Review: Cloud Atlas (2012 Film)

Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, & Andy Wachowski.
Screenplay by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, & Andy Wachowski.
Based on the novel by David Mitchell.

If you follow my reviews, you’ll know that I recently reviewed the novel Cloud Atlas (find that here). Having read the book, and given that a trailer for the film was what turned me onto reading it in the first place, I then set out to see the film. I found it to be an excellent adaptation, all things considered. Things were changed, sometimes significantly, but a straight translation would have been impossible to pull off. In every case I could see why they made the decisions they did and it made sense. This is a very unique movie, and not one you can watch casually. It will take a significant amount of brainpower just to follow the six different stories being presented simultaneously, let alone the various themes and recurring elements tying everything together. You may want to watch it a second time. Maybe more. For spoiler-free rundowns on the six interrelated stories, check out my review of the book. They didn’t change things enough to render them irrelevant, and I don’t really feel like reproducing them here. Oh! Except that Zachry is not a young boy in the film but instead is played by Tom Hanks.

First things first: I absolutely loved it. How much of that had to do with the fact that I enjoyed the book I cannot say, but I highly recommend both versions of this tale. That said, they are two very different experiences. The book, briefly, is structured as a Russian nested doll–six stories, each breaking off at the halfway point and the next beginning until you reach the last one, then revisiting each story in reverse order. Picture six loosely-connected novellas arranged chronologically, then each one opened to the middle and stacked on top of each other. While the film tells the same stories, its structurally more of a mosaic, cutting from era to era in such a way as to emphasize thematic parallels or moments of recurrence. For example, we cut from our dystopian-future tale where our heroes are running across a narrow bridge to the South Pacific where another character is racing through the rigging of a sailing clipper ship. A lot of subplots got cut and elements of the main plots were cut up or rearranged to streamline the flow and allow everything to happen within a reasonable runtime, and the entire ending of the Somni-451 tale was rewritten so that it better fit the thematic emphasis of the film. Additionally, whereas the reincarnation of a single “soul” across all six stories in the book was a minor theme, the film decided to make this a major element of the film and highlight it by casting the same actors in most/all (depending on the actor) of the stories. Thus the reincarnation theme links each character played by a particular person instead of the six protagonists. I have to say, this was a very risky decision on the part of the filmmakers, but for my money it paid off. I’ll say more about this when I talk about the actors and the makeup jobs.

The performances from the various cast members were simply phenomenal. It takes a lot of skill to convincingly play one character in a film, let alone six unique and complicated characters….at the same time. A lot of credit is also due to the makeup department for the work they did, especially in turning changing actors/actresses sexes or white actors asian and vice versa. Turning the asian actresses white didn’t work quite as well–Doona Bae’s character in 1800s California looked very exotic, for example. She was incredibly beautiful, but I don’t think anyone would mistake her for fully caucasian. (Please understand this is not meant in any way to promote racism–the fact is that certain racial backgrounds come with distinct facial characteristics. Not better, not worse, just different. Everyone on board? Good, lets stop wasting time….) In fact, even if nothing else in this review grabs you, you should see this film just for Hugo Weaving (Lord of the Rings’ Elrond, The Matrix’s Agent Smith) as the tyrannical female head nurse at a retirement home.

This film is rated R, for good reason. There is some disturbing violent content that is a bit gory, the language is definitely R-rated (though not as bad as many other films I’ve seen), and there is some sexual content and nudity. I didn’t find it gratuitous, as in every case it served to advance the plot, enhance the worldbuilding or even evoke certain thematic elements, but viewers should be advised nonetheless.

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