Monday, November 19, 2012

Cage Match: Cloud Atlas The Movie

One of my favorite books of the last few years was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Another one was David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I actually liked better, but that's a different cage match.

So when it was announced that they would make a movie of Cloud Atlas, the friend that so feverishly pressed Cloud Atlas into my hands and I made a date to go see it. I understood why Hollywood would want to get it's hands on this book - each story is steeped in an exciting visual world; A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilization.

Who wouldn't want to take a crack at those worlds, the fact that each story has it's own climax that manages to encompass the very best of some kind of genre be it murder mystery, espionage, dark comedy prison break, futuristic sci-fi - makes it even more visually appealing. This book manages to incorporate every single genre in huge muscular and bold storytelling, while at the same time being deft and delicate. There are hints at reincarnation and all the stories are linked by the written or recorded history of the story before it.

It's not as mind-boggling as it seems. It's very cool and beautifully written.

So, I loved the book. I LOATHED the movie.

Eileen read the book and LIKED the movie. So, we're taking it to the cage match.

Here are the things I liked about the movie:

1. Tom Hanks. Honestly, it's hard not to like him. Particularly since he seemed like he was having so much fun.
2. The reincarnation bit was made more clear by the fact that many characters surface and play different parts in all the stories. Makes an appealing case for the idea that there are people we are bound to, no matter what.
3.The visual storytelling of some of these worlds was really satisfying. The sci-fi shoot outs and the 1970's espionage - all very cool.
4. Hugo Weaving is a great bad guy in any time or place...
5. The vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors was BRILLIANT!! It was filmed exactly as it was written and hats off to Hollywood for leaving it alone.

Things I hated:

1. The reincarnation bit got super heavy-handed with a set of star-crossed lovers that really didn't hold up for me. I think if I hadn't read the book, it might have really worked, but having read the book, it stretched things too far.

2. The stories take place in lots of different times and places - one of the big ones is future Korea and with all of the characters playing parts in all the stories they made a choice to make every one look Korean. And then they took the one Korean actress who played many roles and tried to make her look Caucasian in another story. It wasn't just distracting - it was ridiculous and offensive. It seemed like blackface to me, it was so bad. Be bold enough to let the actors just be the actors instead of giving them terrible makeup. This really really bothered me because it just tore me totally out of the story.

3. In standard Hollywood fashion they had to tie up a lot of the loose ends that the book leaves enticingly loose. They had to give Tom Hanks and Halle Berry an ASININE happy ending with them as grandparents. Tom Hanks even urges a kid to "Help old Grampy Up." So so so so so hamhanded. There was also another bookending on another story with the sailor in 1850 coming home to his wife (the Korean actress with terrible makeup) and then defying his father in law regarding a plantation contract. Both of those things were so jarring in their simplicity - it felt like some studio head popped their head in and said "make it happy folks!"

So - I say read the book. Skip the movie. Eileen?


Eileen said...

I liked the book, but I didn't love it. I thought the structure was interesting and Mitchell's writing was extremely good. I'm always impressed when an author can switch tones and genres and make them all sound so natural and real.

I didn't love the book, though. While the structure was interesting, I also felt it kept me from really connecting with any of the characters too deeply. Also, I felt the reincarnation theme in the book would have been more interesting if it had seemed like the characters had learned anything from their past lives. Since each character finds something form previous the previous character's life (except maybe Zachry - I can't remember any letters or movies or journals that he found) that somehow those messages could have somehow informed them or helped them grow or change. It was disappointing to me that they didn't. Or maybe did it so subtly that I missed it.

At the end of the book, I found myself thinking that it was a fine piece of writing, but I wasn't sure what the point of it was.

Watching the movie, I got the point. By letting a lot of detail fall away (it's a big book and there's no way to put it all in there), it allowed the more central themes to shine through. The connections between the overlapping stories became clearer to me.

I will grant you that a lot of the makeup was SUPER distracting. Not just the things you mention, but Hugh Grant as Cavendish's brother? Eek. Halle Berry as Jocasta Ayers? I couldn't stop staring at their rubbery faces. Although at the end of the movie, I did love seeing all the different characters that each actor played. I had no idea it was Berry as the wizened old doctor with the mechanical eye in Sonmi's story or Grant as the Kona warrior to name a few.

The movie did leave some of the same ambiguities. What happened after Sonmi that led to her statue being everywhere, but civilization being gone?

I wasn't as bothered by the Berry/Hanks ending. I felt something similar was implied by the end of the book. The movie just got the ponies all the way back in the barn. The thing Adam Ewing and his father-in-law was a little overly moralizing. I'll grant you that.

I did wonder how someone how hadn't read the book could follow the movie with its rapid cuts between the 6 story lines, but two of the people I was there with hadn't read the book and said they were a little confused at first, but mainly got it.

So that's my stand. Anyone else want to weigh in? Maureen, you saw the movie. Did you read the book?

Maureen McGowan said...

Yes, I only saw the movie and on the book front only had Molly's gushing to go on. And based on the few things she'd told me, I was super excited about the movie and knew it would be somewhat confusing and very long.

I liked the movie, but didn't love it. It did make me want to read the book... And it seems kind of crazy that they tacked happy endings onto two stories that didn't have them in the book. I, too, can now see the meeting where the Wachowskis were probably forced into doing that... because it doesn't seem like a choice they'd make based on their other films.

Great cage match girls!!!

Eileen said...

Oh, wait. Duh Zachry worshipped Sonmi! Which in the movie was interesting to me as her story was so much about what makes someone human. I really felt like her monologue brought that message home. And it made me look at the other characters' stories in a different light.

What makes us people? What drives us to strive for more? For dignity for everyone?

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