Cloud Atlas (Warner Bros. Pictures, R)

cloud 75What the movie version of Cloud Atlas gains in accessibility, though, it loses in resonance and involvement.


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Ever since it was announced as being in production, I’ve been increasingly geeked about the movie version of Cloud Atlas. I read David Mitchell’s source novel of the same name a few years back and was quite impressed with it, although it struck me as unadaptable for the screen. But things started falling into place with the movie right from the outset, and I couldn’t help but be excited by it. For example, the Wachowski siblings (who, of course, made the Matrix movies, which I am mostly indifferent toward) took on the German director Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame, one of my very favorites of the past 20 years) to help them direct some of the film’s segments. Later, I learned that Natalie Portman was attached to play a key role (and had originally been the person to give to Tykwer Mitchell’s novel, apparently), which sounded good to me. When she got pregnant and dropped out of the production, she was replaced by a random Korean actress, Doo-na Bae, whom I like a lot but didn’t realize anyone in America knew of—she’s never been in an American film before, and thereby seems a strange choice to replace a star of Portman’s caliber. Still, I was very happy with that development.

But related to the book’s seeming unadaptability, let’s for a minute here talk about its structure. When you read it, it’s like reading a book of short stories that are maybe sort of tangentially related by seemingly minor details and occurrences. But once you get deeper into the book, the novel’s real structure unfolds: You get Story A, then Stories B, then C, D, E, and F, with Story A beginning deep in the past and each subsequent story going further into the future from there, with Story F taking place in the very distant future. Each segment is about 50 pages long, and fairly meaty—they’d hold up on their own as short stories, as it initially seems like they are—until Story F, which is closer to 100 pages, and from which it doubles back on itself, returning to Stories E, D, C, B, A, in that order. You can see how it might be difficult to mimic this structure successfully in film form, and that’s putting aside how dense the text sometimes is in the process (Story F, especially, which is told in a hard-to-decipher, completely made-up Pidgin English).

To counter this, Wachowskis and Tykwer structure the film more like how, say, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance is structured—that is, to say, that it’s constantly shuffling between stories A–F, never staying on any of them for long or returning to them in a standardized pattern, and often drawing comparisons between them and their characters and arcs in the process of editing. In a lot of ways, this makes the material significantly more accessible; I’d imagine most people would have a much easier time following the movie than the novel. Additionally, and again to highlight some of the book’s themes, almost all of the cast play multiple roles, approximately one per story. That means you see Tom Hanks playing six characters, Halle Berry playing six characters, Hugo Weaving playing six characters, and so on.

What the movie version of Cloud Atlas gains in accessibility (and humor—the movie’s much funnier than the book), though, it loses in resonance and involvement. While I was never bored in its 172-minute running time, and was often quite entertained, it keeps you at arm’s length, and it’s hard to muster up much in the way of caring about any of its characters or their stories. I attribute this mostly to how heavy-handed the movie sometimes is in underlining its themes, which keeps the joy of figuring it out for themselves from the viewers(/readers). I also found my mind wandering outside of the movie’s narrative a lot, too, in a way that isn’t really the film’s fault. Everything from thinking about how happy I am that the movie’s not in 3-D to picking apart references to other movies, whether they be coincidental or intentional (irises that change color like in 2001! Battle Royale death collars!) would occasionally take me out of it, as would considering the actors-playing-different-roles gambit, and trying to decipher who was who under all of that makeup and all of those costumes.

Beyond all that, Cloud Atlas is a very good-looking production on the whole—I’d give the Wachowskis a large budget for a movie over James Cameron any day, as I think they do a lot more interesting things with the new technology at hand—so it’s hard to get too tired of sitting back and schmoozing to the imagery. Besides, the cast is really good, Hanks especially, though he and Berry and Weaving and Jim Broadbent and all of the others are very reliable as far as actors go. Of course I had an eye on Doo-na, given that this was her big Hollywood debut, but she’s given less to do than most of the other actors. Her most significant role is as Sonmi-451, a fabricant of great importance in the second-to-last story (in terms of overarching chronology, that is; the film actually begins and ends with Story F, the chronologically last one, which is known as “Sloosha’s Crossin’” in the book), and this role bears many similarities to the one she played in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s 2009 film Air Doll, which is very good and has not yet been picked up for U.S. distribution. She’s a native Korean but has split most of her film work between South Korea (2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2006’s The Host) and Japan (the aforementioned Air Doll and 2005’s Linda Linda Linda, which she sang in, too), and here handles her scenes in English well. Hopefully another Hollywood casting director will recognize what she’s capable of and give her a role that is more suited to showing her talents.

The relationship of Doo-na’s performance to Cloud Atlas correlates nicely with the film’s relation to the book: Doo-na and the movie are way better than they probably seem like they could possibly be, but at the same time aren’t everything they have been in the past. The movie’s a satisfying endeavor, and a much more functional version of what Babel and those movies like it were trying to do in recent film history, but in the end you can’t help but wish there was more to sink your hooks into. | Pete Timmermann

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