"Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?" counters a character, late in the pages of David Mitchell's postmodern science fiction bestseller Cloud Atlas (2004), when told that his conversion to the cause of abolitionism is hopeless and will amount to no more than a drop in the ocean of human cruelty. This message bookends the story of Cloud Atlas, told through six points of view in eleven parts; the novel spans hundreds of years, several epistolary formats, and possibly more than one alternate universe, spinning an epic of human cruelty and violence and the resistance that individuals wage against these forces. David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is undeniably idealistic and just as undeniably ambitious.
The film adaptation of Mitchell's work, directed and written by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, is also ambitious. It is idealistic, too, though the film's themes diverge somewhat from those of its source material by focusing on romantic love and the hope of reincarnation. However, the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's Cloud Atlas undermines its own idealism with its cowardice. Several conservative and problematic choices in writing, direction, and casting weaken the film's attempts at humanism. By providing semi-religious reassurance that its characters' deaths are worthy not because they died nobly, but because they will live on, the film damages its own advocacy of resistance in the face of certain defeat. By glorifying heterosexual love as an unstoppable force between immortal souls, it robs several characters of their courage in standing alone. And by casting white British actors with unconvincing make up to play futuristic Koreans, it proves its own unwillingness to stand behind the anti-racism it claims to promote.
Cloud Atlas is uneven, armed with a few powerful performances and sequences and kneecapped by its own cynicism and cowardice; proving that for its creators, name recognition and Hollywood appeal are more important than being progressive. It's no wonder that it often rings as awkward and wooden as Jim Sturgess's Fu Manchu-esque makeover.
Nevertheless, the project is still admirably ambitious. Adapting Mitchell's complex and non-linear novel to the screen could not have been easy. In the book the story advances forward in time and then retraces its steps backwards, so that the book's first point of view character is also its last; this matryoshka structure supports its themes of interconnection and inevitability. Understandably, this would have been harder to sell to a movie audience, who might be annoyed and confused at being asked to spend half an hour with eighteenth-century American lawyer Adam Ewing in the South Pacific before suddenly finding themselves uprooted and transplanted into the company of British composer Robert Frobisher in 1930s Europe, with only the most tangential of segues. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have opted instead for the perhaps equally risky approach of interlacing all six storylines, cutting frequently between them, so that they all start one right after another and unfold side-by-side.
This has the consequence of making a few of the storylines perhaps a little hard to follow, without continuity and context to support them, but is not a bad choice overall: it's less confusing than it could be and it serves to underline the parallels the film draws between its plotlines, including casting the same actors to play characters in different points in history. At one point characters in a post-apocalyptic future come upon the site of a long-ago battle; later, we watch this battle unfold from a different character's perspective centuries before, an unremarked-upon but effective technique of storytelling. Perhaps the greatest cost incurred by this directorial decision is the loss of the book's Cloud Atlas Sextet, a symbolic bolero that Robert Frobisher composes which interweaves six instruments coming in one at a time and fading out one at a time—a potentially brilliant opportunity for the film's score. As it is the score is composed by Tykwer himself, and is pretty, but not memorable, which is regrettable when the composition of this very music is a major plot and thematic point.
Cloud Atlas's greatest asset is Ben Whishaw's performance as Robert Frobisher, a troubled and brilliant young composer in pre-WWII Britain. Frobisher flees financial trouble to work as an amanuensis for Vyvyan Ayrs, a retired composer whom he admires, and tells his story in a series of letters to his lover and beloved, Rufus Sixsmith, played by a (then-)nonspeaking James D'Arcy. In the role Whishaw is intense and waifish, as artistically passionate as he is moody. His opposite is a rather underused Jim Broadbent, playing a malicious and disdainful Ayrs with significantly fewer redeeming qualities than his book counterpart. Whishaw's Frobisher is also more sincere and less spiteful than his original conception, possibly owing partly to reasons of running time; however, Ayrs is reduced to a bullying and homophobic caricature. The Frobisher storyline altogether, titled "Letters from Zedelghem" in the novel, is a little shaky: with the omission of Ayrs's daughter and the sharp reduction in importance of Frobisher's affair with Ayrs's wife, the storyline is oddly off-balance and may seem uneventful compared to the more action-heavy and adventurous stories with which it's intertwined. The film therefore makes a wise decision in investing in Frobisher's relationship with Sixsmith: it includes many scenes from Sixsmith's perspective, including a well-chosen dream sequence, and relies on their relationship as an emotional core which succeeds in elevating the storyline above its irregularities.
Broadbent is given his opportunity to shine in "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," a darkly humorous plotline in which a cynical and corrupt old publisher is forced to flee thuggish creditors and accidentally finds himself in a tyrannical nursing home. It's therefore a pity that this entire segment is damaged by the choice to cast Hugo Weaving as a Nurse Ratched-esque antagonist, Nurse Noakes. Weaving plays a sequence of antagonists over the course of the film, often representing the violent arm of authority; unfortunately, he's wooden and severe as all of them, helped along by the fact that in at least two cases he's playing an ethnicity or a gender which he most decidedly does not belong to. The casting of Weaving as Noakes plays to rather despicably transphobic stereotypes for laughs and sours the mood of the story, which is otherwise a delightful and visceral anti-authoritarian adventure of senior citizens escaping their geriatric prison. One particularly charming scene revolves around the seniors' inability to operate modern computerized cars. Ben Whishaw also plays a woman in this, a more positive figure, but this creates problematic connotations when paired with another minor role of his as a cabin boy implied in Mitchell's book to be a victim of rape, given that Whishaw stars otherwise as one of the film's only two queer characters. Broadbent is lively and watchable, though, and difficult not to root for in the role of Cavendish even when you don't like him.
The rest of the film is more hit-and-miss, including the story's speculative elements, which were some of the standout and more intriguing aspects of Mitchell's novel. The centerpiece storyline, the post-apocalyptic story of a Hawaiian tribesman named Zachry (Tom Hanks) and the futuristic scientist-adventurer Meronym (Halle Berry), is decent; the characters speak in a constructed post-civilization dialect that is interesting to acclimate to and straight from the novel, but Hanks isn't quite convincing when he spouts it. Berry is solid in the film altogether, including as beautiful stranger Meronym unsure whether to break her Star Trek-esque Prime Directives and help Zachry more than she intends, even as Zachry is haunted by the psychological manifestation of his culture's version the Devil, Old Georgie, urging him to betray her out of cowardice and xenophobia. Old Georgie is by far Weaving's best performance in the film; as Zachry's personal demon, he's hateful and magnetic at the same time and rings true as a demonic figure in a latter-day religion. Hanks is watchably heroic as Zachry, but leaves no doubt whether he is ever going to actually betray Meronym. Some of that is the film's doing, though—in a film this sentimental, it's hard to believe that anything else would happen.
Due to time constraints, the world itself is left somewhat unexplained: Meronym makes mention of radiation, and medicates herself against it, but there are no signs that Zachry and his people live in anything but a tropical paradise where they've been inexplicably knocked back to the Stone Age. In Mitchell's novel Zachry is young, much younger than Meronym, because his people die young from radiation poisoning in their post-nuclear world; in the film, she is his love interest, visibly younger and lovelier. The Kona, the brutal enemies and predators of Zachry's people, are faceless, nameless, and violent, riding in with savage face-paint straight from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies with the sole aim of murdering everyone in sight. It nearly goes without saying that this imagery, reminiscent of Western genre pulp and Manifest Destiny polemic, echoes with colonialism.
The other non-speculative storylines are decent as well: Berry shows a bit more fire in the role of Luisa Rey, an investigative reporter taking on Big Oil and a nuclear plant in the 1970s, and her storyline is intrinsically watchable, if a bit less suspenseful than its book counterpart due to pacing. She is linked to a much older (and awkwardly made up—this movie is full of awkward make up) Rufus Sixsmith as still played by James D'Arcy, who still carries his letters from Frobisher with him. Her co-stars include another duly mustache-twirling Weaving as a corporate assassin, a sleazy but interesting Hanks, and a surprisingly hilarious Hugh Grant in a minor turn as a scummy energy magnate. Hanks's character Isaac Sachs dwells on a peculiar romantic connection he feels with Luisa, which perhaps exemplifies the film's obsession with its own romantic subplots: we are practically lectured with the idea that Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are in love in every incarnation of their characters, no matter how awkward. In the book, the characters are connected through history by ambiguous destiny and a comet-shaped birthmark. The birthmark is still extant in the film, but plays second fiddle to reincarnation and romance.
Jim Sturgess is a little awkward, but not unbearable, as Adam Ewing, a tolerable if unsurprising White Savior type with another shoehorned romance. He is, however, unbearable as Hae-Joo Chang in "An Orison of Sonmi~451"; in fact, everything about that storyline is unbearable. "An Orison of Sonmi~451" is easily the gaping hole in the hull of this movie: it's also where it diverges the most from the book, but these two facts are not necessarily related. Some of the decisions that sink the Sonmi storyline have nothing to do with adaptation fidelity. The casting of Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang and the subsequent elevation of his role from secondary and not-quite-heroic to a primary romantic action hero and true love for our heroine exemplifies nearly everything that is wrong with Cloud Atlas. In one pivotal scene Sonmi, an enslaved clone, shrinks and clings to a literally shirtless and gun-toting Chang who defends her with improbable combat skills on a futuristic bridge like a cyberpunk John Carter of Mars. Sonmi is played by a very unfortunate Doona Bae, who spends most of her time looking wide-eyed and being shunted around like similar female science-fiction MacGuffins. In the book Sonmi narrates her section as a dry, cynical, confident woman with no romanticized protector and, conspicuously, no white characters in sight. Bae's Sonmi is a virtually voiceless waif and Hae-Joo, played by a white actor in cringe-inducing bad makeup, takes the place of active protagonist. The entire segment is all the hollower and more Orientalist for it: it has been transformed from a cynical dystopian fable into a high-concept action movie spinning on the love between a passive Asian woman and a heroic white man playing Asian.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer had what were clearly the best of intentions in casting and directing Cloud Atlas, and the film that resulted is proof of their intentions: it is ambitious, bombastic, even heartfelt in sections like Frobisher's and Cavendish's. But it is also built on the self-aggrandizing ambition that causes Western directors to write an anti-racist script and then put their white actors in yellowface, on the naivete that lets them believe that casting actors to play cross-reincarnation and cross-culture is inoffensive if you also briefly make up an Asian actress to be white, on the narrow-minded sentiment that lets them invent happy and predestined heterosexual relationships where they did not exist but leaves the film's sole queer couple ill-fated and star-crossed.
In Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Sonmi states that "All revolutions are the sheerest fantasy until they happen; then they become historical inevitabilities." In the text this is the defiance of a woman who has escaped slavery and lost literally everything, in the face of what appears to be her own failure. The film adapted from this novel does not allow for this kind of brutal loss, and therefore for this kind of strength, and it robs Sonmi of her voice—of the very narration that other characters retain. The Wachowskis' and Tykwer's Cloud Atlas wishes to fantasize a revolution, but as a story it is anything but revolutionary: it tells us what we already know and are weary of about Hollywood, about what sells and what happens when the music swells. It sets out to imagine a vast and unimaginable future, but is chained painfully to the conventions of the present and past. Cloud Atlas is a work of humanist speculative fiction that is ultimately no more speculative than it is humanist.
Gabriel Murray (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives and works in Queens, NY. He writes speculative and historical fiction and blogs at Orestes Drunk and Pylades Fasting about pop culture, history, and incompetent gluten-free cooking.