Fearful Symmetries

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13 January, 2013

Cloud Atlas: The Movie



Having read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas I was keen on seeing the film adaptation. The novel is fairly sizable and a relatively difficult read so I thought it would be interesting to see how it translated to the big screen. I must admit to some hesitation because, although I like Tom Tykwer, the Wachowskis give me pause as I think The Matrix films were just awful.

Cloud Atlas in both its incarnations tells six stories. The first is of Adam Ewing and takes place in the 19th century as he sails from the Chatham Islands back to San Francisco. Robert Frobisher is the protagonist in the second. It takes place in the 1930s as the young man becomes the amanuensis to an aging composer. Next we shoot forward to the 1970s as Luisa Rey investigates a nuclear power plant and claims by whistleblowers that it's unsafe and was at risk of a meltdown. In the present day Timothy Cavendish is hoodwinked into checking himself into a nursing home by his own brother. The penultimate tale is of Sonmi~451, a clone who, like all her kind, performs menial labor in the Seoul of the distant future. Lastly we have the post-apocalyptic story of Zachry, who speaks in a broken English dialect, as he deals with the brutish Kona and helps the lovely Meronym who hails from a distant land. In the book, each story is bifurcated and presented in ascending then descending chronological order so it goes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The film intercuts amongst all the stories constantly.

Cloud Atlas is about the horrors we humans visit upon one another which is illustrated through time and space. Slavery is present in most of the stories, for example. Here various actors play multiple roles to illustrate continuity in humanity plus there is the comet-like birthmark which appears in the book. But it's also about working to let the better angels of our nature shine through and to build a better future through our good deeds.

Unfortunately the movie is a bit ham-fisted when it comes to all of this. The book demonstrated the continuity of human nature with the variety of times and settings of the story plus the birthmark, which is referenced but is not a major issue, and the fact that characters from the previous story are referenced in the succeeding one. Tykwer and the Wachowskis take this many steps further by having actors play multiple characters and it really felt like I was being hit over the head. Hugo Weaving is the baddie in each story and I can definitely see merit in having him reappear to perhaps emphasize the unchanging nature of evil or constant moral challenges it presents but having a dozen or more actors do the same was more novelty than anything.

In moving from page to screen things are going to get lost but, overall, the movie did a good job of retaining important elements. Some instances of cruelty were lost (that the Kona take Zachry's people as slaves was omitted as was the history of the Chathams involving the Maori committing genocide on the Moriori) and I remain ambivalent about that but it certainly doesn't diminish the film because it portrays plenty of evil. However, I do feel that Frobisher got short shrift here. His story and that of Timothy Cavendish expose human bondage on a more personal level. They don't involve one group of people enslaving or killing another group. These two stories are more intimate. Cavendish's provides some welcome comic relief which leaves Frobisher's to really bring the broad thematic concerns of the story as a whole down to an individual level. The movie just doesn't develop Frobisher enough and it wasn't able to endow the conflict between him and the composer Vyvyan Ayrs with an emotional impact. It merely skimmed the surface instead of portraying the Gordian knot that the pair had gotten themselves into.

These complaints are fairly minor in contrast to how the filmmakers changed the ending of the story for their version. The novel ends with Ewing vowing to become an abolitionist. The story has come full circle. It has shown that man's cruelty to man goes far back in time but this denouement also demonstrates that kindness and hope for a better future are just as old as the evils they seek to counter. It's a continuous struggle. On the other hand, the movie finishes with the aged Zachry having shacked up with Meronym and found peace. Black and white together in harmony. This felt like a tacked on happy ending and, frankly, I think it betrayed the rest of the film. It cheapened that which came before. The movie spends nearly three hours meditating on the struggle in each of us to be good to our fellow human beings and how the small triumphs of individuals can add up to an ocean of goodness and then we finish with Zachry and Meronym having found happiness, not by being part of a larger movement of change, but rather by fleeing the Kona – fleeing the struggle.

This is a real shame because I felt the film up to this point was very good on the whole and was a genuine exploration of a very deep and troubling part of our humanity and then it devolves into cheap sentimentality.

The ending aside, Cloud Atlas is a whole lot of food for thought wrapped up in great acting, seamless SFX, and some very clever make-up. Trying to pinpoint which actor is playing whom is really a red herring. While a lengthy film, Tykwer and the Wachowskis did a nice job of keeping the plots on course. Sure, I have my gripes, but the filmmakers deserve credit for having made an artful and, more importantly, a sincere film. The novel wasn't dumbed down in translation nor was it stripped down to a mere skeleton upon which cliched Hollywood sex and violence could be laid.
|| Palmer, 6:24 PM

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