Skip to main content

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.


Cloud Atlas
(2012)

(SPOILERS) Familiarity with source material can be a mixed blessing. It can provoke insights that enhance one’s appreciation of the adaptation. Alternatively, one can become distracted by the alterations made. I read David Mitchell’s novel some months before seeing Cloud Atlas, so it was quite fresh in my memory. As such, I found the film a dazzling but at times frustrating experience on first viewing. I wasn’t prepared for the restructuring or the divergent connections made by the directors. So I needed a second encounter to (more) fully immerse myself in it, as a separate entity in its own right. The film is an extraordinary piece of work, by no means perfect, but one where the achievements far outweigh any deficiencies.


Spanning five centuries, diverse characters and storylines are entwined by common themes. The first story, set in 1849, concerns an American lawyer slowly being poisoned by a crooked doctor in the South Pacific. This sequence is set against the slave trade of the period, and the theme of social Darwinism, one that informs much of the conflict found in the story strands, is announced here. The lawyer, Ewing, keeps a journal of his voyage, which is read in 1936 by a self-serving musician, Frobisher. Frobisher is working for a renowned composer while creating his own work, The Cloud Atlas Sextet. In 1973, the piece stirs recognition in Luisa Rey, a journalist investigating corruption and conspiracy at a nuclear power plant. In 2012, editor Timothy Cavendish is incarcerated in a nursing home and attempts to escape; he receives a manuscript from one Javier Gomez (as a boy, he is Luisa Rey’s neighbour in 1973). Sonmi-451, a fabricant (clone) in Korea of 2144, working at a McDonalds-esque Papa Song’s restaurant, is released from servitude by a rebel leader. She finds inspiration in the protests of a film version of Timothy Cavendish’s ordeal (“I will not be subjected to criminal abuse”). Finally, in a post-apocalyptic 2321, Somni is worshipped as a goddess by a primitive tribe. One of their number, Zachry, agrees to lead a visiting, technologically advanced Prescient (Meronym) into the mountains to locate a satellite station.


Mitchell commented that the main theme of his novel is predacity, “individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations” and we see the scope of this reflected in the six stories of the film also. But, while the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer carry the theme of power dynamics, far more redolent is, as Robert Frobisher puts it, the idea that “separation is an illusion”. The eternal recurrence they embrace goes significantly further than the slightly coy themes of reincarnation to which Mitchell alludes. He has stated that he does not believe in reincarnation, so for him the recurrent birthmark becomes purely symbolic, suggesting the “universality of human nature”.


The Wachowskis/Tykwer play out Mitchell’s stories with a tender embrace; they entertain a decidedly more optimistic take on the themes of the novel. I enjoyed the book, but I found the author’s stylistic effusions self-consciously showy and off-putting at times; it was not the revelatory tome that some have proclaimed. The directors approach the storytelling thematically, crosscutting tales to create bridges between characters and events, discarding Mitchell's rigid (and simple, but inspired) "Russian doll” structure.


Because I was so familiar with the novel, on first viewing I found the transitions only variably effective. At times (usually aided by voiceover) they absolutely brought across the universality of experience, of repetitions, reflections and refractions. But at others the chain seemed slightly fragmented, the flow disrupted. I reached the conclusion that it might have been more effective to pursue a more dreamlike, symbolic approach; of the sort seen in Nicolas Roeg’s films, rather attempting to map such clear paths. Many of these concerns were addressed on second viewing. The successes seemed much clearer and the missteps were much less pronounced. To be honest, the five-minute trailer for the film still attains a perfection the full feature lacks; it distills the essence in a stirring marriage of sound and visuals (despite the toilet plunger). All the connections are in that trailer, but expanded upon over the course of three hours by the feature (minus M83).


But, as redressed balances go, the most significant change from the novel, and the one that was initially distracting rather than engrossing, is the decision to identify reincarnated souls by reusing actors in different sequences. At time this appeared to be arbitrary and incoherent. I wouldn’t now suggest incoherence, but there’s still some claim to it being slightly arbitrary when a familiar but prosthetics-endowed face pops up for just twenty seconds.


It’s clear that the directors specifically intend for the multiple roles to reflect continuance of theme and soul’s journey. This is a divergence from Mitchell, who identifies the comet birthmark as a link between the incarnations of his main protagonists; there is a line from Ewing to Frobisher to Rey to Cavendish to Somni to Meronym. In the film, it is employed as an identifier of  “artistic production”; each character whose work will directly interlink the tales and inspire another in the future. Examples include Frobisher's sextet heard by Reys, the film of Cavendish's life watched by Somni, and Somni’s veneration as a god by Zachry. And then there is Zachry, who bears the birthmark in the adaptation instead of Meronym, whose campfire tales bookend the film; he exemplifies oral tradition, how inspirational art began.


Apparently actors were asked how many roles they wished to play (Berry was initially told she would be playing two). This suggests that, rather than having a clear conception of how such and such playing one part links to their playing another part in another sequence, there was some degree of malleability in approach. (Although, in interviews the directors appear extremely erudite when discussing the intricate connections to be found in each and every choice.)


It’s perhaps less important to single out the detailed arcs than to go with the flow of universal themes of recurrence and synchronicity; certainly, I feel that I stumbled into the wrong mode of analysis initially. I assumed that some of their casting calls were random; I wouldn’t say that now, but it does seem as if an inspiration to put an actor in a brief snippet encourages readings that may be limited in scope.


And it may be that the nuts and bolts of the reincarnatory associations made by the directors do not always stand up to close scrutiny. For example, characters in the Rey and Cavendish (and possibly Frobisher) stories exist in the same time, so the links being drawn must be true thematically rather than literally. This is supported where actors are employed to represent an ongoing theme (Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving are consistently bastards). Grant starts off as a repressive reverend signing a slavery contract, pops up again as a corporate stooge, then the imprisoner of his brother, a slave master of the future, before his final, most regressed appearance as a far-future cannibal. Hugo Weaving is also consistently a force of darkness, extoling the merits of the “natural order” (of predacity), seen again as a hitman, a Nurse Ratchet-alike and finally as non-corporeal demon whispering in Zachry’s ear.


The flip of this is the positivity of Jim Sturgess’ Adam Ewing, who makes a stand against slavery and is ultimately seen leading a revolution as Hae-Joo. So too, Halle Berry’s Meronym is more-proactive incarnation of Luisa Rey. Others still lie somewhere in between, as Jim Broadbent’s Timothy Cavendish and Ben Wishaw’s Robert Frobisher work from essentially selfish and manipulative positions but nevertheless positively influence future generations. (But you wonder why David Gyasi’s Autua (so important to Ewing’s story) is only really notable in that one segment.)


Central to this is the path taken by Tom Hanks, from murderer Henry Goose to eventual hero, who overcomes his baser instincts to become a saviour of humankind. He is perhaps the most reflective of a “serious” take on reincarnation, a soul who makes halting progressions (as Isaac Sachs) only to stumble again (as Dermot Hoggins).


And the theme of the conquering power of love is most definitely one the Wachowskis and Tykwer consider integral, but an aspect Mitchell has scant regard for. Ultimately, this may be why I think the film far exceeds the novel in terms of depth and resonance (although aesthetic considerations play a part). The futuristic love story between Hae-Joo and Sonmi is touching and sincere. Although it ends in tragedy, the editing of the film leaves us in a position of hope as the same actors/souls are reunited in the past forms of Adam and Tilda Ewing. Mitchell’s novel deals the reader a savage blow as Hae-Joo is revealed to be part of a manufactured rebellion designed to make Sonmi a scapegoat for civil unrest.


This filmmakers’ kinder, hopeful disposition is repeated in the stories of Zachry (he and Meronym marry, so rewarding the fleeting recognition between Isaac and Luisa) and Cavendish (he ends up reuniting with childhood sweetheart Ursula). It’s the sort of decision(s) that would usually invite sentimentality, but the directors employ love as a means to make the film soar at key moments. The promise of progression, with humanity surviving to prosper out among the stars, is in contrast to the less inspirational conclusion to Zachry’s story in the novel.


Some of the tales suffer from the dictates of truncation through adaptation. Most notably, the cutting of Somni's Ascension loses one of the most compelling passages of the novel. The pulp intrigue of Luisa Rey’s story is also very much pared down. In contrast, Frobisher’s story loses surprisingly little through eliminating Vyvyan’s niece. Perhaps because it gains so much by actually showing Sixsmith. And Cavendish's ghastly ordeal is definitely improved. I found his the most tiresome section of the book; there remains a facile streak at the core of this sequence, but at least it offers its Cuckoo's Nest character redemption of sorts.


Mitchell's possible fictions are replaced by literal readings. In the book, characters are dubious about whether accounts are believable (the device of making Cavendish a publisher/editor foregrounds the author’s technique) and the stylistic choices appropriated by the author encourage distance on the part of the reader. The film only overtly invites such meta-commentary in the Timothy Cavendish movie that inspires Sonmi, and Cavendish’s opening narration concerning “flashbacks, flashforwards and all such tricksy gimmicks”. Occasionally the author’s position remains opaque (the conspiracy by big oil to make nuclear look bad would appear to be a pro-nuclear stance, but Zachry's post-apocalyptic world suggests otherwise) but in general the filmmakers know they have enough of a task in ensuring that the structure plays, quite aside from applying additional thematic obfuscation.


One of the big conversations regarding the film has been the prosthetics. Some criticisms focused on the make-up for Caucasian actors playing Asian characters in the Seoul sequence, sensitivity that is understandable. But, in context of the wider approach of the film (Asian actors playing white characters, a black actress playing a Jewish woman) it seems like a misplaced charge. Of greater pause is how distracting the prosthetics can be. At times they work very well (Berry’s Jocasta is a case in point), at others they look like something Inspector Clouseau might have bought from the costume shop. Susan Sarandon sporting a huge nose, so prodigious as to suggest someone playing a bad joke, Hugh Grant in a facial appliance doubling the size of his head as Denholme Cavendish, Doona Bae’s Tilda. Occasionally there’s a humourous aspect (both Weaving and Whishaw, dragged up as Nurse Noakes and Georgette respectively), but there’s a thin line between the wigs and latex adorning actors enabling them to be recognisable for thematic resonance and making them look plain silly. It didn’t mar my enjoyment overall, but occasionally the positives echoes of prior characters were engaged in losing a battle with being pulled out of the narrative.


For the most part, the performances won me over where the appliances failed. Hugh Grant impresses the most. There is no sign of his loveable fop, and his cannibal is particularly revelatory. Uncouth Deholme Cavendish may look daft, but as a comic creation he is superb. . Halle Berry's shitty stream of films finally ends as she justifies that Oscar; her multiple performances are intelligent and insightful. Tom Hanks gets to Forrest Gump it up (as Zachry) and repeat his Ladykillers mugging (as Henry Goose). His brief turn as Dermot Hoggins is probably most entertaining, though. Weaving’s chain of villainy is nothing he hasn’t done before, but he’s always good value. Old George seems to be visually referencing Baron Samedi. Doona Bae is wonderful as Somni, but less convincing as Tilda. Ben Wishaw, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon, Xun Zhou; all memorable in their various guises.


As noted, my impression of the flow and interweaving of the stories changed significantly and positively. The directors’ success comes as much through the use of dialogue to underline the same truths in multiple storylines as the repetitive stirring piano of the Cloud Atlas Sextet. The score is a thing of sublime beauty all by itself. Married with the imagery it is inspirational. But there are other, less immediate repetitions and parallels; the reuse of locations in different guises is one of the most surprising and effective.


Tom Tykwer directed the middle trio of 1936, 1973 and 2012 sequences, while Lana and Andy Wachowski helmed 1849 and the future visions of 2144 and 2321. You’d only guess who did what by their predilections; sci-fi is the siblings’ natural home, while the thriller genre has served Tykwer well in the past (Run Lola Run and The International).


Cloud Atlas is a gorgeous spectacle and a resonant meditation. If the weakest section of the book (Timothy Cavendish) is still the weakest of the film, it fails to impact upon the achievement of the whole. So too, the failings in the make-up arena can’t take away from the compelling performances. The directors have dared to reach for the stars with a sweeping, rich vision of humanity’s essential connectedness. And they have done so in an environment where there is very little appetite for saying anything new or different. It’s a shame the film has failed to connect with audiences (or, by and large, critics) but its reputation can only grow in the years to come.

***** 


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Hey, my friend smells amazing!

Luca (2021) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s first gay movie ? Not according to director Enrico Cassarosa (“ This was really never in our plans. This was really about their friendship in that kind of pre-puberty world ”). Perhaps it should have been, as that might have been an excuse – any excuse is worth a shot at this point – for Luca being so insipid and bereft of spark. You know, the way Soul could at least claim it was about something deep and meaningful as a defence for being entirely lacking as a distinctive and creatively engaging story in its own right.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli