Monday, November 05, 2012

Partly Cloudy

I finally made it out to see Cloud Atlas! Sadly, the movie doesn't seem to be doing well at the box office, so I figured I should catch it while it's still available. I'm glad I did - I found it very satisfying, both as an adaptation and in its own right.


Many reviews have focused on how the film casts the same actors in multiple roles. Some reviewers dislike this, saying that it's distracting and pulls you out from the movie; personally, I enjoyed it. It adds yet another dimension to what's already a nicely complex movie with a whole lot going on. The actors wax and wane in their various roles, starring in one time period and playing a minor part or just appearing as a walk-on in another period. The exception is Hugo Weaving, who gives an insanely villainous tour-de-force, appearing as a primary villain in every single storyline.

One rare weakness in the movie: Doona Bae, the Korean actress who portrays Sonmi-451, doesn't speak English terribly well. This isn't a problem at all in the Neo-Seoul portions, where it sounds right to hear English dialog in a strong Korean accent. However, it does make things a bit awkward when she plays a Westerner in some other time periods. I think her make-up is actually really impressive (particularly when she portrays a freckled red-haired lady), but the dialog does make me cringe a little.

The music is wonderful! It's much more orchestral than anything I've heard from the Wachowskis or Tywker previously; a few scenes of the Neo-Seoul period have more action-movie-sounding music, but the rest is majestically instrumental. I rarely bring the music in a film home with me, but I thought the Cloud Atlas theme was haunting, and it's still playing in my head now. I may actually buy the soundtrack, which would be the first time I've done that since the nineties. It totally makes sense that music would be a strength of the movie, given that Robert Frobisher is a composer, and Luisa Rey finds his music.

The movie plays a lot with the idea of repetition, in many different forms, as ideas and acts echo throughout time. Casting is one of the most obvious aspects of this, when we see the same actors appear in different roles. Music is another: we hear the Cloud Atlas theme early on, and catch traces of it appearing in different variations later. The movie directly borrows some elements from David Mitchell's book, such as the birthmark shaped like a comet. We're treated multiple times to some of the best dialog in the movie, as various powerful ideas are restated, often by the same actor but different characters. Some of these are depressingly cold sentiments: "The weak are meat and the strong do eat." "There is a natural order in the world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well." Others are more hopeful, uplifting ideas: "Our lives are not our own, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future." These lines resonate, growing stronger each time we hear them.

It's a funny movie, too. Most of the humor is in the Timothy Cavendish setting, but due to how the movie is cut, its comic relief gets spread around. Cavendish is as funny in the movie as he is in the book; he's a little less acerbic, more of a victim and less of a rascal (though we do get some good glimpses of that when he's trying to raise money), but they wrote some good new lines for him for the film. The theater I was in was more than happy to laugh with him. Jim Broadbent is just a great actor, taking some sayings that could be cheesy and making them wonderful.

I tend to really enjoy self-aware movies, even more so than self-aware books and much more than other forms of self-aware art. There are some fun, winking parts where the movie acknowledges its quirks. The film opens with rapid cutting between all of the six plotlines, including the end of Sixsmith, the start of Ewing, Sonmi's confession, and so on; this seems purposely designed to disorient viewers, but comes to an end when Timothy Cavendish, seated at an old-fashioned typewriter, grouses about how he "dislikes flashbacks, foreshadowing, and all sorts of tricky devices." From then on, the movie grows much better behaved, with title cards for each time period and a more sensible chronological progression within each story. There's also a fun bit where we (through Sonmi's eyes) get to see the theatrical adaptation of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. The role of Cavendish, which is played by Jim Broadbent in Cloud Atlas, is played by Tom Hanks in the film-within-a-film. It seems like... well, like you would expect a Hollywood adaptation of the movie to look like. Cavendish is strong, confident, heroic, the antithesis of the bewildered, cranky old man we know.

There's an interesting idea in the movie that... well, I suppose it might have been in the book, but it felt fresh when I saw it in this context. That Cavendish film is pretty corny, but it includes a dramatic line reading from Hanks, something like "I will not stand for this gross injustice." It seemed overly dramatic when Jim Broadbent said it originally, and comical when Hanks said it. However, that short movie clip fascinates Yoona-939, and seems to serve as a sort of inspiration in her rebellion: she quotes it after taking her independent action that moves her towards freedom. I love it. It plays into one of the major themes of Cloud Atlas, where an idea or act that one person takes ripples forward in time to have a great impact. It's also cool because it's a case of showing how art can influence life. We think of fiction (whether books or movies) as "fake," divorced from reality; but the ideas within them can have profound impacts on entire civilizations. I honestly believe that we would be living in a much darker world if George Orwell hadn't written 1984; the vivid warning of that book has helped westerners fight back against encroaching authoritarianism in democracies. (Conversely, while I was watching the previews before Cloud Atlas, including Gangster Squad and Zero Dark Thirty, I found myself wondering whether the way we depict violence in our movies impacts American attitudes towards... well, everything.)


What I REALLY want to talk about are the differences between the book and the movie. Consider this section to be filled with spoilers for both.

Like I wrote at the very top of this post, I was really impressed with the adaptation. The movie is quite long, coming in at a little under three hours (and, once you account for trailers and such, you'll be in that theater for a bit over three hours), but even with all that time, they still needed to trim the book's plot to make everything fit. I think they did a great job at accomplishing this. Some characters are dropped, some scenes excised, a few chronologies reworked, but none of the changes seemed to harm the core themes of the book and movie. It must have been a gargantuan undertaking, and they passed with flying colors.

Hm... I guess I'll tackle my major observations going in book order. Let's start with Adam Ewing!

The meeting with the pastor happens at the very beginning of the movie, unlike the book, where the captain didn't meet him until a later island. A ton of dialog was removed, but the movie kept the most important beats. I think that, with just a handful of scenes, they did a great job at capturing Adam's moral evolution. When he dines at the beginning, he demurs on the question of slavery (and, for that matter, women's liberation): he doesn't agree with the institution, but his desire to be agreeable keeps him from speaking out against it. By the end of the film, his convictions have grown strong enough for him to (politely but firmly) stand up to his father-in-law. This is probably a good place to note that I found all of the characters very believable and faithfully adapted from the book; there was nothing comparable to, say, seeing Faramir transformed into a power-hungry antagonist.

The Adam Ewing section is notable because it's a case where the movie actually adds something: we get to see Ewing return to San Francisco and be reunited with his family. I loved this part! First, it's incredibly cool to see a Barbary Coast-era San Francisco - there's just a brief shot of the city, with sparse houses on very green hills, and it made me oddly emotional. It also gives a definitive happy ending to what I had thought of as an ambiguously sinister one. As I mentioned in my review of the book, my personal crazy theory is that, after Ewing shared his journals with the captain, he was murdered before he could expose his misdeeds. It makes me much happier to think that Ewing was actually reunited with his loved ones.

Robert Frobisher's section was one of my favorites from the book, and I enjoyed the movie quite as well. While his personality was very much in keeping with the book's Frobisher - smart, arrogant, sensitive, ambitious - it did feel like they modified his sexuality. In the books, I thought of Frobisher as being about a 2 on the Kinsey scale; in the movies, it's more like a 4. He's obviously very fond of Sixsmith in both, but the movie seems to hold that relationship as being a one-true-love type of thing; in the book, his appetites were strong and varied. The movie keeps his trysts with Jocasta, but completely eliminates the Eva character. His sexuality becomes much more important in the movie, since he makes an advance on Vyvyan, and that act is what leads to their separation and his eventual suicide; I'm pretty sure that in the book, it's purely their ambitions and pride that drive them apart. I'll be honest: I thought about Lana Wachowski during these scenes, and wondered how much her own experiences might have informed this. Still, while these are changes from the book, they don't at all make this section any weaker or dull its themes. I suppose the ultimate effect is to make Frobisher even more sympathetic, and Vyvyan less so.

One very curious change from the book was to set the Frobisher section in Scotland rather than in Belgium. This seems designed so they can use Chateu Zedelghem as the retirement home in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy, which does give them a nifty repeated visual. It also seems to further disprove my crazy theory about Ewing's murder, since there's even less reason for why a Dutch captain's library would end up in a Scottish manor than a Belgian one. And I suppose it makes more sense for Frobisher to flee to Scotland than to Belgium. And explain why everyone is speaking English. So, I guess maybe I'm not so curious about the change after all. However, I do find it much harder to imagine one of Europe's most brilliant composers of the 1930s living in Scotland and meeting with German visitors there. Eh.

Halle Berry was fantastic as Luisa Rey in her section. This was one of the parts that made me think I may have mis-understood the novel, though I should re-read it and make sure. When I was reading her (many!) chapters in the book, I thought that the big plot was just that Swannekke wanted to cut costs, and then to cover up their tracks; the movie makes it very clear that the villains actually WANT the power plant to fail, and the ultimate plot is to discredit alternative energy and ensure Big Oil's continued domination. That's a cool and even more sinister plot than I had expected.

The film kept most of the brutality of the book's Luisa Rey section, with shocking murders sprinkled liberally around. One small consolation: Joe Napier gets to live. I was happy to see that Isaac Sachs dies in the movie; when I saw the trailer, I'd been briefly worried that they'd keep him as a love interest.

There's another minor shift in geography for this part of the movie: in the book, the action mainly takes place in Yerba Buena, a fictional California city that seems to be somewhere along the Central Coast. The name "Yerba Buena" does have strong associations with San Francisco, though, and in the movie they set it in The City. Man... I could say this about every part of the movie, but I LOVE how the San Francisco scenes look. The geography is cool, of course, but it's a real pleasure to see the 1970's depicted today: funky fashions, hilarious dialogue ("If all reporter chicks are like you, I might need to re-think this whole Women's Lib thing!"), gigantic cars chasing each other, an atmosphere mixed with optimism and paranoia.

The Cavendish section is streamlined, getting rid of some business like his long journey to Aurora House, but is probably the most faithful adaptation of any of the stories to film. The one significant shift here happens at the very end, where Cavendish is reunited with Ursula in a very happy ending. Cavendish is also significant because I think it's the one part in the movie that uses a voiceover. (Though, now that I think of it, most of them do retain the framing device of the book: Frobisher writes letters to Sixsmith, Luisa Rey's tales are being heard by a young Javier Gomez, Sonmi-451 is being interrogated by the Archivist, Zachry is telling stories around a campfire.)

By contrast, the Neo-Seoul part was probably the most heavily adapted. One of my few disappointments while watching the trailer was a brief scene that seemed to depict Sonmi getting rescued from Unanimity; I was worried that they would get rid of Sonmi's death and turn it into a cliche Hollywood happy ending. As it turns out, I didn't need to worry. The restructured plot just moves differently than in the book: Sonmi is captured by Unanimity fairly early on, but escapes and joins the resistance before being recaptured near the very end. Anyways... her story's beginning in Papa Song's and her end in the interrogation room were like the book's versions of those scenes, but almost everything in the middle was slightly altered. No time spent in the University, no surgical alterations, no flight to the countryside. The most significant change is probably Sonmi's lover (Hae-Joo Im in the book, though I think they might have renamed the character in the movie); in the book he's actually a very-deep-cover agent for Unanimity, facilitating a conspiracy to strengthen the government by manufacturing a crisis among fabricants. In the movie, though, I think his love and dedication are entirely genuine, and the Union's resistance is real.

Again, though: despite all these tweaks in the plot, the overall arc of the story and its moral themes remarkably remain intact. Sonmi's story is still one of freedom, and courage, of creating an identity from nothing, of discovering painful horrors and feeling compelled to risk everything in order to oppose them. I do get why they changed what they did: there just isn't enough time in a movie to include the lengthy portions of her journey, and an already-large cast would have been more overwhelming if they had included more characters. They managed to hold onto the core even while trimming what they could.

Last, but not least, Zachry. First, I want to address a common criticism I hear, that Tom Hanks is too old for the role of Zachry. It's true that, in the book, Zachry is a young man. However, one of the major points that the book makes is that, other than the Prescients, everyone left on Earth is much sicker and aging much faster than before. Only one person Zachry knows has reached the age of 40, and most members of the community believe that he only succeeded in doing so by selling his soul to the devil. So, the haggish crones we encounter are all people in their 30's. With all that in mind, I think the way Hanks looks in the movie is quite appropriate for someone Zachry's age.

The plot itself is simplified, of course, but I was impressed by how many story beats it was able to retain: the Prescients arriving (a notable occasion, but not so exciting as to make Zachry leave his goats), Meronym's imposition, the threat of the Kona, Meronym's secretive life-saving, the journey up the mountain, the Kona attack, Zachry's escape. A lot is excised or dropped as well: in the movie, the Kona attack as Zachry and Meronym are descending the mountain, and they completely get rid of the trade festival, the Senator, and Zachry's imprisonment. Those are all powerful things, and would have been great if we had a two-hour movie of Sloosha's Crossin' 'n Ev'rythin' After, but I think the movie holds up fine without them.

This section also has one other thing that's either something I totally missed from the book (very possible, especially given Zachry's language), or that was changed for the movie. I was under the impression that Meronym's visit to the island was primarily one of science: she was trying to document the environmental damage, and visited the observatory to try and retrieve information from the Old'uns. In the movie, though, she's clearly on a rescue mission. They mention off-world colonies (both here and, very briefly, in Neo-Seoul), and it sounds like Meronym is sending a distress signal so those colonists can come rescue the survivors of the Fall. They do so, and so the movie has a far more upbeat ending than the book. Sloosha's Crossin' ends with Zachry dying (at a happy old age, granted) on a new island (which I'd taken to be another Pacific island free of the Kona, but I suppose could also have been an analogue to the island Earth); in the movie, he's an old man, married to old Meronym, with grandchildren, on a far planet.

I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it's a very emotionally satisfying conclusion. It doesn't detract from the awfulness of the apocalypse that struck Earth, and still lets the people we like live happily ever after. I also really enjoyed the image of Zachry pointing into a dark sky filled with sparkling lights and showing which one is Earth; it reminded me in a good way of the excellent very end to the Mass Effect trilogy. On the other hand, I found it intellectually troubling. This definitely isn't meant to be a hard science-fiction movie, but I couldn't come up with any good explanations for how they got there. Are the colonies in the Solar System? If so, where? Are they on terraformed moons? Or are they in another star system? If so, it doesn't seem even remotely feasible that a colony could have heard their distress signal, sent a ship, and returned within a hundred years, let alone the few years it seems to have taken them. It also bugged me a bit because I'm wary of a philosophy (which, to be clear, I don't think the movie espouses) that seems to say, "It doesn't matter if we ruin the Earth's environment, because we can always head to another planet to start over." The book ends on a challenging note with a note of hope: Zachry's tribes will need to deal with sins of their ancestors for generations to come, but thanks to his bravery and decency they can do so in a safe environment. The movie ends on a much more optimistic note, where Zachry and Meronym have escaped all the problems of Earth and can start building a new society from scratch, making a fresh start based on solid morals.

So, that piece of it maybe skewed a bit brighter than the book, but it hardly ruined the movie. If anything, it further emphasizes the value of behaving morally towards one another. And I was very happy that the movie didn't shy away from the painful-yet-powerful ends to its stories. The first and last time we see Frobisher, he's committing suicide. Sonmi-451 goes to her death with grace and dignity. Isaac dies a senseless death. I'm not going to complain about Adam and Zachry finding happiness at the ends of their lives.


Good movie! It may be cliche, but the best way I can describe it is "a big-budget indie movie." It's got A-list talent, gorgeous costumes, fantastic sets, wonderful music, and futuristic special effects. It also has an incredibly complex plot, gimmicky casting, an intricate set of references, meta-awareness, and very stylish visual flair. It's a shame that it doesn't seem to be finding an audience, but it seems destined to become one of the future's cult movies. (Oh, and if you are lucky enough to catch it in the theater - you don't need to stick around ALL the way through the credits, but do at least stay until the cast is credited. It's a lot of fun to see all the roles each actor played, many of which caught me by surprise.)

No comments:

Post a Comment