I would be hard pressed to think of a book more difficult to turn into a movie than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
Mitchell’s book follows six plots from six eras of history. The stories are about, in chronological order, a man working on a slaveboat in the 19th century who has a crisis of conscience, an aspiring composer from the 1930s who must hide his homosexuality, a reporter in 1970s California who uncovers a deadly plot involving a nuclear power plant, an English man from the present day kept prisoner in a nursing home, a cloned fast-food slave from 22nd-century Korea who attempts an escape, and a man in post-apocalyptic Hawaii trying to protect his village from a predatory tribe. The plots are loosely connected by hints that some characters are reincarnations of the same soul.
As if turning that into a film weren’t hard enough, the book has a pita-sandwich structure, with the earliest story beginning and ending the book, the second coming second and second-to-last, etc. Only the chronologically-last story is unbroken in the middle, with the others cutting off abruptly, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.
When I saw the film version of Cloud Atlas over the weekend, I was amazed that the Wachowskis managed to turn the book not only into a coherent film, but an entertaining, thoughtful one. This took some serious story-telling skills and imagination (they are, after all, the directors of The Matrix), but also a talented cast and great stories to work from.
The movie abandons the pita-sandwich structure of the book. I imagine this was a difficult decision for the filmmakers, but the right one. They would be asking a lot of the audience to wait three hours (the movie clocks in at 2 hours and 50 minutes) to see the conclusion of the story that began the film. Instead, the directors and editors spliced together the six stories in parallel, matching their expositions, climaxes and denouements. In a feat that surely drew a lot of sweat from the screenwriters, editors and directors, they made this work. Although the pacing lags a bit near the end, they put the stories together in a way that makes their common themes clear and keeps the viewer hooked.
As in the case of all their work, the Wachowskis use their imaginative prowess to take the film to a higher level than the average Hollywood thriller, especially in their depiction of the 22nd-century Korea in which a “corpocratic” government rules over a mass of depraved consumers. A clone named Sonmi who is enslaved in a McDonald’s-style restaurant goes on the lam after glimpsing an inspiring movie clip on a customer’s phone. While reading the book, I savored every detail of this fascinating dystopia, and I felt the same way during the movie. The Wachowskis use special effects to create a brilliant vision of a brutal future that made me wish I could pause the movie to get a better look at Neo Seoul. The setting rivaled the Los Angeles of Blade Runner and the vast human-farms of the original Matrix in its horrible wonder.
Another ingredient of the glue that holds these plotlines together is the cast. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon play different characters in each of the stories, helping the viewer understand their cosmic connections. I especially enjoyed watching Tom Hanks show a versatility I didn’t know he had. I’ve always thought he had a knack at giving movies a moral center with down-to-earth roles, but here he pulls off a wild range of personalities – an evil doctor on a slave boat, a slimy hotel clerk, a conscientious nuclear scientist, a cockney tough-guy, and a schizophrenic tribal leader who speaks a pidgin future American English.
The Wachowskis were also successful in translating the themes of the book to the screen, if in a more digestible form. Each of the six stories follows characters who make the difficult choice to go against the grain of their historical setting to do what’s right. Obviously, the goodwill of the characters doesn’t keep society from going bonkers – that’s evident even from the trailer or the description on the back of the book. The message of the movie and the book is that even futile acts of charity are worthwhile because they elevate the human soul to an ether above worldly matters. Watching these stories, I felt the same revolutionary thrill as when Neo kills the agents at the end of The Matrix.
I was motivated to write this review by the lukewarm reception the movie has received elsewhere. I was bewildered by this, because Cloud Atlas got an emphatic check mark next to every entry on my list of what a movie should be. It was fun, it featured interesting characters, it transported me to different worlds, and it gave me something to think about after I left the theater.