Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

At the end of Cloud Atlas, I quipped, “I’m not sure if I just saw one good movie, or six mediocre ones.” To be honest, I’m kind of leaning towards the latter.

Cloud Atlas is a movie setting out to be an epic, created by the Wachowskis (the duo that brought you The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run, which I haven’t seen yet). It’s set up with six loosely connected stories that lead from the 1800s to the distant future (cited as the 24th century in the credits). It’s based on the book by David Mitchell.

The primary twist of the film version of Cloud Atlas is that the same actors are reused to play all of the main characters in every world. This has some interesting consequences that I’ll talk about throughout this review.

This is going to be a long one, but then Cloud Atlas was a long movie, at nearly three hours…though that’s only thirty minutes per story, if you break it up that way. In order to make the review more enjoyable I’ve decided to include a meme, image macro, or comic at the start of each section; somehow I think the movie’s choice of mixing everything together would not be a great idea here.1

Some sections of the review have spoilers, which will look like this. Mouse over the black box to reveal the text.

Six Stories or One?

Use ALL the genres!

My friend warned me beforehand that Cloud Atlas was going to get a little crazy, with all its different plotlines, and strongly suggested that I at least look up a summary of what they all were ahead of time, so I could have them straight in my mind. So being me, I didn’t do this at all, wanting to see how well it worked in the movie.

And for me, it wasn’t so bad. For the most part, the different styles of clothing and different settings kept the different plotlines very separate. Cloud Atlas didn’t have the drastic color palette differences that some movies use to make things different (cf. Attack of the Clones alternating between Kamino’s rain and Naboo’s sun), but after you figured out what the six plotlines were, figuring out where this particular scene went wasn’t so hard…

…for me. Since my grandma complained about the jumpiness in Alien, she probably would have been very frustrated here, and this time I wouldn’t have blamed her.

The thing was, though, it wasn’t just six different settings. It really was six different plotlines, six different genres:

  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: sea voyages, “unlikely friendship”, one kind of anti-slavery
  • Letters from Zedelghem: tortured genius
  • Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery: mystery, minor action, a little campy
  • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: comedy, a bit of heist
  • An Orison of Sonmi~451: sci-fi, totalitarian government, another kind of anti-slavery
  • Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After: different sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, medieval combat

(names found on Wikipedia, though I assume they’re from the original book)

And the thing about that is that taken individually, each of the stories has been done better. Oh, I appreciated the fact that Robert Frobisher (the protogonist of “Zedelghem”) was bisexual. I appreciated Timothy Cavendish’s blustering, self-aggrandizing narration. But basically these are all stories we’ve seen before (even within each genre I got a sense of “Use ALL the tropes!” as well), and while they’re not done poorly here, not in the least, that alone wouldn’t be enough to make this a standout movie.

(One interesting thing is the wavering border between science fiction and fantasy, which I’ve rambled about before. Basically, “Sloosha’s Crossin’” has more in common with “The Fellowship of the Ring” than “Sonmi~451” in setting, style, and plot, and yet it’s still considered “science fiction” like the latter.)

So, it has to be the connections between each story, and over the whole arc, that make the movie good. Right?

I see what you did there!

Stories about how the same six thirteen people keep acting out the same story throughout history are not uncommon, and are fairly interesting. Stories about how different people keep acting out the same story is also interesting. And stories about how the same people keep meeting but then act out different stories is also interesting.

But Cloud Atlas is a story about how different people meet throughout history and do different things. The connections between times are fairly tenuous.

As for the actual connections between times, well, most of them were just “oh, that’s cute”. Frobisher reads Ewing’s journal. Rey gets Frobisher’s letters (quite a lot of information!) and listens to his symphony. Cavendish reads the manuscript for the novel about Rey. It’s the inspiration of Yoona~939 by Cavendish’s movie, and then the portrayal of Sonmi~451 as a god in the final future, that really mean something, though, but I can’t draw anything from it except “sometimes our actions have farther-reaching consequences than we know”. I would have liked to see this played out more in the earlier stories.

Apparently in the novel, the connections between times are how we get from one time to the next, but with the directors’ decision to skip around much more in the movie this whole aspect got weakened.

How about everything else? There were a number of objects and concepts that kept appearing in each story, most notably the number six. (I’m not counting the comet birthmark, which is deliberately called out but the least interesting of the motifs.) I have a feeling that it would actually be fun to watch this again and try to find as many of these as possible, like when watching The Prestige for the second time, but unlike in that movie there isn’t really a greater significance to most of these.

Do the characters themselves undergo changes throughout the times? I guess you could argue that (cf. this infographic from CinemaBlend.com (spoilers)), but I didn’t get that so strongly in the movie either, at least partly because the actors often played such minor characters that it wasn’t worth tracking them in the overall story. Although the strongest romantic pairings do show up in multiple times.2

There were a couple times when the same themes showed up in the different stories, and of course some occasions when the same lines were uttered in different times, with the meaning somewhat different but mostly the same. This is the usual thing to do for a movie that stretches across time, however, and while I’m glad the directors didn’t overdo it, there’s not so much to say about it. A couple of them were very effective, though.

So what did the movie gain by putting all of these stories together? Not that much, actually. It did have some amazing technical implications (next section), but as far as plot and meaning, I’m still left with nothing more than “sometimes our actions have farther-reaching consequences than we know”. If that’s the point, then I would have liked a little more confirmation.

Technically a Masterpiece

I don't always make six movies at once, but when I do I make you care about all of them

What was amazing about Cloud Atlas, though, was its editing and composition. In the same way that James Cameron’s Avatar was visually impressive, Cloud Atlas was technically impressive. By the end of the movie, we’re transitioned from one scene to the next, keeping the tension up in every plotline. Certain things are presented as parallels, others as contrasts, and somehow it all worked. Even if the macro view of the movie wasn’t that impressive, this achievement on a micro, moment-to-moment scale is really quite amazing. I would encourage aspiring filmmakers and editors to watch the movie just for this.

Of course, the score to the movie is clever as well, taking the same theme and making it show up again and again, not just as a backtrack but for particular clever bits of in-universe story as well. It’s not a vibrantly memorable soundtrack in the way that The Fellowship of the Ring’s or Inception’s was, but it was quite good. I was interested to find out that director Tim Tykwer is actually one of the composers, and that all of his movies are scored by him and the other two in his trio.

My friend also pointed out how the reuse of the same actors really showed their versatility. I guess that’s true, but I didn’t actually come away thinking about how amazing the acting was in any particular plotline. And for the most part, the same actor was only a main character in one story, and pretty much no one was in more than two for more than a scene. Of course, for some of the characters it was totally a shock to find out that they were played by the same actor, so maybe I’m selling them short.

Finally, though, one last compliment. Like I said, the movie was three hours. Like I said, the plotlines didn’t have much to do with each other. And despite that, it did not feel like a long movie, not really, and I was fairly invested in each plotline all the way through the end.3 So despite my snub of the concept and content, the execution really was brilliant.

The rest of this post is mostly rambling, ranting, and random-commenting, so I’ll put my usual “who should see this” here. The thing is, Cloud Atlas ended up being a mediocre movie for me. Because of its technical brilliance, I again urge filmmakers and editors to go see it, just to see what I mean. But for the average person, Cloud Atlas might be fun, and might just be confusing. There’s not really a point.

My objective side says that despite its amazing execution, the story and stories weren’t worth executing. My subjective side says that I wouldn’t have missed much not seeing it, but that I did enjoy it, really. That is kind of important here.

So I got my money’s worth. But if you’re looking for a movie to watch next weekend, go see Looper instead.

P.S.(A.) This movie is rated R for a good reason: sex, blood, violence, and disturbing imagery. Teenagers can probably take it, but don’t bring your elementary school kids!

Racebending

(minor spoilers for this meme, click to view)

Can we keep this word? It’s a serious topic, but it’s so fun to say!

The term “racebending” came up to describe M. Night Shyamalan’s casting for The Last Airbender, which apparently was such a mediocre movie that it didn’t even reach the “so bad it’s good” crowd. The casting was incredibly controversial for two main reasons: first, that the casting call for the protagonist roles had a preference for white actors, and second, that all the antagonists were South Asian and possibly otherwise dark-skinned. Hm.4

On the face of it Cloud Atlas looks the same. While most of the plotlines feature characters who are white5, and occasionally black, there is one story (“An Orison of Sonmi~451”) that is supposed to take place in “Neo Seoul”, and for that one they have actors in modern-day yellowface: extensive makeup and CGI. The star of the story, Sonmi~451 herself, is played by Korean actor Bae Doona, but the rebel hero who drives the plot along and basically dictates Sonmi’s actions is played by Jim Sturgess. The primary antagonists of the section are whites-playing-Asians as well, and even the leader of the rebellion is played by an African-American (Keith David) rather than the character’s generic Southeast Asian.

But then we get Halle Berry playing the white Jocasta Ayrs, Bae Doona playing the white Tilda Ewing…Cloud Atlas is racebending in all directions, and gender-bending as well with several minor characters (something that may hit close to home for Lana Wachowski, though I guess I shouldn’t presume her personal life is related to her directing).

I’ve written about ethnicity in movies twice before, and you can go read those posts if you want. But in case you don’t, I’m going to quote, for the third time, Jeff Ma, the real-life inspiration for the protagonist of 21.

TT: Were you upset that the main character wasn’t Asian?

JM: I think that part of it is being overblown a little bit, just because the reality is that if you had a movie made about you, what would be the most important thing? It wouldn’t necessarily be that it was incredibly accurate to life; It would be that it be a good movie. I wanted a great actor to portray me, and Jim [Sturgess] is an unbelievable actor.

Oh hey, Jim Sturgess again! It’s just a coincidence, but I’ll note that in 21 the main character was white.

Here’s me, two years ago (the first post):

Imagine a world where affirmative action is based on income rather than race, because it would never cross anyone’s mind to choose one person over the other on the basis of ethnicity. Because ethnicity just isn’t a criterion on which to differentiate people (the original meaning of “discriminate”). Imagine a world where it’s not only okay for a British man to play a French man, but for a Taiwanese woman to play a Korean woman, or even for a man from Barbados to play a white American, or vice versa, because they can best express the character. Imagine a world where no one asks “what are you?” because the answer would be “human”.

I know already I’m way too much an optimist/futurist, and I’ll write about the conflict between that and reality some day, but I stand by the basic idea that when a story is not about ethnicity, it shouldn’t matter what the ethnicity of the actors are.

For Sonmi’s story, it isn’t exactly about ethnicity, but it isn’t completely race-blind, either. Obviously the slavery theme is meant to parallel Ewing’s “Pacific Journal”, even if the plot is different. And Neo Seoul, while it could easily not be purely Korean anymore, is still supposed to be primarily East Asian. To put it another way, if it had really been a race-blind story, they wouldn’t have had to mangle all the white actors’ eyes and pretend that they were making them look East Asian.6

(They even could have aimed for half-white, half-Asian. I have some friends with various mixed ethnicities, and that results in a huge range of…phenotypes, for lack of a better word. That could have worked, maybe.)

An interesting quote from a summary of a 1930s yellowface gangster movie, The Hatchet Man:7

As was typical of the time, almost no Asian actors appear in the cast of a film set completely among Chinese characters. Makeup artists had noticed that audiences were more likely to reject Western actors in Asian disguise if the faces of actual Asians were in near proximity. Rather than cast the film with all Asian actors, which would have then meant no star names to attract American audiences, studios simply eliminated most of the Asian actors from the cast.

Certainly happened here. Sonmi’s eyes don’t look like they were drawn on by someone told what “Asian” eyes are “supposed” to look like, but Hae-Joo Chang’s certainly do. As do the boardman’s (Weaving) and the archivist’s (D’Arcy). Heck, Weaving looks more Vulcan than Asian.

In the end, though, I think what it came down to is “hey, we want to adapt this book with six stories, we want to get a bunch of famous actors to do it, and we have this conceit where the same actors play all the main characters in every story”. You could argue that they should have cast more East Asian actors instead of some of the white (or black) actors. You could argue that having one story set in Korea, intended to have Korean characters, is incompatible with the same-cast gimmick. Many directors may have agreed that it was too risky, insensitive, or racist; the Wachowskis and Tykwer apparently decided to go ahead with it.

For my part, though I would have preferred less awful CGI and some acknowledgment that these characters were not going to look full-blood Asian and shouldn’t look full-blood Asian, I think I ultimately agree with the directors here. I’m not happy about the precedent it sets, but it is in line with what the directors wanted to do with the movie, and casting actors that only appeared in Sonmi’s story would have been a bad idea.

But…

(Dinosaur Comics) The history of war is a journey. A narrative. A story that, at its core, is all about how some lives become turned upside-down by conflict: "flipped" if you will. FRIG IT'S STILL A REFERENCE

That said, what makes me uncomfortable is that despite Hae-Joo Chang being Korean, Jim Sturgess is white, and thus we still get the story of the helpless passive Asian girl being rescued by the noble white man. I don’t care that it’s not the point of the story and that that’s not what you meant. That’s what it says anyway. And that’s not okay with me.

Points for Zhou Xun’s character also having a spine, but for the most part Sonmi just gets shuttled around from place to place. She has interesting thoughts and emotions, which are correctly in the context of being a fabricant and not about being Korean, but that doesn’t really fix the story. Aagh.

(sorry for the spoiler block here; it ruins the flow of the criticism but the next paragraph does discuss a minor plot point)

The final thing that bothered me here is that while many of the stories included sex, it was only Sonmi’s story that included the full act as a climactic point (stop laughing) in the rise and fall (no seriously) of the story arc. As in, it went on much longer (I give up) than the sex scenes in other plotlines. I will admit a large part of this discomfort probably comes from my general lack of enjoyment of movie sex scenes, but the remainder is the warning bells that go with the words “Asian fetish”. We can see Halle Berry as a hero, but to believe it of Bae Doona we also need to see her have sex.

Okay, Halle Berry’s been sexualized plenty; I take that back.

Finally, while there are plenty of instances of race-bending and gender-bending in Cloud Atlas, Sonmi’s story is the only one where that includes main characters. The majority of characters.

So. Aargh. We have a ways to go.

Random Comments

(xkcd) Spoiler Alert! Snape kills Trinity with Rosebud!

As usual, these comments all contain spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, turn back now.

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okay.

  • “Unanimity” and “Unity” are interesting names for opposing sides in a conflict. “Unanimity” also makes me think of “anonymity”; not sure if that was intentional, but it probably was.

  • The romance between Rey and Sachs was, if anything, underdone. It was too much of a jump to Sachs’s journal on the plane for me.

  • Why wasn’t Rey’s friend Javier one of the main recurring actors? Why didn’t Bae Doona, Zhou Xun, David Gyasi, Keith David, and James D’Arcy recur more?

  • I’m sorry to say it, but Sonmi’s character during the introduction doesn’t fit with her character in the rest of the movie. Her comments at the end do work, but the opening line about “truths, plural” and her knowledge of Korean didn’t fit with the character she ended up building. It was a “hey, wait a minute…” moment near the end of the movie when I realized it, and I think since it was a three-hour movie, most people won’t care.

  • (This contains spoilers not just about Cloud Atlas but about the movie Soylent Green as well.)

    The use of “Soylent Green is People” in Sonmi’s story made me very upset, both in-universe and out. In-universe, because the movie depicted it properly clinically and horrifically (though the room reminded me of Monsters, Inc’s door factory before I realized what it was). And out-of-universe, because it’s such a trope now, and because they had felt the need to show off about it earlier with Cavendish’s quip.

    I haven’t actually seen Soylent Green. It’s just one of those culture things that I found out anyway. I spoiled Fight Club for myself as well.

  • When Hooks shot the dog, everyone cringed, even though we all saw it coming. In a movie where humans die all the time, killing a poor dog is what it takes to make someone even more senselessly cruel. But the “Mexican woman” certainly took her revenge…one smash would have been enough, but she kept going! Still, she got her catchphrase, too…if she had been slightly less violent, the theater probably would have cheered.

  • An-Kor Apis got criticism for being played by an African-American actor, but what I thought of was StarCraft II’s Gabriel Tosh. Anyone?

  • Plotholes, plotholes everywhere
    • They could still come after Rey and Megan Sixsmith.
    • Cavendish’s debts.
    • Chang’s plot armor. And why they had to wait specifically for Sonmi~451, not some other fabricant (including the one prostituting herself in the slum area). (Apparently this is better explained in the book?)
    • What exactly was causing Zachry’s visions? What killed all the people in the observatory? Why aren’t Zachry’s people affected by the radiation (though, nice touch on mentioning it)? Why does the abbess actually have power of prophecy?
  • So much Star Wars
    • “Years ago you served [with] my father in the [Vietnam] War. Now he begs you to help him in his battle against [Swannekke].”
    • ”[Prescients] are dying, [Zachry]. We must do something quickly!”
    • Burn the [village] to destroy all ties to the past!
  • Despite being cheesy, I think my favorite line was “I was not genomed to alter reality”.

  • I kind of want to hear the full “Cloud Atlas Symphony”.

Finally, I’m planning to read the book (in December, after NaNoWriMo is over), so I’ll post a follow-up to see how the two compare.

  1. This review and its sundries have probably taken as long for me to compile as it did to watch the movie. ↩︎

  2. (more spoilers)

    Though I would have appreciated Frobisher and Sixsmith (Whishaw and D’Arcy) getting a romantic redemption in one of the later stories. ↩︎

  3. More honestly, I had become involved in each plotline by the end, which is almost a more impressive accomplishment. I’ll admit it took me a while to get into Cavendish’s, and Ewing’s almost lost me. Frobisher’s, Rey’s, and Zachry’s were pretty strong all the way through, though. Sonmi’s was up and down. ↩︎

  4. While the source anime, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was created in America, the show was clearly inspired by the cultures of East Asia. ↩︎

  5. The fact that most of the stories have white main characters is a different problem, but hardly specific to Cloud Atlas; of the mainstream movies marketed this fall, pretty much all of them star white actors playing white characters. ↩︎

  6. Although in this case, they would have then hit “Firefly syndrome”: “For a universe that’s supposed to be half-Chinese, Firefly sure doesn’t have any Asians.” (xkcd) ↩︎

  7. From TCM, via Wikipedia’s article on “Portrayal of East Asians in Hollywood↩︎

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