking up into the night sky and imagining all the different ways that the stars might somehow be connected across time and space. Cloud Atlas, the movie, is someone taking a magic marker and drawing permanent lines between the stars to create one unalterable dot-to-dot of one particular image.

Go read the book. You won’t be sorry you did.

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11 thoughts on “A watchable, beautiful failure: Review of Cloud Atlas, the movie

  1. Hello, I really enjoyed your review and it added to my eagerness of reading the book. I can hardly wait!
    I think they decided to tell the stories concurrently because everything happens simultaneously in the universe; time is only there is to put the human mind at easy. Things are hard to grasp with its limitations.
    And the use of the same cast for the stories may be merely a scaled down version of what actually happens; we incarnate into a number of templates but of course, there is a vast amount of them. And we also incarnate as a team most of the time.
    At least these are what some believes.. 🙂
    Pardon my English, this is my secondary language.
    I will be following you and referring to you whenever I crave for a good read. I am really happy, excited to have found you.
    Thank you..

  2. I saw the movie before reading the book. I also read that the author David Mitchell remarked that he had doubts that it could be made into a movie. I agree. I liked elements of the movie – a great cast, nice costume design, beautiful settings, vivid special effects. Still in all I would agree the movie was a failure. There was a scene in which the character Frobisher is smashing china plates. I couldn’t connect that to anything else in the movie, but in the book it was poignant and touching. Then later, in Sloosha’s Crossing, they’re speaking in a dialect that made me wonder if Tom Hanks had had a stroke. By the time my ears had become attuned to it I’d missed half of what was said. After reading the book I wondered if it might have been better to serialize the story. The plots are based on profound questions and themes that a two hour movie could not fully explore: slavery and abolition, religion and science, corporate versus human rights just to name a few. David Mitchell does not waste words. Even the most subtle nuance adds to cohesion to his stories, so a film version of his work requires that every thought, idea, question, philosophy be included in its entirety in order for the movie to be a success.

  3. Like Nishiio, I saw the movie first, and read the book on the merits of the movie. You are so right about the fact that movie adaptations can’t and shouldn’t try to reflect perfectly their source material. Different dramatic pacing and even audience expectations require different approaches between literature and film. After having finally finished the book, I wish I could re-watch the film. I didn’t have the same emotional reactions to the book that I had to the film, and in that respect I preferred the film. As I said in my own blog, the highlight (addition?) of the romantic elements of the stories in the film had great emotional resonance for me, watching it with my bride of only just over a year. However, the book provides insights and nuance missing from the film. In many ways, the plot itself was changed from book to film, and not always for the better.

  4. Gosh, you dig so deep in this book, you understand it and love it so much, i’m almost envy – how can anyone but me love it more. 🙂
    thank you for your blog, for your readalong, and for your understanding of this perfect, breathtaking, captivating book.

  5. I saw the movie last week without realizing it was a book first. I was so captivated by the movie that I bought the book a few days ago and finished it. I also happened to stumble upon your readalong, which was extremely helpful because you point out a lot of the details I skipped over.

    That being said, maybe it was because I saw the movie first (and I’m a very visual person), but I really loved it. I think it was extremely ambitious and really breaks the mold of your mainstream Hollywood blockbusters and even indie movies. I fell in love with the production and the amount of work they put into the movie – the cinematography, the visual effects, make-up, music, casting, etc. was so gorgeous.

    I do agree that they wildly re-interpreted some of the stories from the book. Ironically, I prefer the Wachowski’s re-imagination of The Orison of Sonmi~451. I should explain: I think Sonmi’s segment in the book is “better” in that it is much more shocking, invokes a more emotional response from me, and doesn’t cave to the “sad stories should have happy endings” idea. At the same time, perhaps it was because of these emotions that I actually am glad for the “happier” interpretation and added romance in the movie. I am a sucker for dystopian stories but I am also a sucker for happy endings.

    Enough blabbing. I am rereading the book again with the help of your blog. Seeing the movie first has caused me to have some preconceived ideas about the characters and I hope reading it fresh for a second time will let me enjoy the book on its own!

  6. I just saw it.

    The first hour of the movie is a mess. It feels disjointed and awkward, and if I hadn’t read the book I’d have no idea what was going on. After that, the film starts to pull itself together, mostly on the strength of the “Cavendish” and “Zach’ry” plot lines (Jim Broadbent is the best- and funniest – actor in this movie). “Luisa Rey” gets better, but has little impact. “Frobisher” has a strong ending, but all else that is good about the section in the book is drained out because of the heavily black-and-white characterization. “Ewing” is awkward throughout, and “Sonmi” . . . ugh.

    “Sonmi” was my favorite part of the book, and it’s the weakest part of the film. The acting feels awkward, the significance of the “predacity” theme is lost (in large part because we don’t have Sonmi’s commentary and the Archivist’s reaction), and it mostly feels like a collection of action sequences. I guess some of that was inevitable, since so much of what makes her chapters good in the book is her self-awareness and greater commentary on how things went down. I did like how they represented the ecological collapse visually with the rising waters due to climate change, which had drowned Old Seoul. The “race-bending” was strange, mostly because it felt so unnecessary – we see that Neo Seoul is a multi-ethnic society, so why not just change “Hae Joo Kim” to something else?

    I don’t regret seeing it, but I probably won’t watch it again anytime soon.

  7. It’s a great movie, but not perfect. There was barely any emotional-connection I had with this movie and I don’t know why that was, but it just did not work out so perfectly for me in the end. Nice review.

    1. Thanks, and thanks for commenting! I think it’s a movie I’d have liked more if I hadn’t read the book so carefully. The film is definitely beautiful, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing it, but the book is the better choice to really understand what’s going on here!

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