Cloud Atlas (yes, it’s worth it)

When writing a film review for a website such as this, I try to place content into context. This is a gaming blog and I should keep that perspective. I found no way to integrate gaming into a review of Cloud Atlas, so I’ve stopped caring.

There appears to be two camps of opinion regarding this movie with little in the form of compromise. I’m of the “masterpiece” camp, ready to launch my vocabularic (not a word) artillery in defense of the film. However, unlike other critics, I actually read the book. The five minute trailer offers the impression the movie is a faithful adaption of David Mitchell’s novel. Thirty seconds past the film company’s logo, I discovered this was not the case. In the book, the narrative begins with the Journal of Adam Ewing, remaining so for about forty pages until it abruptly stops mid-sentence, jumping into the second story. This is explained because the journal is read by the main character in the second tale with the book in question discovered torn in half. This second story is comprised of letters the main character in the third story is reading, while that story, set in 1973, is a manuscript being read by the protagonist, a publisher, in the fourth. This trend continues until the sixth tale, which is told unbroken but ends with the main character narrating the end of the fifth story, and the entire process reverses (with each main character discovering or revealing the events of the subsequent story).

Following me so far, so the story cuts nine times, one through six and then back to one. Although brilliant as a narrative device, the novel does suffer from pacing, as the opening and ending are much slower than the tightly packed middle. Very little occurs within the outer stories and the book ends in a rather unspectacular fashion. The movie avoids this by constantly cutting between all six narratives through its three-hour running time. My guess was that the movie doesn’t sit in one time period for more than two minutes before cutting to another, and it does so apparently at random. Instead of 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1 (like the book), the movie goes 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-6-4-5-3-4-1-6…and so on. As you can imagine, this can make the film rather difficult to follow. Reading the book gives you an edge as you might expect but it also jars you when the movie departs from canon. The second story, Letters from Zedelghem, suffered the most in editing, with two key characters removed entirely, while The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish played out virtually unaltered (save for condensing the time of said ordeal). The most surprising element came in the fifth, An Orison of Sonmi-451, where large plot elements were replaced with impressive action sequences non-existent (though referenced) in the book. All of these choices were made given limited time with the exception of two situations (read later).

But does the film succeed? Yes, and brilliantly so, as long as you understand that the movie inserted an additional narrative device the book never (and technically cannot) employ. In the book, several key characters all feature the same birthmark, suggesting either one soul passing through generations or one type of soul touched by fate to change the world or at least touch the soul of the next body gifted with said mark (my theory since two of the segments are set so close, one character with the mark would be alive in the other’s segment’s timeframe). The movie compounds this element to not only include the birthmark but also claim that all the characters around the mark could be the same in each timeline, as they are all played by the same eleven actors. The book never suggests this. It never offers any evidence that Isaac Sachs in the fourth story is the same soul as Zachry in the sixth. This unfortunately turns into a gimmick in some places where no connection can possible be discerned (like Halle Berry as a cybernetically enhanced Asian doctor or Tom Hanks playing an actor—-I assume maybe himself—-in a movie seen by another character).

These threads suggest that one soul which started evil eventually turns good through subsequent lives, while another starts off simply corrupt but proceeds to get so increasingly wicked that by the end, the actor is playing nothing short than the devil himself. Don’t expect the book to explain these connections because they don’t exist in the written form. Even though it does come off as a bit of a cinematic trick, I found it strangely appealing. During the end credits, the film reveals the various actors and all the roles they played. With Tom Hanks, it was relatively obvious despite his impressive vocal range, but a few will shock you (like the aforementioned Berry as the Asian cyborg). Alas, even though this makeup succeeds on almost every level, it does stumble occasionally. Even though Berry’s transformations are unexpectedly convincing, I wasn’t able to believe Hugo Weaving as Korean. He just looked a Vulcan, a problem also affecting Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy in the same segment. They can make Tom Hanks Scottish; they can make Halle Berry Caucasian, but they couldn’t make Doona Bae (Korean) look non-Asian; I just wasn’t fooled. Some people have criticized Hugo Weaving as the female Nurse Noakes, but I found that one to be one the best creations of the film, likewise with Ben Winshaw as Georgette in that same segment.

The movie is also more tightly edited, with action scenes occurring simultaneously rather than having them spread out. The timelines all reach their climax at the same point like a film should, rather than in the book where you have to read forty pages to get to the next resolution. This editing decision has made the film adaption far more intense, impossible to look away to your companion or even your watch. Yes, the book honors the individual stories more; they feel more complete, where the movie succeeds on making the individual stories more feel part of a whole.

I remember back when I watched Contact with a friend, at that key point when the machine tears itself to pieces after the religious fanatic blows himself up. My friend turned to me and whimpered, “Tell me there’s another three hours to this movie.” He didn’t want it to end. Cloud Atlas is that experience where you hope the film is three hours, and it is, where half way through, you’re relieved there’s still ninety minutes left. Even if the filmmakers told the stories uncut and ran the film at four hours, it would still work. Of course, you would still be left with the film’s few big story departures, the most obvious being the endings of the fifth and sixth segments. In the book, the fifth story concludes with a jarring twist which effectively throws the entire tale into a spinning fan while the last story resolves itself with an unsettled issue on where a character is and what happened to him. In the film, the twist is ignored and the final ending is resolved, making the close of the movie more satisfying than reading the last page of the book. It does depart from the book, but if anything, I would call the film a compliment rather than a departure. They both serve to help the other. Cloud Atlas is a better movie adaptation of an amazing novel and should be seen and discussed by anyone still valuing my opinion after 1200 words.

And yes, it’s Zachry, not Zachery.


Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.