Wednesday, October 24, 2012

CLOUD ATLAS: An early review from a literary perspective

David Mitchell is one of my absolute favorite writers, and Cloud Atlas is among my favorite novels. It was my top pick for 2004, and it made my Top 10 Best of the Decade list a few years back. I've previously blogged about my unusual first encounter with Mr. Mitchell while he was touring for Cloud Atlas. Good times!

Anyway, considering my love of the novel, you can imagine that I've been looking forward to the film with equal measures of anticipation and trepidation. You always want the film to do the source material justice, but it's rare that it actually happens. And especially when you're looking at as complex a novel as Cloud Atlas. It was said by many to be unfilmable, and if asked, I would have agreed.

And I would have been so very wrong. What Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer have achieved is nothing short of astounding. I'll cut to the chase and tell you that I LOVED this film. It will surely be my favorite of the year.

Have you read Cloud Atlas? The novel has a very unusual structure. Mitchell's an experimental writer. The novel is composed of six linked stories taking place in six different time periods and comprised of six different literary genres. Yeah, that's not too ambitious. The novel opens with the most distant story in the past, a 19th century adventure at sea. Halfway through, the story ends abruptly, mid-sentence. Next, we're at the home of a once-eminent European composer in the early 20th century. That, too, ends abruptly, and now we're embroiled in a mystery in early 1970's San Francisco. But halfway through the tale just stops and we're on to a high comedy set in the present day. After reading half of Timothy Cavendish's dreadful ordeal, we're suddenly in the science fiction world of futuristic and dystopian Seoul--for half a story. And finally, we're in far-distant, post-apocalyptic Hawaii, in a tale written entirely in pigeon English. And at last, the story goes all the way through to the end, after which the second half of the Seoul story commences, followed by all the others.

The film is... totally not like that. It's structured completely differently, with quick scenes from all six stories rapidly juxtaposed against each other. There is constant shifting. It's an amazing way to tell the tale(s), but it works. It more than works. It really drives home the novels abstract themes of connectedness. After the film, one of the things we commented upon was the staggering job of editing this film. I can't imagine what went into it, but it was masterful.

What these three writer/directors--apparently with limited input from Mr. Mitchell--did with this screenplay is extraordinary. It is brilliant. Now, it's been eight years since I read the novel, so my memory of the details is not so fresh, but by my reckoning, the screenplay was remarkably true to Mitchell.  I recognized dialogue taken verbatim from the novel.  Yes, there were elisions, but they were minor. The composer's daughter was removed entirely. She's a character that stands out in my mind due to a memorable later cameo in Mitchell's Black Swan Green, but you know what? She was superfluous. The film didn't need her. I'm sure there were other minor changes, but nothing at all that made me cry foul. No, as I watched the film, memories of the novel came flooding back in the most wonderful way. These filmmakers did a magnificent job of realizing the world(s) that David Mitchell had created.


The film boasts an impressive a-list cast that includes Tom Hanks, Hallie Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and so many others. And you've never seen these actors like this. No one has. Go to IMDB and read the cast credits. They're all double, triple, quadruple, quintuple, and sextuple cast! You can't possibly catch or recognize all of their iterations. The actors change race, nationality, and gender across the roles. The makeup work is magical, and if the film doesn't win the Oscar, there is simply no justice. Trying to spot Hugh Grant (mostly in smaller supporting roles) buried under old man or cannibal makeup is all kinds of fun, but this is far more than Hollywood stunt casting. The casting reflects the novels themes. It gets the message across at times almost subliminally. It also gives these stars the opportunity to really stretch their acting muscles.  Tom Hanks brings down the house in a brief comic turn as a thuggish author. When have we seen this actor play so many different colors in a single film? It reminds viewers of just how good he is. Oh yeah, that's what those Oscars were for. The same can be said of much of the cast. I strongly encourage you to stay for the credit--at least long enough to see the photos of the actors in their many roles flash by. You will be shocked by what you missed. THAT was Hallie Berry? you'll find yourself thinking.

Oh, and look for author Mitchell in a cameo as a "Union Spy." I didn't catch him, but I'll be on the lookout next time. Because I plan to see this film many, many times. There's just too much to take in. I'd venture I'll catch something new every time I see this film in years to come. Even at the lengthy running time of 2:42, I was ready to walk right back in the theater and start over from the beginning. The film held me transfixed, and I can't wait to see it again. Not to mention, I've already got a wish list in my mind of DVD extras!

I don't generally write movie reviews, but Cloud Atlas has inspired me. The ideas, the themes, the imagery of David Mitchell's wonderful and ground-breaking novel have sprung to life. It is magical. I attended an advance screening with several members of my book group the other night, and there was equal enthusiasm from those who had read the novel, and those who hadn't. Among my group, there were six thumbs way up, and one lonely dissenter--but she can write her own review. Mine is an unqualified rave. Go. See. This. Film.


  1. Oh, I have been waiting for a review like this! I have to admit I've read so many things about the book that I'm ping ponging between must have it, must read it now, and total fear and intimidation!

    So one thing, Susan -- if I see the movie first, will it ruin the book for me? Should read it before seeing the film?

    (Oh, and since I zipped over to read your linked post, I have a sneaking suspicion that I've actually read SLEEPER as well!)

  2. Hey Becky,

    Thanks for your comment! I have to admit, as a book person, this is the review that I'd want to read, as well. I'm glad it was of interest.

    As for your conundrum, if you'd asked me before I saw the film, I would have emphatically advocated reading the novel first. I still emphatically encourage you to read the novel. But I'm not sure it has to be first. The film and novel are very different animals, and they both play fantastically to the strengths of their mediums. It's a great film to see on the big screen, and if waiting until you've read the novel means watching it on DVD, I say see the movie while it's still in theaters--and then go back and read the book. It'll stil be well worth your while.

    And, LOL, about Sleeper! We are clearly serious literary ladies. Isn't that a funny story about Mitchell?

  3. He sounds like a blast! Here I am wondering if he's been in my area (in my time here) and if I've sadly missed him!

    Good to know re the movie vs book -- with it starting this weekend I'm still semi contemplating running out to get a copy, but now at least I know I won't need to rush.

    (And we are certainly serious literary ladies!)

  4. Was already excited for the movie, and now I'm absolutely stoked! Thought it had so much potential, and it's great to hear that it has been realized. :-D

  5. Come back, Becky, E.J., (and anyone else) and share your thoughts after seeing the film. I sure hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I know there's always danger in over-hyping and raised expectations, but I genuinely loved the film.

  6. I haven't read the book, but I know that it's complicated. I was curious to see if the film could pull it off. You sound completely satisfied. and now I'm curious

  7. Sounds absolutely brilliant, Susan! I loved the book and this sounds like a fantastic movie. I actually recognised the eyes of that soldier (or whatever he is) and when you mentioned Hugh Grant, I knew this had to be him. I hope I won't be looking out for all these actors but rather enjoy the story itself!

  8. Good review Susan. This movie definitely isn't as smart or mind-boggling as it may think, but it sure as hell is entertaining to watch and I couldn't keep my eyes away from the screen. It was weird, though, because I didn't really feel anything when it was all over.

  9. I've seen Cloud Atlas twice now (I'd also read the novel twice, in 2006 and 2011) and agree with a lot of your observations. I had certain issues with the novel AND with the film, but each is worthwhile. In some cases the film's editing stripped certain plots of cardboard characters and plot cliches (the Luisa Rey story springs to mind)... and I also preferred the Frobisher plot without the left-field complication of Eva. The Sonmi and Zachry plot were more fully realized in the novel, simply because they took more time to unfold. But nothing was substantially damaged in translation. Also, if you want to spot David Mitchell's cameo, he's seen twice, very briefly, in the Sonmi plotline: once he passes the lead characters as they go out a door and down a flight of stairs, then later he's on hand for Sonmi's execution, to the right of Boardman Mephi. Apparently it's a bit of meta-humor about being her true "killer" as an author. ;)