Cloud(ed) Atlas

“Everything is connected.” That’s the theme behind the new film by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski, Cloud Atlas. Based on the novel by David Mitchell, the movie follows the interrelated lives of several figures across time and space–from the letters of a young lawyer in the 19th century Pacific, to the far-flung future “After the Fall.” The Wachowskis and Tykwer do their best to bring a complex literary story to life on the big screen; how close they came to hitting the mark however is debatable.

I should note that I read the book before I saw the movie. So my critique is inherently affected by having examined the narrative in another medium. Not here to quibble over each individual change the directors made to the film–which are too many to recount. More problematic were the larger decisions made by the Wachowskis and Tykwer on how to translate the grandiose themes of this literary work onto the big screen.

Like the book, the film traces the lives of several main characters: a young 19th century American lawyer and his encounter with slavery in the South Pacific; a young, disinherited musician in the early 20th century who becomes entangled in the sordid affairs of an eccentric composer; a journalist trying to uncover deadly secrets at a 1970s nuclear power plant; a modern-day curmudgeon and snob of a publisher whose own misdeeds catch up with him when he’s committed to a nightmarish nursing home; a 22nd century clone (fabricant) who finds herself at the center of rebellion in the dystopian Corporatocracy Nea So Copros (New Seoul, Korea); and lastly, the ways in which the life of a superstitious “tribesman” in a far-flung post-Apocalyptic future is changed when he meets a dark-skinned Prescient woman, the last humans who still use and understand “smart” (technology). Within all of these stories are themes of difference, race, slavery, oppression, power, consumption and self-destruction–which seem to follow our protagonists (and thus humanity) through time and space. The many characters it turns out are reconnected, born again into different lives, crossing gender, race and sexuality, but trying to finish some ultimate story of mankind.

In the book, each of these stories is told in a half; then, starting from the last story, we read the second half in descending order which brings us back to the conclusion of the first. The film decides to do this differently, attempting to stitch the stories together at interesting moments, so the viewer travels through time–back and forth–continuously. This has some visually worthy moments, as when the young musician Robert Frobisher (actor Ben Whishaw) shares a split-screen with an elder future version of his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (actor James D’Arcy). The imagery of the two existing in different moments in time, unaware of the others presence, is poignant.

Too often however, even for someone familiar with the storyline, these dizzying (pardon the pun) quantum leaps became hard to follow. The effect of moving from character to character so quickly left a disjointed feel, offering little time to emotionally invest in the characters. Worse, many of the more complex issues surrounding these characters were never addressed fully. A glaring example is the storyline around the character Sonmi~451 (actress Bae Doona). In the book, this future world is fleshed out, and we see a decaying society where consumerism has become a driving philosophy and terms like “corporate” are spoken with near reverence: a stinging rebuke of capitalism and its eventual excesses–enough to jump-start a second Occupy Movement. The reader is allowed to learn all of this through the eyes of Sonmi~451 and experience her continued revelations and tribulations, as she attempts to find her denied humanity in the midst of a cold and calculating corporate-run world. But it’s done in such a rushed manner in the film, the actual criticism here is muddled at best if not somewhat lost.

After reading the book, it felt like I was now watching the “cliff notes” version–some bare essentials to help me get by and string together a coherent thesis, but not much more. Granted, the greatest problem in tackling this book adaptation is the sheer complexity of the narrative. The film was near 3 hours long; for it to pack in the character depth of the book, we would have needed to have added another 3 hours. I don’t know what the solution to this might have been (perhaps two movies, for which a budget would likely have been impossible to come by), but it left the film with an almost hollow and rushed feel.

Sonmi~451 learns the horrible truth behind Unanimity.

In the book, the reader is given several hints to keep up with this notion of connected and reborn characters. Sometimes a character has a premonition through time. At other moments a story or song or letter is “discovered” by some other character in the future. And of course, there is the comet tattoo, which resurfaces on characters as they are continually reborn. The movie employs all of these, and they work well without hitting you over the head. However, as if the directors couldn’t leave well enough alone, they decided to go one step further. A bad idea is in the offing.

In the film, characters not only reappear through the mysticism of reincarnation and transmigration of the soul–they reappear through the use of facial prosthetic. Many of the main actors in the film–Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Bae Doona, Keith David, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess–appear repeatedly, bending race and even gender through Hollywood magic. The intent one supposes was to show, in a very simplistic notion, that “we are all the same”–driving home author David Mitchell’s point with a sledgehammer, in cause you didn’t get it the first time. The effect however was both distracting, wince-inducing and (judging by many in the audience) worthy of laughter.

I remember reading that in the original Planet of the Apes, the directors had a pre-screening of the actors and actresses in primate prosthetic make-up. There was a fear that the audience would simply burst into laughter at seeing the recognizable Roddy McDowall in chimp-face. To their relief, the audience took these “damn dirty apes” seriously and were able to suspend disbelief to engage the visuals. The directors of Cloud Atlas should have done the same. Watching Hugo Weaving transform into a mannish-looking nurse was one thing–a bit of perhaps intended humor. But watching him, and other clearly white actors, attempt to portray Asian-Korean residents of Seoul only made me cringe. The whole notion of “race-bending” and the sordid history of “yellow face” should have been enough to militate against this attempt. But once it was finished, someone had to have noticed how ridiculous the final product looked. As one person noted on a comment board, none of these white actors looked Asian–they looked more like Romulans! In fact, I kept wondering if perhaps they were supposed to be some form of mutated or oddly engineered humans.

Hugo Weaving in modern-day Yellow Face: was the intent Asian or Romulan?

And it wasn’t just them. I didn’t buy Halle Berry as a white woman (whose role was reduced significantly from the book) nor could I visually digest Korean actress Bae Doona as the freckled white daughter of a 19th century slave owner. Yeah, white face isn’t the same as black face or yellow face in the historical context; and in truth, with the reversal in power dynamics, it’s almost like a bit of racial reparations. Still, the whole thing reeked of a gimmick–as if the Wachowskis were trying to show they still had a trick up their sleeves since the revolutionary stop-motion fight scenes of The Matrix. Worse, it seemed to push a simplistic and inane ideology that deals with difference and “othering” by attempting to cancel it out. I’m all for boundary-crossing and hybridity. Sometimes–like that Michael Jackson video or Eddie Murphy in Coming to America–it comes across well. In this film, it just seemed plain wrong and entirely irksome, almost as much as Crash and for similar reasons.

The movie does have its highlights. The story of Timothy Cavendish (actor Jim Broadbent) is done well, enough so that you cheer on his character’s struggle for freedom. The tragic love story of Rufus Sixsmith and Robert Frobisher is also one of the more emotionally moving tales. The special effects (except for the use of facial prosthetic) are spectacular without being overwhelming. Much the same can be said for the action scenes. And with a star-studded cast, while there were no absolute “break out” moments in the acting department (though Tom Hanks was allowed a great deal of versatility), everyone performed their roles well.

In the end, I won’t call the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas “bad.” The better description might be underwhelming, mostly because it could have been so much more. I suppose attempting to translate something this complex to film is a gargantuan feat. And even the most skillful directors can fall short.

32 thoughts on “Cloud(ed) Atlas

  1. Gotta admit I had no idea the film was based off a book but then again I wasn’t really planning to see it… your review does make me want to check the book out though

    • I really think you should. I haven’t seen the film yet and I’m currently reading the book (almost finished) and I love it. There are parts I’ve found a little slow or questionable in terms of plot but on the whole it is a very good book. The theme of a world decaying is incredible to read. The character development is very impressive since each story is relatively short and I found the way the writing style altered according to which plot line it followed really well done.

  2. As I was reading your review I had a stirring, then you said this: —“it felt like I was now watching the “cliff notes” version–some bare essentials to help me get by and string together a coherent thesis, but not much more.”— and it became deja vu’. I’m wondering if the problem here is the Wachowski’s and their choice of material. I suspect they engage with great works that resonate with them, like Baudrillard’s work, but this work doesn’t make for easy movie making. I’m impressed by their tastes but Baudrillard himself was clear that the Matrix was a good try but, sorry, they didn’t get it quite right. It sounds like they had a similar stumble here. Initially I was going to say at the very worst they’ve made us aware of what sounds like a magnificent book. But perhaps the “face-play” is… worse.

  3. My disinterest in seeing the movie has been reconfirmed. Though I might (out of sheer curiosity) see if someone has posted side-by-side comparisons of each actor’s recreated faces.

    On the other hand, you certainly have peaked my interest in the book. 🙂

  4. I just started the book because I was interested in the movie, and I like it so far. The Wachowski brothers can be really great sometimes (and I even think Speed Racer was underrated!) But they get their hands full too easily. Thanks for the review.

  5. Thanks for sharring about Mitchell! Did you know that Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize (for best work of British literature written by an author under 35)? Amazing!

  6. I still would like to see the movie because I believe the idea of reincarnation and the idea of meeting the very same people in multiples lives is pretty close to the mark when it comes to universal, spiritual truth. Just my opinion.

  7. i’ve been getting layzeeeur & … seein’ mooveez rather than read a book (it’s a thing about time — i ain’t got a whole lot of “spare”). you’ve re-affirmed my desire to see the movie, tho. thanks! (plus i got the added attraxion of your combined book/moovy review)

  8. Thank you for this review, and especially about referencing and pointing us to I gave you a shout out of thanks on my blog Is it weird that I still kind of want to see “Cloud Atlas”, if only to marvel at how horrible the yellowface is? Le sigh. Thanks again.

  9. Loved the book so I’m disappointed that they haven’t managed to maintain the excellence of the book in making the movie. I will probably go to the movie though now because you have piqued my curiosity.

  10. Pingback: I (think I might) hate Halloween: sayin’ it without swearin’. « I Can See Why She's Single.

  11. I want to read the book, but haven’t gotten to it yet. I made the mistake of going to see the movie, BAD IDEA! I really want to read the book now, because there’s no way that the book could be more confusing than the movie. I’m actually glad to hear that you were confused too, cause I was completely lost lol!

  12. I hadn’t read or even really heard of the book, but I thought the movie was pretty terrible. I might can get behind the ‘everyone is connected’ theme if the race and gender bending didn’t seem like it was undercutting it at every turn.

    It also didn’t help that the plot for most of the stories was forgettable and borderline dull. I would’ve loved to of seen more of the future world, but what we got were a loose collection of allusions to something more interesting. Overall, the only two stories I felt any investment in were the one with the publisher in the nursing home and the love story involving the composer. Other storylines had their moments, but those were the only ones I wanted to see to their end.

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  14. The facial prosthetics drove me nuts. Completely took me out of the story. I also didn’t buy Bae Doona as a freckled redhead. I think if they wanted to pull the reborn/race card, they should have chosen actors whose appearance is a little more median and would have required less “Hollywood magic”.
    After seeing the movie, part of me wants to read the book so I can get some closure with some of these story lines.

  15. I so wanted to love the movie, but came away confused. There were so many things to like and with a cast as worthy as this ensemble, it seems like it should have been . . .more comprehensible. I initially thought the connective tissue has been left on the cutting room floor. Then a niggling suspicion would not let me go and I looked it up, to discover that there was a book upon which it was based, and it was indeed, a complicated storyline. The film was lush and violent and amazing, to be sure. But in the post-apocalyptic future, why, oh WHY do they speak gibberish? I’m a fairly smart girl and even boast an MFA, so arty things are sort of my bag, but for the life of me, I couldn’t understand what Hanks and Berry were saying in that paganistic future world. In this viewer’s humble opinion, the adaptation was overwrought and overthought.

    BTW: I do not agree that cinema and literature are opposing art forms. As an example of a beautifully wrought interpretation, I would point to Sherman Alexie’s “Smoke Signals” which was adapted from his story “What it Means to Say Phoenix Arizona.”

    • I must preface this with the fact that I have not seen the movie yet, but when referring to the future of gibberish-speak… I really do believe that is the future, for two reasons. One is that as we evolve in terms of telepathic skills, there will be less need for vocabulary, and the second is more sinister – the technology now makes people use fewer words. Average vocabulary in the US has shrunk from 200,000 words in 1960 to 40,000 as of 2000… can’t imagine what it is now. -‘tarotworldtour’

      • well, mr whirled tour: as you prob’ly remember, THAT is/was one of the premises of “1984” — by limiting vocabulary (e.g., remove “bad” replace with “un-good”) thereby people’s “range of thought” was narrowed, thereby lessening crime. or something like that.

  16. I saw the movie without reading the book. It took me a few minutes to figure it out and I liked it. The idea of lifetimes being connected is not new but nice to see in the mainstream mediums.

  17. I saw the movie without reading the book, and I admit that it took me a while to get into it, and I was confused at first, but by the middle, I was emotionally engaged (especially in the New Seoul story) and I just *got it.* My opinion is that you were too stuck on the prosthetics not looking accurate enough, or that the race/gender transformations sometimes didn’t look accurate….but that wasn’t the point. The point is that race and gender and time and place – it’s all relative, and there is more similarity than there is difference between it all. Indeed, I am willing to guess that you didn’t catch all of the race/gender transformations watching it the first time around, and that proves my point.
    I thought it was beautifully done overall.

  18. Excellent piece and review, from what I can tell. I think so many people were excited about this film that they assume people can make the associations like they can after having read the book.

    That description of 22nd century Seoul sounds not that far off from how it is now. The only form of expression in South Korea is through your purchasing and it is a dystopic corporate state in so many ways. You can see how their “bots” work here on WordPress, placing several of their bands in the Top Ten in an English site… strange. -‘’

  19. I hear you on the disconnect, my sister told me it’s a fantastic enthralling read. Interested in seeing the movie though… may do the movie first to knock out the confusion. Great review!

  20. I saw the movie yesterday – but had not read the book. My opinion is that the movie ultimately failed, but it sure tried hard. Too hard, perhaps. Movies and books are different; I never expect a movie to exactly follow a book. Perhaps if they had dropped a few of the lesser story lines it would have been possible to get more understanding of ones left. I think they could have gone with the 19th century, the early 20th century, and the far future – and had Sonmi only in flashback. As it was presented, the 3 hours felt really, really long and while I had no problem following any of the stories, I never got interested in any of them much.

    The makeup was Okay – it worked for what it was supposed to do in advancing the ‘we are all connected’ part, but yeah, it sure looked wrong in some cases. The part I found wincingly, searingly bad was that the supposed deep message of interconnectedness delivered by Sonmi was Hallmark-card shallow “We are all one from womb to tomb” had me choking back laughter.

    I give the film makers credit; I’d still rather see a movie that fails for trying to do something too big that one that is bad for lack of trying; but overall it was a hot mess.

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  22. Gah! 80 likes and 30 comments! This freshly pressed thing is bananas! A late post, but thanks all for reading and liking–or disagreeing–with my review. No way I am going to answer all of these, so just a few quick bits. First, I realize you can’t always compare a film to a book, but I also believe if you’re translating to a new medium you should at the least “do no harm;” my quibbles thus were not with the many deviations from the text, but rather what I found to be a muddled translation for the screen. Second, I’m a fan of the Wachowskis, so went in here hoping to be dazzled and was disappointed; realize part of the problem was again this problem of translation: perhaps some books need to remain on the two-dimensional page. Third, please don’t take my review as a reason not to see the film; really liked hearing perspectives of those who saw it. Lastly, yeah, read the book if you can; it’s worth it.

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