Sunday, October 28, 2012

Movie review: Cloud Atlas

The publicity surrounding the release of Cloud Atlas, the collaborative cinematic adaptation of David Mitchell's most famous novel, is considerable.  Whoever it was that Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski pitched their film to has deep pockets.  You've heard of it, right?  The trailers run on the squawk box with frequency, and there's been considerable gossip in entertainment rags and the like.

I admit, after a year of mostly futile yammering at friends and coworkers about Cloud Atlas, the novel, I hoped the film would vindicate my enthusiasm.  Films are, by their nature, more accessible than novels, and a well-done film would raise interest in this great new author that I maintain is destined to live beyond our time.

So, is Cloud Atlas, the film, one of those rarest of gems?  A successful adaptation of a novel? 

I'll answer that directly.  But first, let me discuss the film as a film.

Some of the film's elements were excellent.  The set of the Luisa Rey story, 70s California, was true.  That is a time and region in my memory, and this part of the flick brought it right back to me.  On the other hand, the futuristic set in the Soonmi-451 story didn't quite work.  It lacked depth and brought to mind a mediocre Star Wars ripoff. 

The acting was another success.  All the principle cast members played multiple roles, and it is a star-studded cast:  Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, and Hugo Weaving, among others.  Tom Hanks demonstrated his enormous, versatile talent, but I felt he was miscast.  I'll come back to that in a bit.

So, in answer to my question, did Cloud Atlas succeed in transition from book to film?  --I'm afraid not.

My objections are mostly aesthetic.

Cloud Atlas, the novel, succeeded in no small part because of its ground-breaking structure.  It is 6 stories, nested within each other.  Each story has subtle similarities with the others.  Cloud Atlas, the film, tells the 6 stories simultaneously, switching between them scene to scene.  With the novel, the effect is jarring and intriguing.  With the film, it is confusing.  For viewers unfamiliar with the book, the constant shifting between stories might well bewilder.  Still, hats off to them for making the attempt, and I wouldn't say the technique kills the film.

The novel is about souls being reborn in different times and settings.  And this is the justification, I suppose for having the actors play multiple roles.  That's alright, I guess.  But I found myself distracted by it.  Puzzling out which character in each story was Hugh Grant, for example.  Or Jim Broadbent.  (I didn't have much trouble with Halle Berry, though...)

Casting Tom Hanks as Zakry meant that film-Zakry be an altogether different character than book-Zakry.  Even make-up wizards can only do so much to make a middle-aged actor look young.  It was probably a financial decision.  Having Tom Hanks at the top of the bill no doubt converts to millions of dollars at the box office.  And he's a great actor.   But these kinds of compromises get out of hand very quickly.

And in the end, there were too many of them.  Alterations to the story range from innocuous --Luisa Rey is black rather than hispanic --to unforgiveable --off-world colonies and Abolitionist conversions.

The producers made a choice, it seems. And they chose to dilute.  The concocted happy endings, made (I assume) to soothe the sensibilities of emotionally-fragile viewers, end up watering down the poignancy --the joy and horror and sorrow --that David Mitchell created in his novel.

Read the book, people.  If you want to know David Mitchell, you've got to read the book.  The film is "David Mitchell Lite."

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