Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

How does one tell six separate stories without making them look like, well, six separate stories?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 January, 2013, 6:41pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 January, 2013, 6:41pm

I was looking for a book to read last Christmas and a friend recommended Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. She told me it won a British Book Award and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Named after an obscure piano piece by a Japanese composer, the novel consists of six interlocking stories written in different prose styles and set in different times and places. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” for instance, is set in the 1850s on a South Pacific island, whereas “An Orison of Sonmi~451” depicts the future as an Orwellian dystopia where genetically engineered clones slave away in fast food restaurants.

Each story is interrupted mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book. The structure of the novel resembles a set of Russian nested dolls, with the six stories arranged in the order A-B-C-D-E-F-E-D-C-B-A. I finished the 530-page book in about a week, thanked my friend for the recommendation, and waited for the movie to hit the big screen. I had no doubt that Cloud Atlas would make an interesting adaptation; the only question is how.

The novel’s unique (some say gimmicky) structure presents great challenges for the directors, for how does one tell six separate stories without making them look like, well, six separate stories? To that end, directors Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) come up with an idea: reuse the same handful of actors for all the stories.

The ensemble cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving and Ben Wishaw, as well as Korean actress Doona Bae and China’s Zhou Xun. A team of some 25 makeup artists help transform the actors from cannibals to plantation owners to survivors from an advanced civilisation in the 24th Century.

The movie’s biggest flaw is structure. Rather than presenting the segments one by one – the way the book is set up – the directors decide to abandon narrative continuity and tell all six stories at the same time. As a result, the entire film feels like one long movie trailer. It is as if a child with Attention Deficit Disorder has grabbed the remote control and started flipping channels every five minutes. For three hours, the audience is bombarded by a barrage of names, places and time periods. Those who haven’t read the book are hard pressed to keep track of who’s who and what’s happening when. Worse, people in the futuristic world of Neo Seoul uses words like “seers,” “ascension” and “exultation” without context. And everyone on the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian islands speaks in a broken, tribal English that verges on nonsensical. Entire dialogues between Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are lost on the audience – the actors may as well be miming the scenes.

But none of that bothers me much. I know the book well enough to follow the movie without difficulty. I am excited to see how a novel so varied in scope and breadth comes to life and how the directors’ vision resembles and differs from my imagination. Moreover, the novel’s central theme of oppression and revolution – the way the cycle repeats itself generation after generation, civilisation after civilisation – is not lost in the movie adaptation. The idea that the oppressors will always justify their actions in the name of stability and that resistance often begins with the humblest of existence is poignant and, considering what’s happening in the Middle East and China, also quite timely.

Cloud Atlas is an ambitious movie based on an ambitious novel. If the book is a meant to be a puzzle, then the film is a brainteaser that requires multiple viewings. Those who are familiar with the book will find the movie profound, visually stunning and unforgettable. Those who aren’t will find it fragmented, messy and even incomprehensible. Had it been better structured and edited, the adaptation might have been the stuff of Oscars.