I love the book this film is based on. I have read the book first, so there is no way to look at the film with new eyes. The novel’s narrative structure is like this: think of six short novels placed on top of one another, and then folded. So you have a complete story in the middle, and halves of the five others on either side. It is a fairly simple structure.
For the film, however, directors Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis collapsed the structure and decided to tell the six stories parallel to one another, transitioning based on visual cues (a gun pointed upwards at a runaway slave in the 18th century, cut to a hovering ship pointed upwards at a fabricant on a bridge in New Seoul), audio cues (the Cloud Atlas Sextet playing across the centuries – which sounds amazing, by the way), emotional tone (sadness cut to more sadness), and action (climax cut to climax – a futuristic fight scene cut to a daring escape). The result is breathtaking at times, but sometimes I feel this structure forces the (already loose) connections. You find yourself wishing the juxtapositions made more sense.
There is also the questionable decision to make non-Asians play Asians and vice-versa, to drive home the point of reincarnation. The novel, with only words to tell us the story, relied on the recurring appearance of the comet birthmark. But if we’re using the birthmark anyway, is the use of “yellowface” (and blackface, Otherface) necessary?
I didn’t think the filmmakers meant any offense. Making the actors play multiple characters across timelines does add another layer to the story. We see characters reunited. We see Sixsmith transform from a passive holder of records (Frobisher’s letters, the Swanneke report) to an Archivist who may or may not tell the world the truth. But how about Frobisher? From great young composer to music store clerk? A flimsy connection there. And don’t get me started on Yoona~939.
And let’s just be honest here: everyone looks like Spock.
Its weird. And I was looking forward to seeing actual Koreans (or at the very least, actual Asians) in the Sonmi~451 storyline. It’s not like there’s a dearth of Koreans in film right now. John Cho is Korean-American, Hollywood!
Still, Cloud Atlas is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking. I am hesitant to say yes when friends ask, Should I watch it? I feel like I should add a qualifier. Read the book first, or Find out the plot first, or Wait for the DVD so you can watch it with subtitles, because goddamn if I can understand a word far-future Tom Hanks is saying.
But I enjoyed it. It’s almost three hours long, but it engaged me, and I never felt bored.
If the idea of six stories in one film doesn’t daunt you, or if it tickles your curiosity, go watch Cloud Atlas. Despite its flaws, it’s still a rewarding cinematic experience.