Sunday, January 27, 2013

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski
Genre: drama
Rating: *** (3.5 out of 5)

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 at 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.

Cloud Atlas by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski s


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 (周迅). A team of some 25 makeup artists help transform the actors from cannibals to plantation owners to survivors from an advanced civilization 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 ADD 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.

Navigating through the web of characters is a mental workout


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, civilization after civilization – is not lost in the movie adaptation. The idea that the oppressors will always justify their action in the name of stability and that resistance often begins with the humblest of existences is poignant and, considering what's happening in the Middle East and China, also quite timely.

Tom Hanks plays six different characters with six different accents


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.

A clone being rescued by a rebel in Neo Seoul

15 comments:

  1. I was looking forward to it...but after reading your review, I am not sure if I should see it as I haven't read the book before ...:-(

    Lily

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  2. I'm glad that I have it on DVD and could take my time with it. (That said, the book is one of my favorites, so I couldn't watch with objectivity. I thought the movie was smashing.)

    Marshall

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  3. I thought everyone acted with conviction. Depiction of a futuristic world could easily be lame but it wasn't.

    Jason

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  4. Marshall, I thought being a writer yourself, you would find David Mitchell pretentious and gimmicky. I actually quite enjoyed the book, although I did find "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" frustrating. The broken tribal English is hard to get through, although one gets used to it after about 20 pages.

    Jason

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  5. Tom Hanks can be a little wooden at times, but the rest of the cast was terrific.

    Marshall

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  6. I thought Tom Hanks was great, especially playing Dr. Goose.

    Halle Berry matured as an actress -- she held her own in the movie. I used to have major issues with her acting -- I don't know how she managed to get an Oscar for Monster's Ball!! Ben Wishaw is my favorite. He is great in everything I've seen of him so far: Perfume, Bright Star, Skyfall and now Cloud Atlas. He really makes an excellent John Keats.

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  7. BTW, Marshall, I thought being a writer yourself, you would find David Mitchell pretentious and gimmicky. I actually quite enjoyed the book, although I did find "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" frustrating. The broken tribal English is hard to get through, although one gets used to it after about 20 pages.

    Jason

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  8. Interesting you should mention that about Mitchell. I loved Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green, and Cloud Atlas... but I'll admit I couldn't get through "Sloosha" precisely because of the unreadable language, gave up, and skipped ahead. I also thought Number9Dream was unreadable. I've recently struggled through most of his latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and I seem to have given up. The writing's not up to what I remember from him. I also found it gimmicky, and the characters weren't developed well enough for me to care about them. There were too many to keep track of. Perhaps it's also that I don't like holding heavy books anymore and would rather read e-books when the alternative is a cinder block. My tiny chopstick wrists aren't what they used to be, which isn't saying much. Mitchell has not hit his peak yet. When he stops showing off and decides to focus on a more linear story (not totally, but more so) with a smaller, more manageable cast of characters, then we'll see. But this latest definitely wasn't it.

    Marshall

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  9. 可能真係期望越高,失望越大!The film was not as good as I expected. Too fast-tracking and totally agreed that I was watching the movie trailer at all. Folks are likely to get lost if they didn't read the book. 呢嚿「雲」真係有得同 Grandmaster 〝fight〞 ! Luckily it still rated 0.5 point higher than the Grandmaster at your eyes. So, twenty bulks, be quick ! :)p

    Great review ! Jason. Thanks.

    Cheers,
    Jean

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  10. OK, Jason, I know what I am getting for myself over the CNY, the book "Cloud Atlas". To me, the book sounds more enticing than the movie adaptation. It sounded too intricate and thought-provoking to miss (though I'll probably get lost in the middle of it as well by the look of all the comments above). Your comments are a real teaser!


    Christine

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  11. As a fan of the book, I'd give this movie a 1.5 to 2.0 just for its sumptuous visuals. My favorite part of the book are those stories dealing with the far future, and this movie does not even capture the content of those stories, instead it's turning them into love stories!!! The fact of the matter is some literary work does not work well on films and they should not even try in the first place.

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  13. "Those who haven’t read the book are hard pressed to keep track of who’s who and what’s happening when."
    please tell me u are joking?

    ReplyDelete
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