When one reviews films one has to make certain sacrifices, and one of them is that you should avoid reading novels that are soon to be adapted into films. I follow this on principle, firstly because reading source material is pretty much the ultimate spoiler and secondly because it steals away one’s ability to watch something objectively on its own merits rather than its relationship with said source material. I usually have no trouble following this credo, but in the case of David Mitchell’s novel “Cloud Atlas,” I willfully ignored it. I read that novel earlier this year knowing full well that it would likely influence how I watched the upcoming Wachowski siblings/Tom Tywer helmed adaptation of the book, but I didn’t care and that’s because I simply didn’t think this trio of filmmakers had a prayer of being able to pull off an adaptation that wasn’t a complete disaster. Everything I’d heard about the book sounded both extremely interesting and also completely unadaptable. I’m normally a big supporter of cinematic ambition, but this seemed more like cinematic hubris and I wanted to experience the story for the first time in the only medium that seemed capable of containing it.
As it turned out, my experience reading David Mitchell’s novel wasn’t quite as amazing as I expected it to be. I found the book flawed and uneven; I loved parts of it and disliked parts of it in equal measure. By the novel’s end I was still glad that I’d picked it up but it wasn’t really the masterpiece that it sounded like in its description. This experience may have ultimately enhanced my experience going into its adaption, which is equally uneven but in different ways, if only because it kept my expectations in check and also because I knew that there were ways that the source material could be improved. That said, it is more or less impossible for me to separate my experience with the film from my knowledge of the source material and my analysis of the film will likely reflect that mindset rather than the mindset of someone coming into this story for the first time, so I apologize in advance if this review doesn’t give the most objective look at the film.
Cloud Atlas tells six separate stories set in six different time periods about six separate characters, each one meant to be a reincarnation of the last. In the film these stories are cut so as to play out simultaneously and many actors play multiple roles across all six stories. Two of these stories are set in a distinct past: the first story is set in 1849 and tells the story of an American Notary named Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) doing business with slaveholders in the South Pacific who becomes sick on his journey home and the second is about a roguish musician named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) who travels to Belgium in the 1930s in hopes that he can assist an old and ailing composer named Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) with his latest opus. The next two stories are set closer to our contemporary era: one is set in the mid 70s and depicts a journalist named Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) as she tries to uncover a conspiracy involving a nuclear power reactor which could cause a major disaster while the second story is set in modern times and follows the adventures of an aging publisher named Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent again) as he goes through some wacky ordeals in the wake of his publication of a gangster’s memoir. The final stories are set in the distant future: one is a dystopian story about a cloned worker named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) who comes to realize she is a slave and attempts to break free from the role she’s been forced into, and the last story is set in a distant post-apocalyptic future in which a primitive islander named Zachry (Tom Hanks) goes on an adventure with a technologically advanced outsider named Meronym (Halle Berry again) as she looks to find a communication array hidden on the island.
The story I was most excited to see on the screen was the one I liked the least on the page: the final story, which is called “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” in the novel. This story had an interesting trajectory in the book, but unfortunately Mitchell opted to write this section in a strange form of invented dialect which renders the whole thing nearly unreadable. The basic idea was that in this distant future language has devolved into a sort of primitive drawl, which is an interesting idea, but reading sixty-some pages of sentences like “Brave Truman trekked’n’climbed for three solid days an’ had varyin’ adventurin’s what I ain’t time to tell you now, but she s’vived ‘em all till he was up that feary’n’ghostsome summit in the clouds…” was simply a chore that rendered any of the story’s good qualities moot. This strange language persists in the dialogue during this section in the film, but seeing the story dramatized rather than narrated made this a lot more palatable and this section of the film had perhaps the best blend of action, science fiction, and visual splendor.
Another story that I wanted to see liberated from David Mitchell’s gimmickier tendencies was the third story, which is called “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.” In Mitchell’s novel this story is told in the style of a bad “beach read” mystery and serves as a sort of parody of commercial novels that are written “with an eye on Hollywood.” This poses a pretty big challenge for adaptation because the story is kind of hokey and when presented in the film “as is” rather than as a strange commercialized interpretation of a story and the whole thing comes off rather odd. It doesn’t help that a lot of the 1970s period detail is rather poor and garish which is especially embarrassing with the film coming out mere weeks after Argo, which presents the decade much better. Still, the story does have a lot of decent action in it and can be fun to watch at times.
One story that is mostly improved by its cinematic presentation is the first one set in the future: “An Orison of Sonmi~451,” which is the most action driven and the most overtly political of the six stories. The future envisioned by this story is one in which corporations have complete control of society and have developed what is essentially a slave class. The story’s political messages came off a bit on the nose in Mitchell’s novel but seemed a lot more relaxed in the film, in part because it’s fast pace pushes phrases like “corpocracy” and “consumer class” into the background. At times though, the story is so hurried that we don’t really get a full picture of what this society is all about, nor do we fully understand the central character’s arc. Instead we get a lot of action scenes in this section and some of these scenes work better than others. It almost feels like the filmmakers were being pressured to turn the film into more of a blockbuster and they needed to wring more action out of this section.
Mitchell’s novel has a fairly interesting structure in that it presents the first half of each of these stories one after the other in chronological order until it reaches the final story, which is told in its entirety, and then it presents the second half of each story in reverse chronological order until it ends right where it begins. The film discards this format and instead intercuts between the stories, the way a “hyperlink” film like Babel or Traffic would. That struck me as odd given that the symmetrical structure was more or less the signature element of the novel, and it might have been the single thing about the movie I was most worried about. Ultimately I think the new structure was something of a mixed blessing. On one hand, it did keep the film moving along at a very fast pace and it also helped to bend the six stories and bring their thematic and structural similarities to the forefront. On the other hand, some of these stories worked better in the format than others.
In particular I thought that the fourth story, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” suffered from being chopped up and blended with the other stories. In Mitchell’s novel this section is a very fun first person narrative whose comical tone makes for a nice relief before delving into the dark science fiction that follows it. In the film it suffers some of the same problems as “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” in that it comes off as a literal story rather than an exaggeration that’s been conjured up by an unreliable narrator. More problematic is that Cavendish’s petty problems seems a lot less charming when the film is cutting between it and the more serious peril that the other stories depict.
Another story that feels a little out of place when subjected to this format is the second story: “Letters from Zedelghem.” This was one of my favorite stories from the novel and when it’s on screen it’s one of the best executed in part because of a very good performance from Ben Whishaw as its central character. This is, incidentally one of the most altered of the six stories, in that the film more fully explores the homosexual relationship between the main character, Robert Frobisher, and the man receiving the letters which make up the story’s epistolary narrative. In the novel the very existence of this relationship is only subtly hinted at, but the decision to make it front and center was likely a good one because it makes the story’s thematic connections to the other five a lot more clear. The problem is that this relatively low key story gets kind of lost in the shuffle of all the bigger and flashier stories that surround it.
The story that seems to have been altered the least might be the story which is the earliest chronologically: “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” From a visual standpoint this is one of the more rewarding sections of the film with some of the best period detail. However, I found that this story felt rather rushed, almost like an afterthought in the film. It also suffered from a rather miscalculated performance by Tom Hanks, who showed his hand much too quickly in a role that is supposed to change much more slowly and subtly. In both the novel and the movie this comes off as a rather short and seemingly minor story, but in many ways I think it’s the thematic glue that holds the entire work together. This in part is because it is the purest and most relatable example of what all of these stories are ultimately about: they’re all stories about people who are either themselves stuck in an oppressive system or who witness an oppressive system and who manage to fight back against it in some way or another.
These are ultimately stories about rebellion and resistance and that is likely what attracted the Wachowski’s to the project as they had similarly explored this topic both in their Matrix trilogy and in V for Vendetta. They are likely responsible for much of the film’s more ambitious visuals and action scenes. Tom Tywer has also made films about breaking out of vicious cycles and brings a more comical touch to various aspects of the film when that is required and I suspect that he had a lot to do with the film’s aggressive editing. It is likely that all three filmmakers deserve credit for the film’s excellent production design, photography, just the general audaciousness that was likely needed in order to get the damn thing made in the first place.
Indeed, such audacity is to be admired, but I think sometimes this audacity went a little too far. In particular I question the decision to cast most of the actors in multiple roles, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. It is fun to see many of these actors play vastly different roles across the many stories. This is especially true when there seems to be a thematic through line to their casting, as was the case with Hugo Weaving, who plays a villain (or some sort of unsympathetic character) in all six of the stories. At other times though, this multi-casting seems more like a stunt than anything, especially when these actors are cast into roles that require them to wear heavy makeup when a separate actor could have just as easily been selected, or when major actors are asked to make miniscule cameos in some stories just for the sake of getting one more member of the repertory cast into a given story just to say they did.
This was perhaps done for budgetary reasons, or maybe it was done to better express the notion of reincarnation that pervades the film. And this is the element that, more than anything, probably keeps me at a bit of an arm’s distance from this whole project both when it’s been in book form and in film form. I’ll just come out and say that I’m neither a follower nor a studier of Eastern religion and I get the feeling that David Mitchell isn’t all that gung ho about it either beyond its ability to connect his stories on a more literal level. I find it preferable to just ignore all the New Age “past and future lives” stuff and to instead look at these events as a pattern of conditions through history that are the result of human nature’s greater and lesser halves. It’s about the greed which leads the people in power to exploit one another and disregard environment’s welfare, but it’s also about the drive which leads people to overcome and rise above such treatment.
So, what did I think about the movie? Well, I liked it a lot, I guess. This is a tricky one to call because there really are a lot of problems with the film, but since the movie is so jam packed with content these flaws don’t stand out as much as they would in a normal film. As was the case with the book, I don’t think this is the masterpiece that it could have been, but it’s still a very strong and intriguing piece. I’ve written over twenty four hundred words about it so far and I’ve only scratched the surface. That’s not something I can easily do with most films. Furthermore, I enjoyed myself quite a bit while watching it and was consistently intrigued by the directing team’s many different choices over the course of the project. So in all, I guess this is a pretty strong recommendation.
***1/2 out of Four