October 30, 2012 – GQ India
My first encounter with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas came shortly after its 2004 publication. The novel is probably not a classic of the first order, but it is richly funny and affecting, stylistically compelling and, perhaps above all, ambitious as all hell.
Six nested storylines unfold – to use the standard analogy – like Russian stacking dolls. They are arranged in chronological order beginning aboard a merchant ship in the South Pacific in the mid-19th century, passing through 1930s Britain (in the novel, also Belgium), 1970s California, present day England and Seoul in 2144 on the way to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Each story, save the central one, is interrupted halfway and embedded in some way in the story that follows – as a movie or a novel, a journal or a kind of scripture – then finished in reverse order as the novel moves back to that 19th century voyage. The styles cover farce, romance, spy caper and sci-fi.
It’s a lot to take in, and the technical wonder of the novel’s execution is one of its many pleasures, equalling, but not exceeding, its generosity of voice, character, imagery and style. It is, counterintuitively, a wickedly clever pastiche about the interconnectivity of things.
So when directors and screenwriters Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) announced they would adapt the novel for film, people reacted the way they do to any announcement of a big, modern literary adaptation: it’s unfilmable. To my mind, the most important judgment to be made of any adaptation is not fidelity to the source, nor stand-alone quality, but rather whether or not the new medium offers a valuable perspective on the original material. In other words, did I need to see/read/hear it this way?
The film abandons the elegant stacking structure of the novel in favor of cutting the six stories together. This certainly offers some exciting and highly cinematic opportunities, but it can also be exhausting; imagine the last 20 minutes of Inception (a film from which Cloud Atlas borrows liberally) stretched on for three hours. At times this allows the directors to pick up on some cool resonances between the stories. But resonances are just that – subtle reverberations, suggestive rather than explicit. Here they become announcements over a megaphone. Cloud Atlas feels like a term paper by a precocious high school student: a banal reading rather than an insightful reimagining.
The film also, by now quite famously, reuses its actors across storylines, casting them against type, gender and race. Occasionally this works out well (Hugo Weaving is a hilariously sinister lady-nurse in the farcical present-day plotline). More often it’s highly distracting, transforming the movie into a game of Where’s Waldo (is that cannibal Hugh Grant?). In a few cases it’s preposterous (green contact lenses do not make a Korean actress passable as a white lady in 19th-century California), and in several cases it’s downright disastrous, transforming an actor’s face – the thing he/she most needs to convey that little thing called emotion – into flat, lifeless wax. In the Seoul section of the movie, Korean actress Bae Doona looks more lifelike as a robot than Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving do as actual humans, their faces paralyzed under false epicanthic folds.
The problems here are several. One is a hefty dose of sentimentality, mostly alien to the novel (everyone gets a love interest!). Another is the division of labor. Tykwer, who took on the most temporally immediate portions of the film, has fewer big set pieces, but retains more of the novel’s wit and music. These sections (which, not coincidentally, rely heavily on the contributions of the always-marvelous Jim Broadbent) are about characters, style and tone. The Wachowskis, on the other hand, seem more interested in ‘ideas’.
I put ‘ideas’ in quotes here because the ‘ideas’ are the biggest problem. Much like other big, tech-heavy epics like Avatar (which I hate), Inception (which I like) and The Matrix movies (is it even worth commenting?), the ‘big ideas’ thrown around in Cloud Atlas aren’t really that big at all. Notions of connection, love and rebirth work as literary devices in the novel, but are secondary to, and supported by, expert storytelling and style. In the hands of the Wachowskis, they become heavy-footed clunkers, stripped of the book’s actually interesting ideas about fiction, reality, the act of reading and doubt to give us a big pseudo-philosophical bear hug: our lives have meaning and love conquers all. How nice. The ‘ideas’ here are the equivalent of wondering, like every stoned college freshman in a philosophy course, ‘what if my reality is actually a dream?’.
Wait – I think I’ve seen that movie, too. Maybe in a past life.