From the Wachowski siblings who created pop-culture touchstone The Matrix (1999) as well as personal favorite Speed Racer (2008) comes Cloud Atlas (2012), a clever and ambitious positive spin on the novel of the same name by David Mitchell. I like it in some ways but not others.
It’s not a movie that can be easily summarized; it spans six different timelines that are tied together in surprising ways.
I’ve now watched the movie three times: once on a tiny screen on the plane, where much of the subtlety went straight past me; again via iTunes on a laptop screen; this time via iTunes on a huge TV shortly after reading the book.
For more on what I noticed about it this time (including SPOILERS), and ways the movie differs from the book, keep reading.
Also see my post on the book Cloud Atlas.
I didn’t recognize the actor Ben Whishaw from having seen him as Q in Skyfall. But then, I didn’t like Skyfall (2012). I guess I’ve also seen him in Brideshead Revisited (2008). The vibe I get from his roles is impudence, I think.
I did recognize James D’Arcy as the supremely capable and civilized Edwin Jarvis from the TV show Marvel’s Agent Carter. His roles in Cloud Atlas seemed fittingly educated and humane.
And of course I’m a fan of Hugo Weaving. His frown as Agent Smith in The Matrix (and as Elrond in LOTR, for that matter) is inimitable. He makes a great bad guy in all six timelines of Cloud Atlas, including (especially?) the one where he’s a tyrannical female nurse.
The reuse of actors in different timelines was strange. Tom Hanks portrays a murderer in one timeline and a hero in another. The souls are migrating across timelines in a logical way, but the bodies aren’t. It makes sense that Hugo Weaving is a villain in at least five of the six timelines, but Susan Sarandon, for example, isn’t even in all the timelines. It seemed like there was a message or thematic reason for reusing the actors because they were assigned roles that required a lot of makeup to change their apparent ethnicities. Whatever the message or reason was, it wasn’t very clear.
Perhaps part of the message is that the good and the weak come in many shapes and sizes, but the face of evil is always the same.
Or maybe the idea is that people’s choices define how they come back, so each actor becomes a better or worse character throughout time.
I’m not the only one who thinks the casting was problematic.
Apparently, some of the sets were reused, too, even though the places represented were in different places. Not sure that was a good idea either, thematically.
Differences between the movie and the book
The movie weaves the timelines together in small slices rather than nesting the stories with the oldest one at the beginning and end as the book does. Crafting a meaningful screenplay must have been a nightmare, and they did a remarkably good job of it.
The movie is much more positive than the book.
Every protagonist in the movie has a soulmate; I’m not sure that quite happens in the book. The theme of love through the ages is thus stronger in the movie.
Frobisher and Cavendish are much easier to like. Frobisher’s flaw in the book (he’s a thief) is omitted, and Cavendish’s flaw in the book (he’s a fraud) is converted to comic relief. His escape is the most amusing part of the movie.
In the movie, the Union rebellion is portrayed as a legitimate underdog movement fighting the ultimate losing battle. In the book, however, the rebellion is fake—it was orchestrated and controlled by the ruling government, Unanimity, from start to finish.
In the book, there are no off-world colonies and Zachry and Meronym do not escape off Earth. They just go to another island, where technology becomes still more forgotten.
The movie is (unsurprisingly) simpler than the book.
In the book, Frobisher seems to fall in love with Ayrs’s daughter, who does not love him in return.
In the book, Rey’s conflict with the assassin has an extra twist in it. In the movie, she exposes herself to flush him out, whereas in the book, she follows a bad tip to a bank rigged with explosives but escapes the blast because it’s triggered by someone else who is chasing the report. She finally gets a copy of the report from Sixsmith’s yacht.
In the book, there’s a lazy university student to whom Sonmi is merely the result of an outsourced research project.
I’m a bit confused about…
I’ve never quite understood whether clones are typically sentient. Do they naturally have memory, awareness and independent personality? Or is Sonmi a new kind of clone created for awareness? Or is she a fluke of some kind? Even in the book it’s not clear.
Zachry’s section of the movie is a bit confusing because it’s not clear whether the devil character, Old Georgie, is real or in what way. Someone on the internet says he’s named after and is supposed to look like George Washington on the dollar bill because money is the root of all evil, but he seems more linked to fear than greed. Whenever Old Georgie reappears, he tempts Zachry to act on his fears and doubts. He first appears after Zachry picks up a shiny button off a gravestone and sees a man and a boy violently murdered. The button looks like the ones on Ewing’s waistcoat and may in fact be from that time. Zachry makes a necklace so that he can wear it. He nearly gets choked by the necklace in the end, but it breaks and Zachry is freed of the chokehold and of Old Georgie at the same time. In the book, Old Georgie is just a story, not an actual spirit, and there’s no magic button necklace. The tie between the necklace and Old Georgie should have been made more strongly, or not at all; I prefer Old Georgie as a symbol rather than a manifestation.
Similarly, I could almost do without the supernatural connections between the timelines because the literal ones are so well done. Examples of supernatural connections include Ayrs’s dream of a diner like Sonmi’s, and Zachry’s visions of events from all the other timelines.
This is the best one:
And a summary: