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27 October 2012 @ 12:22 am
Film Review: Cloud Atlas  
You all have to forgive me because I indulged myself with a long review. If you don't want to slog through the whole thing and just want the non-spoilery version, I'll say that the movie was about as successful as a film adaptation of the novel could be. It wasn't perfect but dammit did the directors ever try and created some truly wonderful moments.

The cross gender/race swapping was not as bad as I feared. It was more distracting than anything else but I did continue to have some strong feelings regarding the lack of a single Asian male actor in a major role. And I get more into that in the longer review. Which by the way, here we go.


It seemed inevitable that if you were going to try and adapt a novel like Cloud Atlas, the famously "unfilmable" novel that spans countries, eras, stories, and genres, you're going to have to be willing to edit some stuff down. It's a novel that other than its wide-reaching stories allows the reader to ponder the great themes of life by reading about these various characters, each with their own unique journey. It's a lot to ask of a novel and it's even more to ask of a film. So you have to assume the film adaptation would be somewhat reductive. But the shocking thing was that the Wachowski siblings and Tykwer actually tried to tackle IT ALL. In one 3 hour movie, they attempted to make statements about love, reincarnation, retribution, morality, courage, growth, belief, faith, race, gender...I mean, they really tried to cover it all. And they were somewhat successful.

This film should be shown as a masterclass in skillful editing. It's trying to juggle 6 stories in as interconnected a way as possible while propelling them all forward at enough of a similar pace so that each one reaches its climax at the same time. And somehow it all works. Many of their sudden cuts to another story echoed for me the feelings I had when reaching the novel and it would cut off mid-sentence like a cruel, cruel cliffhanger.

The visuals in this film, as the trailer promised, were amazing in parts. From the more surreal moments such as the action sequences in Neo-Seoul and Frobisher and Sixsmith in the china shop to the straightforwardly beautiful shots of Autua at the sails, the film is rife with gorgeous imagery.

The acting in general was also top notch across the board. Everyone pulled their weight and yes, while Tom Hanks and Halle Berry dominated most of the screen time, they hardly overshadowed the other performances. The author, David Mitchell actually got 2 cameos in the film which I managed to spot. Bonus points for anyone who sees the film who can tell me where he was and who he played. But here with the casting is where I go into what I found to be an issue.

So, I'd already written at length about my feelings on the cross-race acting in this film when the images of the various actors in make up came out. And having watched this film, I will grant that the directors really tried to make this about diversity, equality, and everything else that's positive when it comes to race. Some of the make up was more successful than others so at times I found it distracting to watch certain scenes when I KNEW for exactly that it was clearly Doona Bae, an Asian actress made up to look White...poorly. But it wasn't as offensive to the degree that I feared it would be. However, I did continue to have some fairly angry feelings around the lack of male Asian actors. Look, I can maybe get on board the cross-race acting but it was extremely glaring to me that not a single Asian male actor was in a notable role in this film. Considering that 1 story is set entirely in neo-Seoul, this lacking was kind of startling to me. Given that there is now a pretty sizable pool of known actors of Asian descent, why couldn't we get one to say, play Adam Ewing as well as Hae-joo? I'm not putting down Jim Sturgess' overall performance but I found it rather uncomfortable how the 3 directors were blind to lack of representation. It reminded me too much of the general invisibility Asian men seem to have in media regarding roles that are of the heroic variety. So yeah, I did take major points off for that.

My other critique of the film is that toward the end, it felt a little like the directors realized they'd taken on too much. Thus all the large complex themes of life itself got rapidly distilled down to the After School Special Message that we are all equal human beings deserving of love and freedom. And therefore we should all fight against those who tell us otherwise and even if we don't see immediate results it doesn't matter. Because WE MATTER. All of us. Because we are human.

Critics of the novel often speak about how there didn't seem to be a point to Mitchell's book. He makes readers work through 6 different narratives and for what? Well, I'd argue to the critics that the point is that life isn't simple with a pat answer. We can aspire to certain ideals of love, equality, and freedom but since we are human we will all inevitably to some extent fail to reach such ideals. The novel, in the end, refuses to be tidy. Not so for this film. I'm sure for some, the fact that the film has a pretty concise message is a relief. You did have to sit through 3 hours. But I tend to react badly when films start cramming messages down my throat which what the last 20 minutes felt like. It was all the more apparent that for all the complexities of life the film hinted at the start of the film, its ending really does distill it all down to a pretty sophomoric philosophy. Some of the most hackneyed lines are in service to this, most of which are in the trailer. 

So now that I've done an overview review, I'm going to be ridiculous and do mini-reviews for each of the 6 stories. This is the point where the big spoilers come in.

Adam Ewing's Story
Gorgeously shot, nicely acted. Its conclusion was altered quite heavily from what I remember in the novel. In the book there was no reunion with his beloved wife (although there's some hinted hope) and nothing about Ewing's sudden stance against slavery. This story along with the Sonmi story probably suffered the most due to the concluding MESSAGE the film gave us. But this was also the only story that followed through with the directors' concept of how a soul might change and become better as time went on. As Dr. Goose, Tom Hanks was truly greedy and evil, but by the time he got to Zachry, he'd become capable of being a hero. It's just a shame that literally no other soul had this kind of journey in the film, which further simplified the MESSAGE by making the evil souls remain evil while the good ones remain good.

Robert Frobisher's Story
This story was one of the much better adapted ones. The filmmakers actually paid greater due to Rufus Sixsmith, a character I constantly asked questions about in my head when reading the novel as well as the love between him and Frobisher. Despite Frobisher and Sixsmith only getting two scenes together, their bond is so apparent that you desperately wish for them to have a happy ending, despite knowing kind of early on that it most likely won't happen. Frobisher's story in the novel ends with his last letter to Sixsmith letting him know he's off to shoot himself. The film actually takes us all the way to Sixsmith finding Frobisher's body and I'm not exaggerating when I say people in the theater (my friend included) started crying. Ben Whishaw wasn't visually my first choice for Frobisher but his performance more than won me over. He wasn't the more casually cruel, irreverent Frobisher of the novel and the filmmakers made him much more sympathetic which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Just different. And I gave major acting awards to James D'Arcy for playing Sixsmith sort of perfectly. I'll never get over his reaction to finding Frobisher.

Luisa Rey's Story
Not a favorite of mine when reading it but on screen it was kind of kick ass from the wonderfully rendered 1970s to Luisa working to take down an evil corporation. The story got a little rockier when it had to play its part toward the larger ultimate endgame story of Tom Hanks' Zachry ending up with Halle Berry's Meronym. But other than that minor bump, the rest of it was incredibly well done. We also got through this story in both the novel and film, Sixsmith's ultimate fate.

Timothy Cavendish's Story
This one featured Hugo Weaving as a female nurse, clearly for laughs much like the story in general. If I had to pick one story that translated almost exactly from page to screen as I saw it, it was probably this one. Amidst all the more serious, dramatic stories, this one was a breath of fresh air with Cavendish trying to escape a militant nursing home. The entire sequence of him and his fellow residents planning and executing their escape was note perfection. My heart was racing about as much as it did when I was reading it. If there was any moment during the film where I felt like cheering aloud, it was when the car crashed through the gates.

Sonmi-451's Story
This one for me started out wonderfully and got increasingly disappointing. And yes, a lot of it had to do with the casting that I already discussed. But the story itself got altered to showcase a love between Sonmi and Hae-joo that ultimately gives Sonmi the strength to do what she does. To be frank, it was cheesy. Especially considering that the book had a much more ambiguous tone to their relationship. I actually thought the directors missed a golden chance here to show us how souls can sometimes evolve in the positive direction (like Goose to Zachry) or in a negative direction. The novel hints at the idea that despite Hae-joo developing genuine feelings for Sonmi, he ultimately is the one to betray her to the government. In the movie, Hae-joo is almost a Gary Stu in how wonderful and kick ass he is in a fight. So of course when he dies in a blaze of heroic glory, Sonmi sheds the silent, despairing tears and vows to love him for all eternity. It would have been interesting to consider that Ewing's soul began as a person of integrity and courage to do the right thing but along the way as Hae-joo became less so. But again, this story sort of fell under the axe of the directors pushing forward the soul mates concept between Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae as they did with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.

Zachry's Story
This one bookends the film and in my opinion the dullest one of the lot. I will give the film credit that they actually kept the altered language with the slang that Mitchell used in the novel. That's a pretty ballsy move considering that many readers of the novel threw up their hands in despair when they got asked to basically learn a new language of sorts. When I read that section I had to really concentrate and it took me awhile to get into the rhythm of it all. So I do applaud the filmmakers for not taking the easy way out and just having the characters speak in plain English. But having said that, the story as it was told in the context of Zachry and Meronym's burgeoning love (so not at all in the book for reasons of Zachry being a teenager and Meroynm being a woman in her 50s) was kind of boring.

So, that's about it. I apologize for the sheer length of this review but I couldn't help myself ultimately. The film managed to surprise me in a good way at many moments. Even when I knew narrative-wise what was to come, the acting, cinematography, and the sequences still blew me away. Fans of the novel should give it a viewing. And for those who haven't read the novel, it's not a bad way to spend 3 hours. It isn't perfect. But what work ever is?

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zireael07zireael07 on December 2nd, 2012 10:44 am (UTC)
This is a brilliant review!
formerly lifeinsomniacjoonscribble on December 2nd, 2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
Thanks!