Re:View – ‘Cloud Atlas’

The Arts

Better a brave failure than a lazy success, I say, but the very brave ‘Cloud Atlas’ cost over $100 million to make and took less than $9 million in the US (it went on to just about recoup its outlay in the rest of the world).

Making a big-budget movie that experiments with the form or tells an unusual story in six separate time-frames is asking for trouble in these weirdly conservative times, yet I have a list of lavish oddities that I’d rather watch over another ‘Superman’ origin film any day. These would include ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘Synecdoche, New York’, ‘Mr Nobody’, ‘Agnosia’, ‘Memories of Matsuko’ and ‘Upside Down’, but there are many, many more lurking around the hinterlands of cinema experience.

To these can now be added David Mitchell’s volume of six stories nestled likeĀ Russian Dolls inside each other. As much as I love Mitchell’s dreamlike writing, this was the book that broke the spell, partly because I simply wasn’t prepared to invest the necessary time needed to decode the story written in future Hawaiian slang. Phonetic writing is always more fun for the writer than the reader (I wrote one – I may publish it here soon).

Transposing ‘Cloud Atlas’ to film took the talents of Matrix team the Wachowskis and German director Tom Tykwer, who has never made a bad film and even dabbled in this multiple-choice genre before with ‘Run Lola Run’. The clever idea was to turn an unfilmable book into a cohesive whole by jumbling up the stories scene by scene, creating climaxes and moods according to the cuts, as Christian Marclay did with his installation ‘The Clock’ (see columns passim).

First they composed the superb score so the editors had rhythms to cut to, but the hardest part was scheduling so many locations and stars into one shoot. The stories stretch across the globe and time itself, from far past to distant future, and this brings in the directors’ second smart move; to cast the same actors in all the roles, allowing them to switch colour and gender according to requirements.

Surviving the first 20 minutes is a struggle as the WTF? factor kicks in, but as the stories unfold the complexities lessen, eventually forming a new way of viewing that feels quite natural – we’re already part-way there anyway, with our iPads balanced on our knees while we watch streamed features and add comments on Twitter.

The subject at root is almost banal – the universality of love and free-will and karmic balance – but the tales are terrifically good fun. Inevitably some strands are more involving than others; the Jim Broadbent strand is particularly memorable because it’s less portentious in tone, while the far-future/primitive sequences suffer for having wise old soothsayers and the like. Tom Hanks seems a bit out of his depth against so many other good actors, but there are other problems. The multiple-roleplay means there are a lot of rubbery prosthetics on display, and the decision to keep the future-slang in one story required me to keep the DVD subtitles on – God knows what cinema audiences must have made of it.

My opening line holds, though. It’s a brave and rather lovely undertaking, and everyone can at least say they did it. Without such wayward films we’d be restricted to a diet of cartoonish nonsense.

6 comments on “Re:View – ‘Cloud Atlas’”

  1. Bob Low says:

    ”The subject at root is almost banal….”
    It was the banality of the source novel that irritated me most- that, and its lack of originality. It read like a cleverly constructed creative writing exrecise, rather than a novel. And the phonetic, ”science fiction” passage was a shameless rip-off of the great ”Riddley Walker”, the difference being that, while Russell Hoban had something touching, profound and devastating to say about human nature, Mitchell was just showing off.

    Having said all of that, the film adaptation looks intriguing, and I might well give it a go.

  2. Dylan Lancaster says:

    I loved this film. I didn’t struggle at all with the phonetic segment and really enjoyed watching it all come together. My favourite part of the film was the musician’s story. I saw it and went straight to Waterstone’s and bought the book (yet to read it) and went to the cinema 3 more times to see the film. A great companion piece to the first Matrix film.

  3. Peter Lee says:

    I agree regarding the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the stories apart from the central two (the Hawaiian one and the story about the robot waitress or something like that) but it did feel a little too much like a technical exercise than a story. With respect to the comment about phonetic writing, I used to be a big fan of Will Self but feel that since “The Book of Dave” he’s become stuck in a rut around that gimmick, and his books all seem to revolve around some new dialect, or have a few characters who use their own language, and it killed my love for his work. I gave up on “Umbrella” after sixty pages too – one continuous paragraph, no chapters, three timelines but no indication as to which you were in… no thanks. Life’s too short.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    This trailer actually makes we want to either read the book or see the movie – perhaps not both.

  5. laura says:

    I ended up seeing Cloud Atlas at the cinema after arriving late to find that Mobius was sold out. The film does have a lot of flaws, but the story, or rather the overall arc of the different stories, was interesting and powerful enough to convince me to be forgiving when the patois seemed a bit amateur or the individual story devices lacked originality. The cinematography was compelling. I left the theatre thinking about the film, and I’d be happy to see it again, although I expect it may be less powerful on a small screen. I also put the book on my (long) reading list. To me, if not to studios, that’s a better definition of success than first-run ticket sales.

  6. Andrea Yang says:

    Guess I will have to take at look…. I missed it in the theaters. Maybe on a scorching afternoon when I have to sit inside anyway.

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