Oh, the various ups and downs I’ve experienced during the making of Cloud Atlas.
Up: they’re adapting one of my favourite novels!
Down: Oh shit, the Wachowskis are involved. I still haven’t forgiven them for The Matrix Reloaded and V For Vendetta.
Up: Tom Twyker is also involved. Brilliant! Perfume: The Story of a Murderer was one of the great unsung films of the last decade and it vastly improved upon the source material.
Up even further: A five minute trailer is released and it’s amazing. The music, visuals and the feeling behind it are perfect. This could be a really special film.
Down: I actually go and see the film.
Looks like my Wachowski-related fears were well-founded. A subtle, playful, philosophical book is turned into a gimmicky hodgepodge with too much action. There’s a lot to admire in the movie but there’s also a lot that is wrong.
Structurally, the film is a horrible, horrible mess. In the novel, you have six stories. One begins and then halfway through, it’s interrupted. And so on and so forth until you get to the final story, which is allowed to play out in its entirety. The remaining stories are then wrapped up until we end back up where we started.
The decision here, and it’s not an unreasonable one, is to cut back and forth between the different tales. But the editing is terrible. Sometimes you get long stretches where you never rest for more than sixty seconds on any one story. This restlessness harms the movie immeasurably and ensures that you’re never particularly invested in any of the characters. It kind of reminds me of the end of The Return of the Jedi where you have three battles going on at the same time and then also The Phantom Menace where you have four - there’s just too much cutting.
Part of me wishes that this was made as a BBC mini-series, with each episode focused exclusively on each yarn (and structured like the novel). It would allow each story to breath and help the larger meaning to come slowly into focus. I feel that someone like Krzysztof Kieślowski would have been perfect for this.
Instead we have to make do with the Wachowskis and Tom Twyker, who realise that the masses are an impatient lot and need to eat all of their cake at once. And so all the stories play out simultaneously.
At the beginning of the movie I was hopeful that this strategy would succeed. Once we get past the credits, each story is slowly introduced. Wonderful. This isn’t going to be the hyperactive mess it could be. [half an hour later] Oh fuck, they’re going crazy with the editing.
One glaring instance where the editing hurts the movie is during the Luisa Rey story. She’s a reporter who kicks a hornet’s nest at a nuclear power facility and her life ends up in jeopardy. Indeed, at one point, she’s even run off the road by the killer Bill Smoke.. In the book this works perfectly. You’ve spent time getting to know the character, you like her, you’re rooting for her and then she’s rammed off the road to her presumed death. You then have to wait a couple of hundred pages to find out what happened to her. It’s a great cliffhanger.
But in the film, the attempt on Rey’s life is intercut with other stories and the power and surprise of the moment is lost. And also, because the stories are all intercut, we immediately find out what happened to her.
The film also does a poor job of conveying the short, intense relationship between Rey and Dr Sachs (played by Tom Hanks in the movie). He meets her once, for about a minute, and next thing we know he’s on a plane, confessing his love for her before he’s assassinated. We don’t feel any of the passion between the two characters and the impact of his murder is lost. (The trailer does a far better job of conveying the emotions.)
I was also disappointed with how gimmicky the make-up looked (the actors play multiple characters). I can kind of understand the point of it. The filmmakers want to show how interconnected we all are and how we as people are tied to those who came before us and those who will live after we die. I also guess it was done for practical reasons. The film cost a massive $100m and it would have required many more actors to fill the roles had they not struck upon the idea of having a repertory (a couple more big name could have easily added a few more million to the budget). But some of the make-up looks terrible. Hugo Weaving as a woman works in a ghoulish kind of way (and suits the comic nature of the Timothy Cavendish story), and Tom Hanks as an Irish thug is surprisingly enjoyable, but Doona Bae as a white woman looks weird in the extreme, as does her as an hispanic lady. Susan Sarandon’s stunt nose in the first story is also glaringly horrible - there was absolutely no need for it and it only served to take me out of the movie.
My wife was also annoyed with the actors playing multiple roles for the broader philosophical implications. Do the characters played by each actor represent a reincarnated soul? And if so, why do some of the characters the actors play differ so wildly? Hugo Weaving seems to play nothing but pricks while Tom Hanks is all over the map (psycho, thief, lovestruck scientist, psycho, actor, hero). Personally, that aspect didn’t really bother me. I didn’t see each character played by each actor as a reincarnated soul - I just saw it as a technique; a visual way of illustrating that all of the stories (and the grander human story) are linked.
But it is a little annoying that the filmmakers decided to make more out of this element. In the novel it’s very subtle - the only suggestion is that each of the main characters has a birthmark in the shape of a comet. How does this link these people? After all, each one is connected in action - each one commits an act of rebellion or rails against an oppressive system. But does it mean that they’re the same spirit? It’s up to you.
But the movie is a lot more overt in this theme. But at the same time, it also serves to make things more confusing.
To offer a positive for the movie, I loved the story about Robert Frobisher. Rather bizarrely, the action is moved from Belgium in the novel to Edinburgh in the film (to tenuously link the story to the Timothy Cavendish one - in the movie they take part in the same building), but it’s the only tale that packs an emotional punch. The best scene in the film by a country mile is the one where the doomed composer hides from his lover while atop a spire in Cambridge. The sun is setting and Frobisher is ruined - he refuses to let his lover see him this way but spies on him for as long as he can. It’s one of the best scenes I’ve seen in a film for ages and Frobisher’s final suicide is just as powerful.
I also really enjoyed the Timothy Cavendish story. Here we get a few well-needed laughs. The highlight being the ‘injury by pussy’ scene. And although it felt a little rushed, the Luisa Rey story was also enjoyable. The murder of Sixsmith, in particular, was as strong, surprising and brutal as I hoped it would be. I just wish it would have packed more of an emotional wallop. In the book you really get the feeling of love that existed between Sixsmith and Frobisher and it has a poignancy that Sixsmith is reading these letters right before he’s killed. The movie manages to get the brutality across but misses out on the sadness.
A massive, major success for the film is the movie’s main musical theme. Having heard it in the trailer, it was somewhat annoying that it only appeared about two thirds of the way through the movie but it was amazing how significantly the film improved whenever it was used. It may be the best theme I’ve heard in a movie this decade.
It certainly ensures that the film ends on a high. Adam Ewing’s assertion that an ocean is a multitude of drops and that therefore each person has an importance and significance in the world, wouldn’t resonate as strongly without this musical theme playing.
But such moments only make the sense of disappointment harder to swallow. The Somni story, for instance, is a travesty - it’s turned into a Star Wars-esque action spectacle. And Tom Hanks as Henry Goose, trying to poison Adam Ewing, is unsubtle in the extreme. When I read the book, Goose’s malice wasn’t apparent to me at all but here it’s signposted from the beginning. And Hanks really needs to be pelted with several large hams for his acting at the end of this story.
I also found, on film, that the Sloosha’s Crossin’ story was almost completely incomprehensible. I found it really hard going in places. And the depiction of ‘Old Georgie’ was heavy-handed in the extreme.
I guess this kind of means that I give a thumbs up to the stories directed by Tom Twyker and a thumbs down to the ones directed by the Wachowskis. A couple of years ago this would have validated my smug belief that the Wachowskis are talentless hacks but they won me over with their passion for Mitchell’s book - there’s a YouTube video where they display an infectious enthusiasm for the novel. Therefore it brings me nothing but sadness to say that they failed the book - their segments are easily the weakest. I only wish now that Twyker would have got to make the whole thing.