Cloud Atlas, directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Lilly Wachowski (2012).
Score: a kick in the balls to the original work.
So, here’s the thing. I really like Book!Cloud Atlas. It’s like one of my favourite books ever. I’m aware that not every adaptation has to cater to my tastes, so I did my best to be open-minded and patient with this movie, but it’s just a cumulus of bad writing decisions and fatal oversimplification of the source material. The Wachowskis have a talent for grabbing fascinating source material (sometimes their own) and butchering it into something that wants to appeal to the unthinking mass and also fails at that.
Film!Cloud Atlas is made of six different intertwined stories that come to show that everyone is connected and all actions have consequences. The stories range from an adventure in the Pacific in the Nineteenth Century to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii centuries into the future.
Book!Cloud Atlas is an extremely subtle and intelligent work. The six stories are very different from one another and feature characters with distinct voices, backgrounds and even living in different literary genres. There are underlying themes and symbols that connect the stories to one another, as well as foreshadowing and shoutouts that go back and forth. So apparently, the Wachowskis and Tykwer picked it up and went: “The moral of the story is that everyone is interconnected, so we’re going to make this as painfully obvious as possible!!”.
And how did they do that, you might ask. By casting the same nine actors in every role in the movie with very few exceptions. The original work features English, Maori, Moriori, Jewish German, American Latino, White American and Korean characters (and some of races yet to exist), and for some reason they are all portrayed by six white men, an African-American woman, an Asian woman and an African-American man. This means we are delighted with the sight of Halle Berry playing a white German woman, Hugh Grant playing a Kona (Pacific natives from the future, most likely not white), Tom Hanks playing a steroid-ridden, inexplicably East-European version of an English man and Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy all playing Korean characters. There is a whole section that takes place in Seoul and they only bothered to hire an Asian actress for the protagonist because hiring real Asians for the rest was too mainstream. It’s sad to hear Hae-Joo mispronouncing his own name. It’s even more humiliating to behold that Doona Bae appears in every segment too… as an unimportant character in the background so someone can check her off a list. To say nothing of the artificially aged characters. Rufus Sixsmith makes sense because he appears both as a young man and an old man, but why do we have to endure Hugh Grant made up to look like Denholm Cavendish? I thought we had learnt a lesson fromPrometheus… And when you think you’ve seen it all, you get Hugo Weaving and James D’Arcy playing female nurses. No demographic is a challenge to these chameleon-like monsters of acting.
It’s not only discriminating but also short-sighted and uninspired that they made these casting decisions. It’s not possible to blame this on marketing. You could get this movie greenlighted by having just Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent in it playing Luisa Rey, Zachry and Timothy Cavendish and then you could have properly cast everyone else. It would have been cheaper and also it would have employed actors belonging to minorities. And it wouldn’t be so embarrassing to look at. I’m not saying any of these actors are bad. It’s just that you can’t be good at everything. You cannot speak every language, master every accent and sure as hell you cannot be every age, gender and race. The correct choice is to step aside and let someone else play that role, someone who is the right person.
Book!Cloud Atlas is not so much about what’s going on as about how the characters are narrating it. The characters have different voices, biases and prejudices and they even live in texts from different styles and in different formats: a trans-Pacific journal, letters from a bipolar musician to his lover, a murder mystery, a comical autobiography by a grumpy old man, a dystopian adventure narrated in an interview and a post apocalyptic lysergic oral tale. If you’re going to adapt this into a movie, you have to deploy your whole arsenal of visual storytelling because you’re not allowed to tell these stories, you have to show them to the viewer. And Film!Cloud Atlas also fails at that. Timothy Cavendish is deprived of his snarky and unpleasant nature and having Denholm lock Timothy for sleeping with his wife deprives the whole story of any interesting complexity, though I have to admit the in-universe adaptation of “The ghastly ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” was quite funny. It is never explained what a fabricant is and why Sonmi is in danger for having shared Yoona’s secret. Fabricants are given sexuality and their struggle is reduced to revolting when a customer slaps their ass (not that you shouldn’t revolt when someone slaps you without your consent, it’s just that it’s a revoltingly oversimplified reading of “An Orison of Sonmi~451”. You don’t have to agree with my reading to agree to this). The chase scene with Hae-Joo is ridiculous and the story makes no sense at all from then on. Sonmi is imprisoned for no reason and then she writes her declarations. Robert Frobisher is stripped of his intellectual erudition, which made a contrast with his psychological helplessness, while his storyline is watered down and melodramatized, taking away its complexity. Luisa Rey’s background as a writer relegated to writing gossip columns is gone, along with the recognizable tropes of a good noir story. On top of all that, this movie features one of the most idiotic lines I’ve ever had the disgrace to hear: “My uncle was a scientist but he believed that love was real– a kind of natural phenomenon.” I could go on and on about this but I’m afraid it’s already getting boring.
It has good things, mostly technical aspects. Special effects and production design are good, but that’s not enough to save the movie.
If my opinion is worth something, don’t waste your time with this. If it makes you look at the book with suspicion, please don’t. It’s a wonderful book.