So I saw Cloud AtlasPosted: November 5, 2012
In a major departure for this blog, here are my thoughts on the movie Cloud Atlas (and the novel). Wow this got long. One-sentence review: A beautiful novel of ideas is turned into a beautiful movie of imagery, but they got the teleology wrong.
Part 1, the Book. Cloud Atlas is a contender for my favorite novel. It has been accused of being needlessly complex. It is not complex. Yes, there are 6 linked stories, but there is no playing with cause and effect or time, no tricksy post-modern acrobatics, no unreliable narrators. The stories do not overlap chronologically, and each is a different genre and exists within the “big” story in a different medium. The time frame spans the 19th century to maybe a few hundred years in the future:
|Story||Genre||Media||Link to next story|
|1 (first half)||Adventure||Diary||read by Robert in story 2|
|2 (first half)||Romance||Letters||read by Louisa in story 3|
|3 (first half)||Thriller||Novel||published by Timothy in story 4|
|4 (first half)||Comedy||Film||seen by Sonmi-451 in story 5|
|5 (first half)||Sci-Fi||Transcript||viewed by Zachry in story 6|
|6 (whole)||Folk tale||Oral history||told by Zachry’s son in story 6 epilogue|
After this, we then get the 2nd half of the first five stories in reverse chronological order (5—>1), ending with the 2nd half of story 1.
Let’s assume most authors don’t make structural choices like this for no reason, or to seem clever (looking at you, Tarantino). Why circle back like this, to end in the same story it began in? Because in the large-scale historical chronology of the book, the same thing happens: humanity ends up exactly where it began. Story 1 is set in the 19th century South Pacific, and includes an account of the conquest of the peaceful Moriori of the Chatham Islands by the invading Maori of New Zealand (told in the context of European colonialism in the South Pacific). Story 6 concludes with the exact same thing about to happen again: an isolated group of peaceful (but hunted) pastoralists in post-collapse Hawaii soon to be enslaved/obliterated by a warrior tribe from the big island. So both humanity and the reader end up where they started. The final fate of Zachry’s people mirroring that of the Moriori is a neat narrative device, but not a complicated one, and one that Mitchell makes sure you pay attention to. The dendroglyph grotto on Chatham echoes the observatory on Mauna Loa, etc… anyway, finding links between Cloud Atlas stories is a game that can be played all day.
Mitchell is not trying to confuse you, and the changes in time, place, and genre and explicit references to the other stories make the relationships between them clear. He often has characters catch on to links between the stories before you do and let you in on them. For example, Robert Frobisher in Story 2 twigged on to the fact that Henry Goose in Story 1 was a poisoner long before I did (as to be expected because of the metaphysical link between characters with the comet birthmark). Mitchell also has his characters criticize the other chapters. Robert notes that Adam Ewing’s journal is suspiciously structured and feels inauthentic. Timothy notes that the “Louisa Rey Mystery” is formulaic and has plot holes that I certainly didn’t catch (Timothy – a book publisher who also made an appearance in Mitchell’s Ghostwritten – also explicitly insults two of Mitchell’s more obvious tropes: a piece of music by Frobisher called “Cloud Atlas Sextet” with a structure matching the novel’s, and the comet-shaped birthmark). By the end, however, this inter-story commentary is completely degraded: Zachry’s children can’t even understand anything Sonmi-451 says through the orison.
Another element that makes the stories easy to follow is that they are all about the same thing, and Mitchell often has a character tell you what this is. In the first scene, Henry Goose says they are on a beach where “…the strong feasted upon the weak.” A few scenes later, “Do not step between a beast and his meat.” Did you miss it? A couple scenes later, “The weak are meat the strong do eat.” Characters read or quote political and moral philosophy from Seneca to Nietzsche, plots echo Orwell. This is a story about humanity’s subjugation by brutality, slavery, colonialism, social convention, bureaucracy, institutions, consumer capitalism, totalitarianism, and their common origin: the will to power.
Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks war? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence, is the instrument of this dreadful will.
Each story has clear villains, victims, and bystanders – those who act and those who do not. We follow one recurring soul identified by the birthmark, who sometimes hears or feel these echoes and resonances but can never hold on to them. Along the way there are moments of beauty, acts of love and selflessness, and the struggle for goodness. Although these are necessary for our humanity, they explicitly fail over the long term in the novel – again, we end as we began. The final theme is one of stasis. The characters and conditions transmute across time and space, things are never exactly the same, but they are never really different:
What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.
Pro tip: when a character practically says the title of the book, it’s probably important. Note that sentence contains BOTH the phrases “never-changing” and “ever-constant.” Seriously: Mitchell is not coy and wants you to know what he’s thinking. This is not the only character to say this.
Part 2, The Movie
The movie is beautiful, almost overwhelmingly so. I don’t know what it was like for people who have not read the book, but I thought they captured the visual language of every story perfectly and lovingly. Almost all of the performances were strong, and I have to take back some of my Tom Hanks trash talk. He was convincing in most of the roles, with the exception of Zachry, who is supposed to have been a boy and whose character depends on a lot of childlike thoughts and feelings.
The screenwriters had a difficult task… Mitchell’s genius was to make stories in completely different genres resonate and echo each other. The power of this resonance in some respects comes from their vast differences in setting and style. The filmmakers have a more limited toolkit and one genre: epic fucking movie. So they make the resonances out of clips of dialogue and visual puns, most notably the reuse of actors in various roles. Jim Sturgess in yellowface was no more jarring to me than Doona Bae in whiteface, but I see why this is troublesome territory for some. Hugo Weaving as the Ratched-like Nurse Noakes was hilarious. These are obvious costumes, and we are meant to recognize them. Some of the other links work: “You fall, I’ll catch you” is as cheesy a line as you’ll find in a Hollywood movie, but somehow they pull it off here through repetition, and it becomes a kind of mantra of human kindness. They intercut the stories much more than the novel, which creates both problems and opportunities. The problem is that it undermines the fundamental structure outlined above, of human history spreading forward like a wave only to retreat again. The opportunity is that it allows them to control the pacing of the stories to some extent through how fast this jumping is occurring, and to bring the stories to plot and emotional climaxes (there are several, it’s long) together.
This brings me to the fatal flaw of the movie: the attempt to turn Cloud Atlas into a story of progress and hope with a linear narrative instead of Mitchell’s story of endless recurrence. To do this they attempt to link the stories as a progressive plot, using the visual leitmotif of some fancy buttons from Adam Ewing’s waistcoat. These turn up on another waistcoat Frobisher takes from Sixsmith. I then lost track of them until they were on a necklace of Zachry’s. We are given the impression that the acts of the characters are somehow teleological, working toward salvation or escape, when my reading of the novel is the opposite. Instead of Zachry’s descendants huddled on a smaller island, even less literate and organized than the tribe had been in Zachry’s time, waiting for the inevitable invasion by the Kona, we have a deus ex machina of rescue from “off world colonies” that are non-existent in the book and have inexplicably ignored Earth for a century. WHY? That’s the best we can do? Abandon Earth? All of these stories are about the inherent evil in humanity and its institutions and our necessary but never-ending struggles against them… how does going to another planet solve this? Earth wasn’t the problem, we were.