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25 Points: Cloud Atlas

Let’s start smashing, shall we?

1. Dear God did I want to like this.

2. I’m something of a fan of the Wachowskis. Bound and Speed Racer are fun, and I adore the Matrix Trilogy (yes, even the sequels). And I have nothing against Tom Tykwer, either. I enjoyed Run, Lola, Run, and admired his stab at making a Kieslowski (Heaven). I wish there were more filmmakers out there like the three of them.

3. Cloud Atlas is pretty well-directed. It presents six different plots across six different timelines, and (speaking for myself) it was easy to follow, narratively. That’s not nothing.

4. I’ve long argued that Titanic is a very well-made film. It’s three hours long, with dozens of characters, and it never becomes confusing, never drags.

5. This will not be the first time I compare Cloud Atlas with Titanic.

6. The best thing about David Mitchell’s novel was the way that earlier narratives kept turning out to be embedded in later ones. It’s a simple concept and it works. People have done their best to over-complicate the book’s structure, to make it seem like the trickiest thing ever …

… but, really, it’s just this:

Mind you, I have my problems with the book. The writing itself is overwrought, annoyingly affected, and quite frankly not worth the effort. It lacks the pleasures on offer in comparable works by Italo Calvino and Alain Robbe-Grillet. But I’ll readily admit that the structure is both clever and very elegant.

7. Cloud Atlas, the film, throws that elegance off a balcony.

8. Even more disappointing was the Wachowskis’ and Tykwer’s decision to flatten the sections stylistically. In the book, each time period is rendered in its own style. Thus, Adam Ewing’s Pacific Journal is presented as a journal, Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith are presented as letters, the Luisa Rey mystery is presented as a pulp mystery, and so on. Despite my qualms with the actual (joyless) writing, I think delightful Mitchell’s omnibus approach.

However, in the film, each section is stylistically identical. I can understand why that was done. Once the Wachowskis and Tykwer decided to crosscut the six plots together, their mission became one of finding ways to make the different timelines flow into one another, emphasizing points of connection rather than rupture. But it’s a real loss.

Admittedly, the decor does differ some:

… along with the costumes, and (to some extent) the way that characters spoke. (Most remarkably, the filmmakers kept the screwy lingo of the “after the Fall” future post-apocalyptic section; that was bold of them. Me, I couldn’t understand half of Zachry and Meronym’s dialogue, but I was never at a loss as to what they were tellin’ with their say-sos, meanin’wise—an’ that’s the true-true.)

Ultimately, I found the film’s consistently bright and even style a letdown. Thinking back on it now, the only part that stands out stylistically is the scene where Luisa Rey and Sixsmith got trapped in the elevator.

I wouldn’t have predicted this going in. There’s a fair amount of stylistic diversity in the Matrix films, where the inside-the-Matrix sections present a wide range of possibilities …

… and differ substantially from the real world Zion sections:

Cloud Atlas takes place entirely in Zion.

9. Why were all of these changes made? In Aleksandar Hemon’s New Yorker interview with the Wachowskis, the siblings claimed there was just no way they could keep the book’s original structure:

The main challenge was the novel’s convoluted structure: the chapters are ordered chronologically until the middle of the book, at which point the sequence reverses; the book thus begins and ends in the nineteenth century. This couldn’t work in a film. “It would be impossible to introduce a new story ninety minutes in,” Lana said.

Well, I’m not a filmmaker, but I don’t really see why not. Later in the article, the Wachowskis claim their ambition was to make a film comparable to 2001:

Andy agreed. “ ‘Cloud Atlas’ is our getting back to the spectacle of the sixties and seventies, the touchstone movies,” he said, rubbing his bald dome like a magic lantern.

The model for their vision, they explained, was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which the Wachowskis had first seen when Lana, then Larry, was ten and Andy seven.

Isn’t 2001 a movie that, um, keeps introducing new stories? (The third part with Dave and Frank and HAL, “Jupiter Mission,” begins about an hour into the film.)

10. “Rubbing his bald dome like a magic lantern”?

11. Anyway, even if the Wachowskis and Tykwer couldn’t keep the book’s original structure, it’s a shame they didn’t replace it with something more innovative or interesting than constant crosscutting. … Remember when this fun little moment happened?

That’s hardly the most innovative thing in the world—I think I’ve seen insurance commercials that use the same effect—but why is this the only time in the film when this happened? Why didn’t the movie explore more ways to tie its various strands together?

The 60s and the 70s will have to keep waiting to be reborn.

12. Arguably, the choice to scramble together all of the plots made the film both trickier to write/make and to follow. Comments that I overheard at the theater:

I am hopelessly lost.

What the fuck is happening?

That went right over me.

The degree of confusion surprised me; like I said, I thought the whole thing admirably clear. (I guess I’m just brilliant or something.)

But it’s apparent by now that the end result has not gone over like gangbusters. After one month, the film has grossed less than half its $100 million production budget. And as of Thanksgiving, it was entirely gone from theaters in Chicago (I caught one of the last screenings, one week ago). In the past two weeks, it’s dropped from over 2000 theaters to just 258, where it’s averaging $1601 apiece. Ouch.

13. Maybe they should have done some clever merchandising tie-in with soap?

14. Let’s get to the movie’s real problem. What’s really missing from the film version of Cloud Atlas is the book’s clever take on an old concern: “How are we written by what we read?” Like countless other novels—the tradition extends back at least as far as Don QuixoteCloud Atlas the book understands itself as a book. Its stylistic shifts, coupled with its insistence that it is presenting actual found manuscripts (a journal, letters, a mystery novel, etc.) emphasize writing’s materiality—the way that writing is a technology. Crucially, later characters learn about previous characters and events only by reading about them—the previous time periods survive only as written records. (OK, plus one film.)

What survives warps the characters’ lives. Timothy Cavendish is partly motivated to write his screenplay after reading the mystery novel manuscript. Sonmi~451 learns to assert herself by viewing a fictional account of Cavendish’s own ghastly ordeal. Zachry later worships Sonmi, whom he encounters through her Declarations. (Mitchell bungled it some in these later chapters; he should have presented Cavendish’s experience as his screenplay, and should have had Zachry venerate the transcript of Sonmi’s interview with the Archivist. But whatever—the spirit persists.)

Not for nothing did Mitchell name Sonmi~451 partially after Ray Bradbury’s classic. While most people will focus on the dystopian similarities, I’d argue that the real reference is to Fahrenheit 451‘s ending, when Montag encounters Granger and the other exiles, all of them hard at work at memorizing books—at becoming books:

“[...] All of us have photographic memories, but spend a lifetime learning how to block off the things that are really in there. Simmons here has worked on it for twenty years and now we’ve got the method down to where we can recall anything that’s been read once. Would you like, some day, Montag, to read Plato’s Republic?”

“Of course!”

“I am Plato’s Republic. Like to read Marcus Aurelius? Mr. Simmons is Marcus.”

“How do you do?” said Mr. Simmons.

“Hello,” said Montag.

“I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver’s Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and-this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a very kind philosopher indeed. Here we all are, Montag. Aristophanes and Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha and Confucius and Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln, if you please. We are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” (144–5)

Reading Cloud Atlas along those lines, Sonmi~451 is Bradbury’s book; Luisa Rey is Thornton Wilder’s. And you think the Wachowskis, of all people, would have gotten that.

But Cloud Atlas, the film, constantly labors to conceal its artifice and materiality. The events of each timeline are presented the way most films do, as witnessed events: we just happen to be watching, somehow, what’s going on in each time and place.

What’s more, the film is entirely hermetic, so concerned with its own stories that it never branches out toward other movies, to the larger body that is cinema. The 451 reference, and the Soylent Green allusion—those were already in the book. The Wachowskis and Tykwer, as far as I could see, brought nothing new to the table—unless the flying ships in Neo Seoul were nods toward the Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix.

I guess this shot might have been a shout-out to the ending of Star Trek V:

Cloud Atlas the novel is engrossed with examining writing and its effects. Cloud Atlas the film, in order to be a true adaptation, should have concerned itself with cinema and its effects. Admittedly, that would have been tricky, given the 1849 section, but it could have been done. (One idea: make it part of a period film that the folks in the 1930s were watching.) … Along these lines, Cloud Atlas really missed the boat in not referencing François Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451—a movie where, you know, Julie Christie played two different characters. (And she was absolutely fantastic!)

15. All of this is to argue that the Wachowskis and Tykwer remained too slavishly faithful to the book in a literal sense—but thereby lost the project’s larger meaning. Indeed, their adaptation severely warps Cloud Atlas. The film’s paucity of self-conscious artifice shifts the project’s weight entirely onto its more metaphysical aspects. Thus, the whole thing becomes a heaping pile of mush about reincarnation, accompanied by a healthy side dish of treacle regarding how the chosen ones are reborn until the day when they can finally throw off totalitarianism’s yoke (which recalls that tossed-off idea in the Matrix films that the machines destroyed Zion numerous times before Neo showed up to save the day).

The reincarnation angle gains yet more emphasis from the decision to have the principle actors play recurring roles across the different timelines. Rather than expanding the project’s scope, this conceit makes the proceedings feel even more self-contained—not unlike in the Star Wars Prequels, where a vast epic in a galaxy far, far away turned out to be the tale of a few feuding families. I didn’t realize when reading Cloud Atlas that it was the story of Hugo Weaving’s reincarnation across time as a bad guy. (Is he supposed to be like Sauron, or Voldemort?)

16. Bracketing off for the moment my concerns with the reincarnation angle, I’d argue that the acting conceit worked best when a viewer could tell that a particular actor was playing different parts. This turned out fine, for example, with all of the roles that Tom Hanks played:

This is essentially what replaced David Mitchell’s rather elegant design.

But what did the more subtle repetitions accomplish? If I need a chart, or the closing credits, to explain to me that Halle Berry was playing some anonymous back alley Borg Collective doctor—well, what of that?

“You will be dissimilated. Resistance … is your future!”

How do turns like that—while certainly impressive technically—help advance the film’s cosmic dream of eternal return? The more a performance was buried under makeup, the more it struck me as gimmicky—some pale imitation of Kind Hearts and Coronets.

I suspect that what happened was the filmmakers got so invested in the concept that they lost sight of their larger project. It became something clever to do for its own sake, and not geared toward any larger end.

(Christ, I am so not even touching the film’s whole yellowface controversy.)

17. I do think Cloud Atlas is a hell of a lot better than Inception.

18. But over the Thanksgiving holiday, I saw Lincoln, and that film’s willingness to take seriously the complexities of human concepts like “rights” and “freedom”—i.e., the ways in which our selves are written, socially and legally, by others—makes the revolutionary claptrap in Cloud Atlas look like … well, claptrap.

The Wachowskis, despite their apparent fondness for philosophy, never actually do the deeper thinking that philosophy requires. Cloud Atlas talks a big game about rebellion and revolution, but its ideas prove ultimately as shallow, and as superficially Manichean, as George Lucas’s.

19. All of this being said, I really did enjoy watching the film. I was entertained by it, and I admired a lot of it technically.

… Actually, the movie solved the major problem I had with Mitchell’s novel. Because while the Wachowskis and Tykwer jettisoned what was most impressive about Cloud Atlas the book (its overall structure and changing styles), they made the individual plotlines much more engaging. As I stated earlier, I prefer thinking about Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to actually reading it, mainly because I find the book, taken page by page, tedious and unfun.

But with this movie adaptation, while the whole thing may add up to less than the sum of its parts, I find the individual parts fairly engaging. That is to say, I’d rather watch the dramatization of Adam Ewing’s adventure in the South Pacific than read his journal. (Actually, I’d still rather skip that section entirely, it being the weakest material in both the film and the novel. Give me the Sonmi and Cavendish sections, aka the best parts!)

The Wachowskis’ drops don’t add up to much of an ocean. But they’re entertaining enough drops.

20. I also found the movie more emotionally engaging than the book (which I find pretty dry). The crosscutting ultimately proves thoroughly cathartic. In the theater where I saw it, a lot of people choked up at the end.

21. I will neither confirm nor deny whether I, too, got the sniffles.

But, hell, I cry at the end of Titanic.

22. Speaking of which, here are some other recent films that Cloud Atlas reminded me of: Titanic, Forest Gump, The Fountain, The Tree of Life, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. All of which are ambitious and technically accomplished films wrapped around cloyingly trite ideas.

However. One of Cloud Atlas‘s saving graces is that it doesn’t come off as pretentious. It’s too well-intentioned and goodhearted for that. It’s a generous, loving film.

I’d label it primarily naive.

23. Despite its flaws, I do wish there were more movies out there like Cloud Atlas, and more filmmakers like the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer.

24. However. Cloud Atlas: The Movie accomplishes less in its 180 minutes than the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light” does in 45.

… Actually, I prefer any good episode of TNG or Deep Space Nine to Cloud Atlas: “Cause and Effect,” “Parallels,” “The Visitor,” any of DS9′s Mirror Universe episodes, …

25. Oh, right; I almost forgot. Regarding the transcendent and resplendent Cloud Atlas Quartet: I’m afraid I didn’t leave the theater humming it, nor has it haunted my dreams ever since. But the piece that played over the closing credits did remind me to some extent of Michael Nyman’s magnificent Musique à Grande Vitesse.

Now there’s a tune worth dying and endlessly being reborn for.

In case you’re interested, here are other movie reviews I’ve written:

And here’s an inventory of all my articles on cinema, including “How Many Movies Are There?” and “How Many Movies Have You Seen?”  … Thanks for reading!

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