“Cloud Atlas” - Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski (2012)

Cloud Atlas (2012) is a science-fiction/fantasy epic based on the acclaimed 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell. Scripted and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski, the film represents one of the more ambitious German attempts at a worldwide blockbuster. But despite some awesome dramatic and visual sequences, the conversion of the novel’s complicated narrative into film led to some problems that I believe were fatal to its ultimate success.

The film’s story actually comprises six separate, nested stories, and that construction presumably represents the fun that viewers have as they follow all six plots and piece them together in their minds. Although the six stories are loosely linked, each has a separate tale to tell and takes place during a separate period in human history:

  1. Pacific Islands, 1849.  This tells the story of Adam Ewing, an American who travels to the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific to take care of some business arrangements.  During his visit he encounters a Moriori slave, Autua, who saves his life at one point, which leads Ewing to advocate for Autua’s freedom.  Upon his return to America, Ewing vows to join the abolitionist movement to emancipate slaves in the US.  So this story is about the moral awakening of a young man concerning social oppression.
  2. Cambridge, 1936.  Robert Frobisher is a youthful composer involved in a gay relationship with fellow student Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher manages to gain employment as an amanuensis for a well-known elderly composer, Vyvyan Ayrs.  Ayrs recognizes Frobisher’s musical talents and manages to steal some of his ideas and claim them for his own.  This story is further complicated by the fact that Frobisher is actually bisexual and has an illicit relationship with Ayrs’s wife.  Eventually the frustrated Frobisher commits suicide.  So this story is about finding fulfilment in an uncaring world by means of personal expression.
  3. San Francisco, 1973.  An ambitious young investigative journalist, Luisa Rey, encounters by happenstance an older Rufus Sixsmith, who is a physicist and has documented information about unsafe new nuclear plants that is being suppressed by the always evil and extractive US energy industry.  Sixsmith is eventually killed by agents of the industry, as is another physicist.  Rey survives a further murder attempt by the US energy hitman and manages ultimately to reveal the evil doings.  Rey eventually publishes a murder mystery based on her experiences.
  4. London, 2012.  Timothy Cavendish is an elderly publisher who gets into trouble with gangsters when he published a novel by one of their own. When he appeals to his wealthy brother, Denholme, for help, the brother gets Timothy locked away in a nursing home. Timothy’s goal is to escape this prison, and he eventually succeeds, which experience he later turns into a successful screenplay, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”.
  5. Neo Seoul, 2144.  In the grim future, an oppressive corporate culture uses “fabricants”, genetically fabricated women who are used as slaves, as “comfort women”, and (we later find out) for food.  Sonmi-451 is one such fabricant, and she is rescued from her captive world by a clandestine rebel commander, Hae-Joo Chang, who reveals to her the full horrors of the oppressive society.  She and Chang are free long enough for her to make a dramatic public broadcast revealing the perfidy of the entire ruling coalition.
  6. The Big Isle, 106 winters after the Fall. Sometime in the still more distant future, there has been some horrible apocalypse (“the Fall”).  Zachery lives in a primitive hunter-gatherer society that is preyed upon by another clan, the Kona tribe, that is literally blood-thirsty. Into this setting comes Meronym, who is from a technically advanced society and is looking for some abandoned telecommunications center she believes is hidden in the mountains and which she wants to use to send messages to surviving colonies on other planets.  Suspicious at first, Zachery and Meronym gradually come to trust each other, fend off the predatory Konas, and make their way to safety on another planet.
Each story is presented in a different cinematic style that evokes a separate cinematic genre.  Stories 1, 5, and 6, having settings that are the most remote from own our circumstances, were directed by the Wachowski brothers; while stories 2, 3, and 4 that are closer to home were directed by Tom Tykwer. The Wachowski-directed stories are fantasy pieces – filled with violence and heavily dependent on their atmospheric settings. They are not so much stories as mood pieces, and that is where they are most effective. The Tykwer narratives, on the other hand, are more dramatic and more devoted to character establishment and development. Story 3 is like a murder mystery, and story 4 is essentially a comedy.

Each of the five stories that precede the last one produces some narrative document that is passed on to the next story.  In Story 1, Ewing produces an account of his experiences that is later read by Frobisher in Story 2.  Frobisher’s letters come into the hands of Liusa Rey in Story 3.  Rey’s novel based on her experiences comes into the hands of publisher Cavandish in Story 4, and the movie based on Cavendish’s experiences is watched by Sonmi-451 in Story 5.  Sonmi-451's famous broadcast in Story 5 becomes the basis of a mystical cult that is worshiped by Zachery’s clan in Story 6.

In addition, the principal characters in each of the stories has the same mysterious birthmark that is presumably supposed to provide some linkage between these characters.

These linkages may have worked well in Mitchell’s novel, but they are lost in the film and seem mysterious but come off as pointless red herrings. There are other commonalities, such as imprisonment and slavery (Stories 1, 4, and 5), as well as murder (all stories), but these are not explicitly linked in any meaningful way.

In fact the film directors made two structural modifications to what was in the original novel that had ruinous consequences.  In Mitchell’s novel, the stories are told mostly sequentially up to just before the denouement of each.  Thus we have (most of) Story 1, followed by most of Story 2, etc.  Then the author goes back and covers the respective denouements in reverse (unwinding order).  There is a certain logic to this arrangement that might work.  In each of the concluding parts of the various stories, there is a rebellious act that represents liberation, and the unwinding of these respective heroic acts of self-sacrifice might have a cumulative impact.

But in the film presentation all the six stories are told in parallel, with constant cross cuttings between stories in mid-flight.  This might excite the viewer as the action jumps back and forth between all six stories – so the viewer may have fun trying to figure things out.  But the jumps are largely nonsensical and distract the viewer from whatever inner logic may exist in each story.  In fact there are disruptive jumps between stories even in the middle of important conversations and in the middle of dramatic shootouts.  It would have been much better to stick to Mitchell’s narrative structure.

Another problem, in my opinion, is the use of the same actors and actresses in each of the stories (clearly not an aspect of the written novel). Thus Tom Hanks, Halle Barry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturges, Ben Whistlaw, and Doona Bae appear in multiple stories, sometimes as principal characters and otherwise as background characters.  And Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon have minor (and very unbecoming) roles in many of the stories, too.  The viewer may have fun picking them out in the various scenes, but there doesn’t seem to be any logic to this, either.  And the consequence is that one is further pulled out of involvement in the narrative. There are no characterological connections across the multiple roles played by any of the actors, and these multiple appearances are little more than visual distractions.

On top of all this, there is an awful lot of unmotivated killing, mainly in the Wachowski pieces. This is presumably made acceptable, because the antagonistic forces are so evil.  But these bad guys are so superficially and exaggeratedly evil as to be ludicrous.  And the ghostly demon, “Old Georgie”, who is visible only to Zachary in Story 6 makes no sense whatsoever, other than to depict another weird embodiment of evil.

Cloud Atlas does have some redeeming virtues, however.  The technical effects are sometimes breathtaking.  And indeed, even though I admire Tykwer’s work (notably Winter Sleepers, 1997, and Run Lola Run, 1998) more than the Wachowski’s (famous for the Matrix films), I most enjoyed the Wachowski-produced sci-fi imagery of Story 5. The haunting images of Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) create a lasting, eerie mood to this story – as if we are watching some sort of iconic masque pageant with hidden meanings.  This effect is created by showing repeated images of Doona Bae’s expressionless face as she narrates the circumstances of her servitude and rebellion.

So chalk this one up as an interesting (and expensive) attempt that failed to deliver a coherent and meaningful experience.

1 comment:

danielessman said...

My Dear Film Sufi,
You've inspired me to watch Notorious again. I have always considered Ingrid Bergman to be the greatest film actress; her face recapitulates the dramatic intention of her scenes in much the same way a first rate film score does. Her reactions to Cary Grant's cynicism broke my heart. (BTW, I believe our new Jennifer Lawrence has a similar ability...not quite the same in that Lawrence is emotionally proactive, more the emotive protagonist than Bergman's more-passive victim.)

Regarding Cloud Atlas...I agree with your conclusion: Cloud Atlas is a narrative catastrophe...nice pictures though...