It can’t be done? Then let’s do it!
Cloud Atlas is an amazing, impressive and extremely puzzling film. It’s based on an unfilmmable and brilliant 2004 novel by the English writer David Mitchell. I don’t begrudge anybody their pleasure in it and I hope it doesn’t cause brain damage. I just caution you that it’s no more possible to make this kind of book into a film than it is to make Jane Austen into one. If a movie should give you everything (like traditional Indian ones) then this is a great movie. It is more movie for your buck than any other movie of the year. But it’s not one of the year’s best.
The amazement and the oddity spin out inevitably from the flim’s source. In the novel, which people thought was a crime not to have won the Booker Prize, Mitchell demonstrated conclusively that he was the most extravagantly gifted writer of his generation. Mitchell is a prestidigitator, a master of voice and pastiche and multiplier of genres, and this novel displays those abilities more starkly than any of his other ones thus far. The book tells six interlocking stories of: Adam Ewing, an American notary who’s almost murdered on an 1849 Pacific voyage; Robert Frobisher, a young bisexual composer in 1931 who runs off from Cambridge to be amanuensis to Vyvyan Ayrs, a haughty, exploitative aging composer living in Belgium; Louisa Rey, a young journalist in 1975, who endangers her life exploring malfeasance at a nuclear power plant; Timothy Cavendish, a disreputable vanity press publisher in the present day who becomes a prisoner at a retirement home while fleeing from gangsters; in the future Sonmi 451, a Korean fabricant (clone) of unusual intelligence and initiative who rebels against the exploitation of her kind; and finally, in the still more remote post-apocalyptic future, Zachry, a young tribesman (telling his story to kids as a much older man) is visited by Meronym, a member of the last remnants of a former technologically-advanced civilization. Each of these stories represents a different literary genre and style. Ewing’s is a nineteenth-century-style travel journal. Frobisher’s story is a series of Italic-script letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. Louisa Rey’s is written in a pulpy Seventies hard-boiled style. Soumi 451’s is a chilly, abstract kind of sci-fi. Zachry’s is spoken in a whole new language, a folksy, archaic/Pacific pidgen Mitchell invented for the occasion.
Though the six stories in the book unfold one by one in chronological order, the whole is interlocking because each one is left unfinished. At the end of the book Mitchell doubles back and one by one each story is concluded, with a return to the opening passage, set in the post apocalyptic future. In addition each story is subtly, by hints, linked with the one that came before. For example, while working for Vyvyan Ayres, Robert Frobisher becomes fascinated with a travel journal — it’s Adam Ewing’s story — but is frustrated to find that a final volume is missing. The novel is also unified by a musical motif — “Cloud Atlas” is the name of a piece of music, a sextet — linking the whole “sextet” of stories together.
The movie’s remarkably faithful to the story content of the book (not that it doesn’t leave out some important things). What it’s obviously not true to are the book’s styles or sequence. The film’s eye-popping series of intercut scenes are not in the least faithful to or even vaguely evocative of its literary qualities — Mitchell’s spot-on, virtuosic mimicry of a different period genres and voices — an element essential to the novel’s accomplishment. In a way the book’s brilliant pastiches, and its seemingly unrelated series of stories, might seem just showing off. But they’re so fascinating in themselves and in how they’re intricately interwoven that one never stops to worry about that and, as A.S. Byatt said in her original review, one balks only at first and then obediently reads through the whole book — fascinated by its narrative intricacy and its themes that emerge slowly and subtly.
Presenting six separate nearly-finished stories one after the other would have meant for the Wachowskis and Tykwer following the unpopular format of an omnibus film, so they chose to present everything through constant, sometimes wearying crosscutting — aided by what A.O. Scott of the NY Times aptly calls the “heroic editing” of Alexander Berner. Berner does a remarkable job, folding in unrelated scenes in ways that harmonize in action or visuals — though he also sometimes slices and dices too closely.
The filmmakers also chose to have numerous members of their cast play multiple roles. And when I say multiple, I mean multiple, with sex and race changes, and roles major and minor. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, and James Sturgis have six roles; Hugo Weaving has seven. Other principals have three or four. Ben Wishaw has five, though you’ll only really notice him as Richard Frobisher, one of the most prominent characters with the fullest story arc.
I couldn’t imagine, while watching the film, how somebody who hadn’t read the novel would make sense of it. But then it gradually occurred to me that the film is well calculated to appeal to the ADD, post-channel-surfing generations who are used to watching six TV shows not in sequence, but (more or less) all at once. The film seems to incorporate nearly every important scene in the novel and every character, but not in a way that makes coherent sense, though of course the experienced channel-surfing multi-tasker can assemble them as she watches.
The film abandons the time sequence and the essential connective tissue of the book — its doubling back to connect each story with the one before it in chronological progression; it substitutes factitious connections of parallel action (one scene of people escaping a pursuer crosscut with another) or of cast (one scene with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry crosscut with another of the same two actors in a different story). This makes visual or cinematic sense, but not narrative sense.
It is of course possible to shoot films in different styles with different looks but no particular attempt is done to achieve that, and in this phantasmagoria of rapidly crosscut scenes, it might have been too jarring. The visual style is rather homogeneous. The difference is that the Wachowski’s shot the passages set in the far past or remote future, and Tykwer did the ones close to our time. Tykwer’s segments are warm and witty; the Wachowski’s are spectacular and bombastic. But none of them echo Mitchell’s harmonizing of style and voice with subject. This new Cloud Atlas is cinematically virtuosic in its constant change of elaborate scene, but there is no sense of a keen ear or a precisely calibrated style.
On the other hand, counteracting the incoherence and ADD compllexity, the filmmakers — probably the Wachowskis more than Tykwer — are heavy-handedly over-clear about themes and meanings. A primary one, which really is in the novel but not hit so hard, is that of freedom vs. imprisonment. Both the musical amanuensis and the vanity publisher are prisoners; so is the fabricant and the nineteenth-century Pacific voyager. In the Pacific one tribe is wiping out another, and in the sci-fi future of Sunmi 451 clones are destroyed in the manner of the film Soylant Green. Over and over the characters turn out to be victims of an exploiter or oppressor. Presumably the directors have to hit their big themes so hard to compensate for the disorienting crosscutting. But maybe they’re just heavy-handed.
Playfulness in the use of the cast is one of the chief virtues of the film. There are too many interesting, and some heavy-handed or just hammy, performances to list them all. There is certainly fun to be had from watching Hugh Grant and Tom Hanks play villains, as well as good guys. Jim Sturgess plays an Asian and Hugo Weaving dons drag. When Adam Ewing (Sturgess) comes home to his wife, she is played by Doona Bae, made up to look Caucasian; they are a couple in the Sonmi 451 sequence. Jim Broadbent is funny and witty in disreputable and irritating roles. James D’Arcy is both the young Rufus Sixsmith and the old Rufus. The makeup, an essential element, is excellent throughout, not that it ever fools you. Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks whether with tribal tattoos or Seventies specs and sickly blond hair; perhaps that’s why he was chosen, and Halle Berry. Susan Sarandon adds her usual warmth as Susan Sarandon — but also plays a man. The many sex changes may have pleased Lana Wachowski (see below).
The Wachowskis go much too far into spectacular CGI big-screen violence for a story of this intricate, literary kind, just as they go too far in hammering on uplifting philosophical-spiritual themes. Ultimately I’ll give Dana Stevens of Slate the last word: “Where the book is sinuous and oblique, their film is galumphing and heavy-handed, its rare flights of lyricism stranded between long stretches of outright risibility. And yet there’s something commendable about the directors’ commitment to their grandiose act of folly.” I think that’s true. It’s the more commercial equivalent of the kind of quixotic commitment to absurdity that you get in Lars von Trier, and it arouses our admiration, more ultimately than the film does as a film.
Cloud Atlas, 172 mins., debuted at Toronto; it opened in the US Oct. 26; UK release, Feb. 22; France, Mar. 13. Though the North American rights were bought by Warner Bros. for $15 million, it got no big studio production funds and technically is an independent film. And since it cost $100 million, it’s one of the most expensive indie films of all time. It also debuts the sex change of Larry Wachowski, who is now Lana — yet another transformation of the Matrix brothers.
DIRECTORS: TOM TYKWER, ANDY WACHOWSKI, LANA WACHOWSKI
STARS: TOM HANKS, HALLE BERRY, HUGH GRANT, JIM BROADBENT, HUGO WEAVING, JIM STURGESS, DOONA BAE, BEN WHISHAW, SUSAN SARANDON
RUNTIME: 172 MIN
COUNTRY: GERMANY, USA, HONG KONG, SINGAPORE