Somber and Silly Symphonies: A Review of Cloud Atlas
by Gary Westfahl
In a way, one hates to criticize Cloud Atlas, for it is a film that clearly reflects the good intentions of many talented people determined to respectfully adapt a complex novel to the screen and provide audiences with a drama that is both emotionally satisfying and thought-provoking. Yet despite its ostensible virtues, the film is not quite the masterpiece that its creators wished it to be, as even sympathetic audiences and reviewers harboring the same wish must ultimately acknowledge. And the reasons why this is the case are, appropriately enough, rather complicated.
Any analysis of the film must begin with its source material, David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas (2004), which provided writers and directors Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Lana Wachowski with six stories to tell: in 1849, lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) sails from the South Pacific to San Francisco in the company of duplicitous Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), secretly poisoning him to steal his assets; in 1936, young composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whislaw) works as an amanuensis to elderly composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), who is determined to steal his best ideas; in 1973, reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) struggles against powerful men to expose the fatal flaw in a new nuclear power plant near San Francisco; in 2012, publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is unwillingly incarcerated in an oppressive nursing home that he schemes to escape from; in 2144, a young “fabricant” (clone) named Somni-451 (Doona Bae) is rescued from servitude by rebel Hae-Jue Chang (Sturgess) and experiences a spiritual and intellectual awakening; and in a more distant future, a goatherd named Zachry (Hanks) bonds with Meronym (Berry), a representative from the dying Earth’s last bastion of advanced civilization who visits his tribe in Hawaii. The novel sequentially offers the first half of the first five stories, tells its sixth story in one uninterrupted narrative, then finishes the other stories in reverse chronological order, completing an intricate pattern to mirror the structure of Frobisher’s signature composition The Cloud Atlas Sextet; the film instead continually interweaves its six stories with innumerable segments ranging from brief snippets to lengthy scenes, a reasonable concession to impatient audiences that even purists could not object to.
What they might object to is that Wachowski, Tykwer, and Wachowski have not only rearranged, but have significantly revised, Mitchell’s stories – for reasons, though, that are generally defensible. For a film adaptation, among other things, is a critique of its source material, and in the process of shaping the novel into a screenplay, the writers discovered its key problem: that there is really no particular reason why these six stories should be brought together to convey the central message that all human lives are intimately connected to one another. Mitchell does introduce the device of each protagonist reading or hearing the story of the previous character, and suggests that certain characters are reincarnations of earlier characters, and I suppose one could say that the stories have other commonalities, such as demonstrating what sensitive writers must now describe as “humanity’s inhumanity to humanity.” But there are many other sorts of stories that could have conveyed these ideas just as well as, or better than, the ones that Mitchell chose, so that Cloud Atlas projects the aura of what science fiction readers would term a “fix-up,” as it appears to combine six unrelated novellas to create an ersatz novel. Thus, the screenwriters faced the challenge of bludgeoning these geometrically diverse stories into the same round hole so that it would only seem natural to tell them all at the same time.
As one unifying strategy, the filmmakers strove to introduce as many connections as possible between the various stories, though some are so trivial that one wonders why they bothered. To resonate with the saga of enslaved fabricants in a future Korea, the 1849 story is given a new focus on the evils of slavery, though this demands the historically questionable suggestion that Americans were then heavily involved in the business of enslaving South Pacific islanders; to underline the connection, both forms of slavery are defended by statements that “There is a natural order to this world” which “must be protected.” And though the villainous Kona tribesmen of the final story also enslave their victims in the novel, the film turns them into cannibals, presumably in order to recall the way that fabricants are recycled to serve as food, also referenced in Cavendish’s rant to his fellow senior citizens that “Soylent Green is people.” Ayrs’s home is moved from Belgium to Edinburgh, Scotland, so that it could take place in the same area as Cavendish’s “ghastly ordeal,” just as Ewing’s voyage now ends in San Francisco, not Hawaii, to provide a connection to the third story. There are also added references to Korea: When Rey encounters scientist Isaac Sachs (Hanks) at the Swannekke power plant, he tells her that “I was meant to be in Seoul,” suggesting that the company has a branch there, and sure enough, when we get to Neo Seoul in the year 2144, one observes a “Swannekke” sign, indicating that the company is still operating there; her father’s bonding experience with security officer Joe Napier (Grant David) has been transplanted from 1945 San Francisco to the Korean War; and Cavendish’s bookshelf has several copies of a book entitled Korean Flower. While hiding from police, Frobisher uses the pseudonym “Ewing,” borrowed from Adam Ewing’s journal. In the novel, Sonmi’s cohort Yoona-939 is killed when she spontaneously decides to run away from the restaurant where she works; in the film, after a customer sprays her with condiments, she slaps him and then flees, announcing that “I will not be subject to criminal abuse,” a line she remembered from the film version of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish she had watched with Sonmi. Rey confesses to scientist Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) that she wanted to throw an annoying interviewee off the balcony, which is precisely what novelist Dermot Higgins (Hanks) does to a critical reviewer in 2012; Zachry picks up a jeweled button, mimicking how his precursor Goose stole a similar button from Ewing.
However, the filmmakers’ most conspicuous device to suggest connections between their stories is to cast their actors in as many roles as possible, so that familiar faces keep showing up in different stories. True, this can be defended as perfectly in keeping with the novel’s and film’s idea of reincarnation, and in some cases the multiple casting seems fitting enough. The soul that expresses itself by looking like Tom Hanks, for example, experiences discernible moral progress: first observed as a greedy murderer (Goose), he next appears as a mildly corrupt hotel manager, then evolves into a scientist hesitantly seeking to do the right thing (Sachs) before finally, as Zachry, maturing into the saintly Tom Hanks that we all know and love. Less clearly, the Halle Berry character gets older and wiser through her rebirths, the Jim Broadbent character gradually gets more likable, the Susan Sarandon characters always seem wise and benevolent, and the incarnations of Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant are consistently evil. Yet the pattern is disrupted by Hanks’s fourth life, as he regresses into the blustering, homicidal Higgins, and since both novel and film clearly indicate that Berry’s Rey is the reincarnation of Whislaw’s Frobisher, it made no sense to also cast her as Frobisher’s lover and Ayrs’s wife Jocasta (especially when the more suitable Sarandon was available to play the part), or to have Whislaw play the clerk at the store where Rey picks up her copy of The Cloud Atlas Sextet. Beyond the dubious logic of some of these casting decisions, there is another, more mundane problem: despite one hundred years of progress in the arts of makeup and prosthetics, Hollywood still cannot make an African-American look Caucasian, cannot make a man look like a woman, cannot make a young man look like an old man, and – most conspicuously – cannot make a Caucasian look like an Asian. One of the many reasons why the 2144 story is the weakest of the bunch is its jarring mixture of real Asians and obviously faux Asians. (It was thus a happy accident that Natalie Portman’s pregnancy forced her to abandon the role of Sonmi, so that an actual Korean could at least be cast in her story’s central role.)
Another way that the stories were made similar involves the general proclivities of Hollywood storytelling, which abhors shades of gray and loves black and white, and since two of Mitchell’s stories featured nuanced characters that failed to provide this melodramatic clarity, they had to be revised so that, watching every story, audiences would always have heroes to root for and villains to despise. Mitchell’s Frobisher and Cavendish were interestingly depicted as charming but corrupt scoundrels whose financial shenanigans were partly responsible for their troubles; but the film’s Frobisher is simply a sensitive homosexual being persecuted by the intolerant society of his era, while Cavendish is an innocent victim of bullying criminals. The novel’s Ayrs is grouchy and petulant, but the film transforms him into a figure of pure evil, and while Cavendish’s brother in the novel dies, Denholme Cavendish (Grant) remains alive in the film as an active contributor to his put-upon brother’s misery. The brutal Kona tribesmen are already the villains in Mitchell’s central story, but he is careful to have Meronym acknowledge that they are not beyond redemption: “Some savages what I knowed got a beautsome Civ’lized heart beatin’ in their ribs. Maybe some Kona. Not ‘nuff to say-so their hole tribe, but who knows one day?” Such sentiments are conspicuous absent in the film, so nothing interferes with the audience’s relentless hatred for these vicious cannibals, made up to look like living skeletons. As a final nod to melodrama, studio executives remain convinced that all successful films must have happy endings, and while little could be done to brighten the ultimately tragic tales of Frobisher and Sonmi, the other four stories have been tweaked to conclude on more upbeat notes, adding victories over evildoers or romantic pairings that Mitchell failed to provide. This is not to say that all of these changes represent shameful trashings of an author’s vision; indeed, the screenwriters have significantly improved the story of Luisa Rey, thankfully simplifying the novel’s byzantine saga of a secret report that keeps getting destroyed and regenerated in the form of another copy and reducing Mitchell’s implausibly vast conspiracy to a single scoundrel and his henchman.
Other uplifting additions relate to the story’s engagement with the genre of science fiction, something both Mitchell and the Wachowskis are clearly familiar with. The novel’s two futuristic stories, of course, are versions of standard science fiction images of the future, the dark, dystopian metropolis and the post-holocaust return to an agrarian lifestyle, and it is surely significant that Mitchell’s story about a nuclear power plant about to explode names the protagonist’s father Lester Rey, an obvious reference to science fiction writer Lester del Rey, who wrote a pioneering novel, Nerves (1942, 1956), about a nuclear power plant about to explode. As for the film, the Wachowskis brighten Mitchell’s final story by drawing upon a familiar conceit from science fiction literature: that the Earth may be doomed, but space travel offers the possibility of continuing human progress in another realm. Sadly, however, the 2144 segment is energized by an importation from Hollywood blockbusters, not science fiction, as Mitchell’s stately but absorbing tale of Sonmi’s maturation and enlightenment is replaced by a series of gosh-wow action sequences employing the inane trope that the will of evil dictatorships can always be thwarted by a single hero who unfailingly shoots down dozens of opponents while they inexplicably keep missing him at close range. One assumes that this approach was taken to reassure nervous investors who thought the film needed more thrills, but the result is unfortunate: while Cavendish’s story was and remains intentionally silly, Sonmi’s story is now unintentionally silly, as its plot is kept in motion solely by the unbelievable incompetence of her adversaries. (As another bit of idiocy, this is a world filled with all sorts of flying vehicles, yet to escape from an apartment being attacked, Chang inexplicably activates a machine that creates a narrow bridge to another building and asks Sonmi to join him in a precariously balanced walk across the bridge while they dodge energy blasts; and did I mention that Chang at one point falls to his death, then reappears without explanation?)
Like the novel, the film further attempts to achieve a satisfying sense of cohesion by means of its recurring theme of human interrelatedness, best summarized in the declaration from Sonmi that is repeated at least three times in the film: “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.” By borrowing numerous statements of this kind from Mitchell and adding some of their own, the filmmakers have literally saturated the film with lofty sentiments, so much so that one might imagine they hoped to have their film cited on every page of the Second Edition of Science Fiction Quotations (2005). However, there is a fine line between profundity and platitude, and the film’s Wachowski/Tykwer/Wachowski originals particularly tend to land on the wrong side of the line. It rather simplifies matters, for example, to suggest that Mitchell’s stories merely illustrate the fact that “we keep making the same mistakes again and again”; Zachry unoriginally comments that his eventual mate was “the best thing that ever happened” to him, which also allows the filmmakers to name their soulmates in the closing credits as “the best thing that ever happened to them”; and Ayrs’s pontification that “composing is a crusade: sometimes you slay the dragon, sometimes the dragon slays you” conveys very little about the genuine joys and frustrations of the art.
Finally, despite all of its efforts to impose a sense of unity on its disparate elements, the film fails to exploit two other ways this goal might have been achieved. First, since the novel’s central motif, heralded in its title, is a noteworthy composition by Frobisher, one expected that the film would strive to offer some soaring, transcendent music to both represent his genius and emphasize related aspects of its stories; but the film’s background music, in part composed by Tykwer, is consistently bland and forgettable. Second, the film is surprisingly inattentive to a valuable but underdeveloped theme reverberating throughout Mitchell’s novel, that people affect the future not by being reincarnated into it or by “each crime and every kindness” of theirs, but by telling their stories to be read or heard by future generations who might learn from their experiences. As noted, each of the film’s characters is aware of his or her predecessor’s story, but only Cavendish’s rather cartoonish quest for freedom actually seemed to have an influence on his successor Sonmi’s more somber craving for liberation. Yet Frobisher might have garnered from Ewing’s tale the realization that he too was being betrayed by a purported friend; Rey might have related Frobisher’s passion for music to her own passion for justice, just as Cavendish might have been inspired by Rey’s triumph over inimical foes to tackle his own enemies; and Zachry might have heeded the teachings of Sonmi to justify his ultimate decision to side with Meronym. Still, such an emphasis on the powerful impact of true stories might have unsettling implications for Andy and Lana Wachowski, as it indicates that they could better serve the world by presenting, say, a realistic portrayal of the transformation of Larry Wachowski into Lana Wachowski instead of what they are actually working on now, yet another sci-fi action thriller; and I, for one, would frankly prefer such a daring venture into autobiography. But, I suppose, people really do make the same mistakes again and again.
9 thoughts on “Somber and Silly Symphonies: A Review of Cloud Atlas”
Your review was to the point and very detailed. Remember that it is a movie and film adaptations from books do not go well because the directors often time want to add their own vision, thoughts, opinions, and ideas. I saw the movie today and after a slow beginning I was mesmerized and blown away.
I think I’ll skip the movie.
What a splendid technical review, Gary! I’m reminded of the best technical analyses of William Atheling, Jr.
While I do like Westfahl and his insightful analysis, despite some of the flaws, I still really liked the film. It is well worth the time and money spent in seeing it.
I enjoyed this movie despite its flaws, but I also enjoyed this excellent review.
A very good review, but probably too specific in its complaints. The best thing about the movie is that it was NOT another action/adventure or lame rom/com or a sequel, prequel or reboot. I haven’t read the book but I did just get it in the mail today, so I’ll know soon enough which I prefer, but for now I liked the movie much more than I expected and applaud the filmmakers for attempting such an ambitious project.
I find your opening salvo of “not quite the masterpiece its creators wished it to be” is a non-starter when it comes to film criticism. It’s like telling the parents of a deformed child that they are wrong for wishing they had a healthy child, when the thought never even occurred to them. Even worse, you tell me that if I admire the film then I must be among the “sympathetic audience and reviewers” who harbor the same unfulfilled wish of the filmmakers (that the film is a masterpiece). Then you say I “must” acknowledge that judgement. Or what? That I’m not as astute a film critic as you are? Damn, that’s insulting. Where did you learn film criticism? In a schoolyard playground?
Never having read the book, I experienced the film as a kind of mash-up of a bunch of movies: Blade Runner with a touch of Soylent Green; a Herman Melville South Sea adventure; a silly Blaxploitation movie from the Seventies; one of those films set in the Twenties or Thirties about The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name; an adaptation of Farnham’s Freehold with the cannibalism politically rectified. (Blacks = good, whites = bad is so common a trope today that audiences take it for granted.)
A lot of the resulting hugger-mugger is fun; though as the two-hour mark approached I found myself getting restless. I think it was because, by that time, I realized that the half-dozen stories I was following weren’t actually going anywhere very interesting. Happily, just about then I got a call from work and got to stretch my legs before going back to the auditorium, re-energized, for all the conclusions.
The makeup varied from excellent to embarrassing. Though some of the old-age makeup runs it a close second, maybe the worst was the Korean actress impersonating a white American of 1840’s vintage, with freckles even. Also, the bright red lipstick on Susan Sarandon’s primitive, tattooed shamaness tended to unsuspend my suspension of disbelief.
On the upside, Tom Hanks looks like he’s having a blast, especially as the wicked ship’s surgeon in the 1840s story.
I too enjoyed the film, despite its flaws. I would actually argue though that the soul being reincarnated bounces from protagonist to protagonist (and actor to actor) rather than the actor’s faces indicating the same soul through time. (and that you recognize the same soul through the comet birthmark). Thought provoking review. Thank you!