Riding the karmic rollercoaster

Jim Broadbent in Cloud Atlas.

I suppose that it was a given from the get-go that a film project as ambitious and audacious in its reach as Cloud Atlas would ultimately turn out a product that critics would either love or hate. Movies based on serious works of literature are always a tough trick to pull off, and whether or not you’ve read the book can be a major factor in your enjoyment of the cinematic interpretation – for better or worse, depending on your expectations.

Since I’m firmly entrenched in the “The book is nearly always better than the movie” school of thought, and since I regard Cloud Atlas as the finest novel that I’ve read in quite a long time, I was anticipating its film premiere with a combination of excitement and dread comparable to that with which I was awaiting Election Day. The book employs an experimental story-within-a-story-within-a story narrative technique reminiscent of that used by Italo Calvino in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – only structured in a sort of spiral, so that you end up in the final chapter finding out the denouement of the first of the six stories told.

Although I didn’t necessarily agree with the many pundits who called it unfilmable, I certainly would never have picked sci-fi action-thriller directors/comic-book authors like the Wachowski siblings to take the helm. For one thing, it’s a misrepresentation to call Cloud Atlas science fiction: Only two of the six episodes occur in the future, and although its storyline threads through six disparate periods of history, it has nothing to do with time travel. My notion of the ideal director would’ve been someone like Robert Altman or Juzo Itami, based on their brilliance at using cinematic techniques to tease out the most tenuous of connections among characters and subplots, as demonstrated in such films as Nashville, Short Cuts and Tampopo.

But Altman and Itami, alas, are no longer with us, and probably wouldn’t have been offered the gig anyway. The Wachowskis, best-known for the Matrix series, along with German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume), were what we got. They believed in the project and had to fight very hard to secure funding for it. So I’m pleased to be able to say that, although action-movie aesthetics oozed overmuch into some of their choices about how to interpret the novel, the Wachowskis’ commitment to David Mitchell’s epic vision counted for quite a lot, and the results turned out more than satisfactory.

Not to mince words any further, I’m calling Cloud Atlas a knockout. It’s very impressive visually, and will appeal greatly to folks who love sweeping big-budget sagas from Master and Commander to Avatar. And even though the Buddhist message of the original story is rendered in the reductive shorthand required by the film medium, with the result that some of the dialogue about human interconnectedness comes off a bit corny, I still found myself weeping copiously throughout the last 20 minutes or so of the movie. Call me an idealistic, sentimental fool, but it definitely got to me.

In the case of Cloud Atlas, having read the book beforehand is a real plus, since the movie’s structure hops among the subnarratives at frequent intervals. There was a great deal of nervousness before it came out that audiences would have trouble following it. But the six tales are easily distinguishable by their disparate looks, even if the same actors do recur in multiple roles; my moviegoing companion, who had not yet read the book, had no difficulty knowing where (and when) he was. The story-to-story transitions, accomplished through deft editing employing obvious visual metaphors – a statement about making a life-changing choice in one lifetime segueing into a shot of people crossing a bridge in another, for example – work just fine. And the rapid-fire changes, rather than rendering the movie more confusing, actually serve to make its 164-minute running time zip by. Just settle yourself in your theatre seat with an empty bladder and you’ll be fine.

The one question regarding Cloud Atlas that seems to come up most often among the book-uninitiated seems to be simply, “What is it about?” Clearly reincarnation is the central plot thread; but going solely by the cinematic version, you might be tempted to conclude that it’s all about lovers parted by death being reunited again and again through various lifetimes. In the book, the journey of rebirth is actually that of a single soul who behaves very badly in the 19th century – a quack doctor who poisons a fellow traveler on a sea voyage for profit – and who then needs to become a better person in successive lifetimes in order to pay off his karmic debt. We know him not by the actor who portrays him (and sometimes her), but by an unusual birthmark shaped like a comet.

The other unifying theme is about the abuse of power, with one group oppressing and dehumanizing another throughout history. Man’s inhumanity to man you will always have with you, Mitchell seems to say, but there will also always be opportunities for individuals to find ways to resist that oppression, or to choose to refuse the weapons that power and privilege confer. The ending is ambiguous and not altogether encouraging, but uplifting nonetheless. If the core message seems to get a bit lost in the cinematic sauce, one may hope that enough among the film’s audience will be motivated to pick up the book and find it again.

Much has been made of the gimmicky casting of a small ensemble of actors to embody the huge cast of characters in Cloud Atlas, with excessive reliance on prosthetic makeup to transform men into women and vice versa, or swap ethnicities willy-nilly. Sometimes the conceit works astoundingly well and at other times falls flat; but the worst of it is that the viewer might be tempted to conclude that any one actor is supposed to be playing the same character reincarnated in each story, which is definitely not the case. And to a reader, some of the casting just seems downright odd, such as Tom Hanks playing the Hawaiian goatherder Zachry in the final story chronologically; in the book, Zachry is a teenager.

Hanks and Halle Berry get top billing in the film’s advertising campaign, but for this viewer, it’s rubber-faced British veteran Jim Broadbent who earns top acting marks in Cloud Atlas. He’s uncharacteristically scary as the bitter old classical composer Vyvyan Ayres clashing with his manipulative young assistant Robert Frobisher, beautifully played by Ben Whishaw, over the authorship of the titular Cloud Atlas Sextet in the 1930s sequence. Then Broadbent gets to flex his usual comedic chops as Timothy Cavendish, the publisher fleeing murderous thugs who ends up committed against his will to a prisonlike nursing home in the contemporary sequence.

Also outstanding is James D’Arcy as the young Rufus Sixsmith in the 1930s story and the aging Sixsmith in the 1970s nuclear conspiracy thriller sequence. And Hugo Weaving is a hoot whenever he appears as a whole string of bad guys – always identifiable by those crazy Elrond eyebrows, even when he’s done up as a British Nurse Ratched character, a noirish California hitman, a cold-blooded Korean corporate honcho or the Devil incarnate, nicknamed Old Georgie in post-Apocalyptic Hawaii. Among the actresses, Doona Bae stands out as Sonmi-451, the accidentally enlightened “fabricant” or human-clone service worker who inspires a rebellion in a dystopian futuristic Seoul and goes on to be revered as a goddess after a civilization-wrecking world war.

Sounds like grim stuff, I know, but you’ll still walk out of the theatre feeling like you’ve been through a healthy catharsis. We expect that from a serious literary work, but rarely anymore from a movie. Cloud Atlas may not be perfect, but it’s a keeper. Put this critic in the “love” column.

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