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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Cloud Atlas

In the summer of 2009, I discovered David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a meditation on the changing face of literature, language, and colonial oppression. The book is an incredible mish-mash of genres including science-fiction, historical travelogue, British comedy of errors, folk tale, and potboiling mystery. While there were some tales I preferred more than others (I often veer more towards the world building of Science Fiction and enjoy a good comedic romp in my literature), the book as a whole is incredibly captivating in its Russian-doll style unfolding narrative moving from the late 1800′s to the Post-Apocalypse, and then backward again. While the tales themselves are fairly stand-alone with some connective tissue between each narrative, the aspect that many readers pick up on is the fact that each protagonist has a comet-shaped birthmark signifying a deeper connection between them, which Mitchell has posited to be that it is the reincarnation of one soul throughout time. It’s a fascinating idea, but it at times creates a somewhat distracting aside from the much more important aspect of the work’s experimental nature.

This leads us to 2012 and the release of Cloud Atlas, the film adaptation. I have to admit, I was quite wary. The Wachowski’s have been far more miss than hit with me, I enjoyed the Matrix but did not love it, I could not finish Speed Racer, and the schlocky Bound bothers little mention. Luckily, they do have the gift of spectacle and much more steady hand in co-director Tom Tykwer.

The film covers the same ground as the novel, with no stories being omitted. The film crosscuts between all of them in the prologue of the film, which can be quite confusing to viewers new to the material but it quickly settles in after that brief beginning. Each lead actor is the focal point of one of the tales, with the other leads taking a supporting role of varying degrees. The visual material is quite rich on the whole, as the first story takes place in the late 1800′s and details the friendship that is built between a sickly San Francisco lawyer (Jim Sturgess) and a runaway Maori slave (David Gyasi) on a Pacific vessel bound for the West Coast, and the former’s relationship with an eccentric, to say the least, doctor (Tom Hanks). The second story takes places in pre-World War II Belgium and enumerates on the working relationship between a young musician (Ben Whishaw) and a sickly, aging composer (Jim Broadbent), as told through the letters the musician is writing to his male paramour back at Oxford. The third story is a 1970′s thriller/mystery about a young reporter (Halle Berry) having a chance encounter with an elderly nuclear physicist (James D’arcy) who provides her with information that puts both of their lives in danger. The fourth story is a 2012 tale about a British publisher (also played by Broadbent) who is placed in a nursing home against his will after a humorous set of events revolving around a book called “Knuckle Sandwich”. The fifth story is a Blade Runner inspired story taking place in futuristic “Neo-Seoul” about the day to day life of a fast food serving clone (Doona Bae) and how she is utilized by revolutionaries (Sturgess and others) to spark an uprising. Finally, the last story takes place after said revolution occurs, where a conflicted tribesman (Hanks again) befriends a woman from a technically advanced culture (Berry) to save his tribe from the cannibals that haunt them.

The film takes some small liberties with the source material, its very difficult to translate literary influences into a visual medium, but the majority of the film is quite faithful to the novel, short of the climaxes of three of the tales, that while ending up in the same general conclusion that the book reached, do it in a different fashion (two of which are major improvements).
The film, instead of focusing on the stylistic differences of each period, doubles down on the reincarnation aspect through not only through a somewhat altered usage of the comet-shaped birthmark but also re-casting actors in each story, creating for lack of a better word “soul connections” between characters that never existed before in the book. This is an interesting choice and in some ways, it works quite fabulously. There’s quite a nice pleasure in seeing Tom Hanks’ set of characters work their way towards redemption for past lives’ sins, and the emotional connection between characters played by Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess that lasts hundreds of years or more. It doesn’t always end up making sense. For example, a story taking place in 2012 has a characters played by Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw (Grant’s character’s wife no less) preceded by a tale set in the 1970′s where Grant and Whishaw were playing different characters that were 40ish and 20ish respectively. Granted, that could be explained away easily, but I’m not fond of films that make their viewers fill in the blanks that specifically, luckily its a quite small quibble.

The film also highlights the idea of master-slave relationships and how oppression survives no matter what time-frame its viewed upon, and despite how civilized society claims to be. It’s quite a juxtaposition to see those with darker skin are made to be slaves in the earliest story and beaten and attacked by their own, whereas by the final story, those that have been in power eventually become savages after the height of their decadence.

In terms of positives, again, the newly invented narrative throughlines for many of the characters work quite well and create some very compelling arcs. For a film that relies a good deal on emotional connection, there is some wonderful chemistry between Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess, that works very well. Tom Hanks and Hugh Grant are clearly having a ball throughout, playing completely against their type quite often and for the most part succeeding. Hanks is especially quite good as Dr. Henry Goose in the first tale, chomping on scenery in an almost Shatner-like fashion. This is the kind of work I’d like to see from Hanks more often, rather than the middle-aged romantic dad he’s been playing on since the mid 2000′s. Finally, I cannot say enough good things about Ben Whishaw. I sincerely hope both this film and Skyfall turn him into a star. Whishaw’s performance as Robert Frobisher is very much in the Colin Firth mold and completely captivates the screen everytime he gets the chance. It also helps that James D’arcy’s Rufus Sixsmith is a perfectly cast companion for him, and they work together incredibly well for two men that share no dialogue at any point.
In terms of negatives? The 1970′s story is pretty “been there, done that” taken on its own, and there’s some really telegraphed dialogue that I found wince-inducing, as well as a couple of awful scenes toward the end, where Doona Bae plays a Mexican sweat shop owner and a conclusion with one of the worst lines I’ve ever heard uttered in cinema, “My uncle was a scientist, but he believed love was real” ugh. It also feels like Halle Berry is sleep-walking through her roles in this film, so it’s no surprise that the story she is the lead in is my least favorite. In addition, Hanks and Berry do not work together well at all as possible romantic partners. It’s hard to really define why that is, but some actors have chemistry together, some sadly, do not. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the cross-racial and cross-gender makeup work that permeates the whole proceedings. In some cases it works well (Berry as the young jewish wife of Broadbent’s composer, Xun Zhou as a the younger sister of Hanks’ Zachry), but its quite distracting at times as well (none of the Anglo actors make particularly convincing Koreans, and the same goes for Doona Bae as Hugo Weaving’s Haskell Moore’s daughter in the first tale). I understand the thematic (and likely financial) reasons for making these choices though, and accept them on face value.

Though the key question isn’t how does it compare to the book, but does it stand up on its own, I would argue that indeed it does. Interestingly, I think those who have not read the book will be in a better position to appreciate the film. As of this writing, Cloud Atlas has already bombed out completely at the Box Office, which is a shame. It’s not a perfect film, but it certainly is a very, very good one. I often say that I prefer to see a film with high ambitions that fails to reach them, then see something that barely even tries at all and plays it safe (this past weekend’s Flight as an example). This is a film that deserves eyes and discussion, and I certainly hope it finds new life on DVD and becomes this generation’s Blade Runner or The Big Lebowski.
I give it 3 stars out 4. (or an B+ if you prefer)
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