Friday, January 18, 2013

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas (2012), dir. Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski

 Cloud Atlas is one cluttered mess of a film.  It’s comprised of six fully conceived stories, spanning several hundred years, that are constantly vacillating back and forth between one another, presumably to deliver one grand, overriding message.  After nearly three hours of screen time, that message still remains unclear, and the relationship between the stories, though presented in a fashion to suggest is a significant one, is riddled with superficiality.
       I happened to read David Mitchell’s 2004 novel of the same name, from which this film is adapted, long before I knew there was to be a film produced of it.  When I heard the Wachowskis would be making a film version, I was piqued with curiosity as to how they would pull it off.  The six stories involved, as I mentioned are fully conceived, and each one would be capable of standing on its own.  The problem this creates for the film version is a matter of giving each story its proper due.  For the both the book and the film, the task of linking them in a coherent and significant way is an extremely difficult one.  The book, in comparison to the film, was extremely subtle in doing so; the film, overt and in your face, yet both fail. 
       If you read the novel it quickly becomes apparent that it was spawned from fancies rooted in both structural and stylistic gimmickry.  From a structural standpoint, it is unique.  The book is binary, with the stories linked chronologically past to future in the first half, and in retrograde for the second half.  Stylistically, each story employs a different literary style and narrative: the first story, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, is set in the mid-nineteenth century, and as the title suggests is a journal or diary written by an American notary, chronicling his ocean voyage from the Chatham Islands in the Pacific to San Francisco.  He becomes acquainted with an English doctor, Henry Goose, who falsely diagnoses an ailment resulting from contact with a parasitic worm, in order to allow him to covertly poison Adam to gain possession of his cargo.  The second story, Letters from Zedelghem is set in Belgium in the 1930s, and is written in the form of letters.  Robert Frobisher, an aspiring composer, whose bisexuality was not made apparent to me in the book (but flaunted in the film), writes to his friend/lover in England from the home of a once-great composer whom he is acting as amanuensis to.  He ends up sleeping with the composer’s wife, and falling in love with his daughter, while at the same time arriving in dispute with the composer himself over ownership of a composition.  It all results in Frobisher’s suicide.  The connection to the previous story is that Robert Frobisher finds an incomplete published copy of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing in the composer’s home and reads it.  The third story, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is written in the style of a crime novel, à la Elmore Leonard, and is set in San Francisco in the 1970s.  It involves the story of magazine writer who exposes a conspiracy at a local nuclear energy facility.  The man who helps her is the friend/lover of Robert Frobisher, the protagonist of the previous story.  She also gains possession of the letters written to him by Frobisher, thus furthering the connection.  The fourth story, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is a comedy set in the present time, and follows a vanity publisher who flees from thugs sent after him by his gangster client.   He is maliciously committed into a nursing home by his begrudged brother.  The bulk of the story involves his escape from the nursing home.  The connection to the Luisa Rey Mystery is that the publisher has in his possession a manuscript of the same name.  The fifth story, The Orison of Somni-451 is written in the form of an interview.  It’s set roughly a hundred years in the future; in a dystopian city we gradually learn to have once been Seoul, South Korea.  The story is reminiscent of a Phillip K. Dick novel.  It relates the tale of a fabricant (a clone), Somni-451 who attempts to escape her fixed position in society.  The connection to the Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is that that story has been made into a film, which Somni-451 has viewed.  The last story, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After, which due to the author’s personalized use of heavily amalgamated dialects, is rendered almost incomprehensible.  I couldn’t make heads or tails of most of it when I read the book, and any attempts to do so resulted in intense migraines.  But I was able to gather that it took place in the even more distant future, in a post-apocalyptic world that nearly resembles that of primitive man’s.  In this fragile society they worship a goddess known as Somni, thus completing the connective chain. 
        What I have just described are the structural components and plots that comprise the book.  The plots in the movie are more or less the same—some have been slightly altered for various reasons, but the book’s mirrored binary structure has entirely been abandoned.  Instead there are constant sporadic vacillations between the six stories in the film that give the viewer the sensation that they are channel surfing.  What results is the feeling that one has attempted to watch six separate movies simultaneously.  It’s a unique experience for sure.
     The film, as I have mentioned, tries even harder than the book does to establish a profound relationship between the stories that to my mind doesn’t really exist.  Each of the protagonists possesses a unique birthmark to suggest that each one is a reincarnated version of a single spirit.  Well, the characters are so different from one another in temperament that it’s difficult to accept this explanation.  And the character of Somni-451 we are told is a fabricant (artificially created), so that trumps that plot device.  A particular gimmick the film enjoyed exploiting was the fact the principal actors play various roles in each of the six stories.  Yet, no one actor plays the reincarnated protagonist more than once.  Given the prominent exploitation of such a device, it boggles the mind that they didn't attempt to use it in a manner to where it would have been most effective--that of solidifying the relationship between protagonists.  Granted it would have posed a difficult feat to have one actor traverse both sexes and a variety of races.  Something is certainly needed, because I do believe that if it were possible to establish more cohesion between the six protagonists it probably would have made for a much better film.  Given that the book was conceived as a literary showpiece, the characters and their surrounding conditions are so distant that it makes it difficult to establish that connection.  
       Fortunately, the stories themselves are interesting enough to keep the viewer engaged, but the constant jumping back and forth makes it difficult to focus on any one story.  Personally, I only found three of the stories interesting in the book, and only two in movie.  The futuristic ones (Somni and Sloosha) I found tiresome.  This is too bad, because most of the focus is placed on these two stories.  Whoever did the set design for Somni—451 was obviously inspired by Blade Runner, but it just served to remind me that there are far better science fiction films out there.  Luisa Rey is mundane as a crime thriller, and Adam Ewing, while I much enjoyed that story in the book (mostly due to the narrative) bored me in the film.  The story of Robert Frobisher is a fascinating one, and I wish they had spent more time with it.  And the story of Timothy Cavendish is quite witty—I enjoyed it.
        There are few films like Cloud Atlas, as there are also few books.  Gimmickry, as I said in other reviews can only take you so far.  While many gimmicky films fail to provide the other necessary components to make it effective, Cloud Atlas has too many added components, and many of them unfounded.  What resulted is a highly unfocused picture, with too many cluttered elements.  I felt as though I were watching TV with a person with attention deficit disorder wielding the remote, all the while longing to snatch it away from them.               

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