October 27, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is a novel that any sane person would consider unfilmable. It consists of six interlinked stories set in vastly different times and places and each told in a different literary genre:

1. A young lawyer travels to the South Pacific on business and has a harrowing ship voyage home: told in the style of 19th-century realism in the form of a travel diary.

2. An impoverished, unknown composer finds work as an amanuensis to a world-famous composer and tries to advance his work amid love affairs: told in the form of letters between lovers.

3. A journalist in the 1970s follows a trail of clues to a dark secret about a nuclear plant: told in the style of a detective novel.

4. A self-centered and profligate publisher entreats his rich brother for help and finds himself the victim of a cruel prank: told in the style of a contemporary comic novel.

5. A clone in 22nd-century Asia joins a rebellion against the totalitarian government: told in the style of science fiction.

6. A primitive tribe in Hawaii battles for survival against a nearby tribe of barbarians: I'm not sure what I would call the genre of this section, but it's almost anthropological.

The movie adaptation was released this weekend and is an amazing success, considering the odds against it. It's hard to say how it would be experienced by someone who hasn't read the novel. But for someone who has read and loved the novel, the movie is everything you could hope for. Most important, it captures the epic feel of the novel and its monumental themes: the endless cycles of greed and inhumanity to which we subject each other, the moments in which we choose to fight back, the saving grace of love and empathy. The biggest change from the novel is the movie's structure, which cuts the stories together instead of presenting them sequentially. This works beautifully and provides opportunities for the filmmakers to elide scenes and stories, to mash up camera angles and juxtapose situations, actions, and even settings.

The acting is likewise fantastic. Because the same actors are used in all the stories, the temptation to engage in what my friend Julie calls "Where's Waldo" is a bit of distraction: You spend a certain amount of time thinking, "Which actor is that? Is that Hugh Grant under the tribal makeup? Oooh, that's the same girl as the other story." But it's a small price to pay for the effect that this layering of identities provides, and the actors truly transform themselves from role to role, not just with makeup and accents but their whole bearing.

The theme of the movie is summed up in a statement that recurs several times in the film: "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."  Even looking at the six images above, you can see how the movie embodied these themes: look at the positioning of each pair, and you can see opposition, camaraderie, competition, unity.

It's a great achievement, and I'm so grateful for the care and skill that the directors and producers put into creating this humane and beautiful work.

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