Tuesday, November 13, 2012

MOVIE: Cloud Atlas

Vast. Breathtaking. Immersive. Visual. Intertwined. Romantic. Exhilarating. Grandiose. Philosophic. And remarkable. Just a few of the words competing for space in my head after catching a showing of Cloud Atlas this evening.

Based on the 2004 novel by British author David Mitchell, the movie does a far better job than I thought it would do. The settings (especially Neo Seoul!) were perfect and unique unto themselves, helping keep the different pieces of the story clear without being distracting. The special effects almost kept themselves out of the way, but felt contrived in a few places (especially Neo Seoul, lol!) Excellent pacing. Fairly good writing (maintained by sticking somewhat closely to the book.) Pretty good dialogue. But some unremarkable acting in a couple of places. I felt the visual aesthetics played a more critical part than the character performances. And the message of the movie was in the unfolding of the story, not in the accomplishment of the actors.

The original book told six separate, but inter-connected stories. Their settings spanned several centuries, and countries. Mitchell fastened everything together with over-lap characters whose adventures manage to affect all of the other characters and stories with the intricacy of a finely crafted, perfectly balanced pocket watch.

The central theme of Cloud Atlas is that we are all appearing at different points in time, and our paths are crossing infinitely, moving through these ascents and descents together. Sometimes heroes. Sometimes victims. Sometimes villains. But even though our perceptions are fixed, all of time and all of these stories are unfolding simultaneous. Everything at once. What we call the past, present, and future, are all one event. And all of our selves and our partners in these adventures are affecting one another at the same time: the past affecting the present, the present affecting the future, the future affecting the past. Each of our choices touching everything, everywhere.

As Mitchell wrote:
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Have you ever met somebody you instantly liked and knew things about them quicker than you should? Somebody you felt so comfortable with that you notice their absence? That having them in your life feels as natural as two pages of one book next to each other? That's the connection. We have pasts, presents, and futures with certain people in our lives. Trapped in orbits that we're trying to escape. But our private gravities keeps pulling us back to each other. Again. And again.

Two things really bothered me in the translation from book to movie. And it takes a bit of background to get to the heart of my discontent. So hopefully you'll bear with me.

First, the novel contains six very distinct and individually separate stories that are being unfolded to the reader by the characters either reading or recounting those stories. It all starts (and ends) with "the Pacific Journal" by the character Adam Ewing. The reader follows Adam's voyage directly, but eventually Adam literally writes "the Pacific Journal" that (a century later) is read by the next character, Robert Frobisher. Frobisher (a talented but inexperienced composer) is enthralled by Ewing's novel and later produces a musical piece called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. That music (a sort of story) is picked up by Luisa Rey (third character) in the 1970s, who eventually writes a manuscript, called Half Lives, of her adventures. Tim Cavendish (forth character) is an elderly, modern day editor who considers trying to publish the manuscript but ultimately finds it boring and works on a screenplay for his own adventures. Two hundred years later, Somni-451 (fifth character) begins a rebellion influenced by her viewing of a fragment of a movie called The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish. And finally Zachry (sixth character) believes in a religion based around Somni-451's "declarations" that have been handed down for generations based on a holographic message (an "Orison") that she made before the end of her adventure.

SO! That's a long way of saying that each part of Cloud Atlas starts with somebody's story, they create their own story, which is later picked up by another character, who creates a new story. I don't think the movie was verbose enough about that. Stories within stories and nothing new gets created without the contribution of other people on our lives.

Second, the novel did a fantastic job of depicting our brief moments of absolute lucidity where we realize time is just a fragile human concept and we are actually able to grasp our present as it sits next to what happened before, and what will happen later. The concept of the future affecting the present or the past is a tough one. I don't think the movie did a good job with it. It was easier to see in the novel because the stories actually reversed the direction of influence very clearly: Zachry's granddaughter likes that Somni-451's declaration" is inclusive of everyone and everything, which reaches back and influences Somni. Somni's last wish is to watch Cavendish's movie, which shifts to his story, and backwards, and backwards, until we arrive where we start, with Adam Ewing. Again, I thought the book was able to articulate a difficult concept far better than a movie. However,it took  days to read the novel, and not even three hours to view the show. So I guess a film has to make due with a far more limited experience.

But over all, an incredible movie. Glad I saw it on the big screen. Thrilled to have so many lessons from the novel refreshed in my mind. Especially one from Zachry:
“...there ain't no journey what don't change you some.” 
I may not enjoy the outcomes of all my adventures. But they all change me.
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