In This Together, by David Bax
To attempt the adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, with its formally inventive methodology of delivering six stories that have nothing and everything to do with one another, is a daring act in and of itself. Directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski have met and exceeded that daunting task by remaining true to the nature of the source as best they could as well as inventing ways of expressing its themes that could only be achieved cinematically.
As mentioned, there are six separate stories being told. In 1849, an aristocratic lawyer travels by boat from a remote Pacific isle to San Francisco. In 1931, an aspiring but destitute composer takes a job interpreting the work of an aging legend in the field who is losing his eyesight. In 1975, a young reporter tries to uncover corruption and malfeasance at a California nuclear power plant. In the modern day, a smalltime book publisher attempts to outrun his debts to some unsavory folk. In the near-ish future, a fabricated human learns about the world outside the restaurant in which she was “genomed” to work and live her entire life. And in the distant future, a member of one of many agricultural tribes befriends one of the last humans with access to technology and higher learning.
These stories are all told concurrently (editor Alexander Berner deserves a hearty congratulations for his complex but fluid work) but they are also each being told inside one another. The journal of the sea-faring aristocrat is read by the young composer. The composer’s letters are read by the reporter. The reporter’s tale is told in a novel submitted to the book publisher. And on it goes. This is more than a clever gimmick, however. Much like (and more successfully than) Ben Affleck’s Argo, Cloud Atlas demonstrates the power of storytelling itself – beyond the elements of the story being told – to change hearts and minds. A passage in Mitchell’s novel explores the difference between the actual past and the virtual past – the facts of the thing that happened and those of the story that is told of the thing that happened. Tykwer and the Wachowskis translate that by adopting a generally heightened and somewhat artificial tone, opting to present their stories as fables rather than to attempt verisimilitude. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is famous for the line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In that case, the sentiment carries a strong undercurrent of cynicism. Alternately, Cloud Atlas asks us to consider that, when wielded correctly, it’s the legend more than the truth that has the power to inspire positive change in people.
Of course, as we can see in the current and very close presidential race, there exist differing notions of what constitutes positive change. Cloud Atlas is unquestionably a leftist film. In a superficial way, that much should be clear from the basic plot description of the future-set stories. In one, the working class are literally controlled from birth to death (or “womb to tomb,” as the film would have it) by their corporate overlords. In another, mankind’s bottomless greed has set civilization back thousands of years. Beneath that, though, there are deeper roots of leftwing thinking. Namely, the film makes the case that no person’s life is solely her or his own. We are all bound to each other in ways great and small. Our individual decisions and actions have consequences on others, not only in our immediate circle but worldwide; not only in our present day but on down the line into the future. No one man can sail a mighty ship by himself. No one idealist can start a revolution solely on the passion of the ideas in her head. In short, we are all in this together.
It follows, then, that the only way to get anything worthwhile done is by working with each other. There is a motif of imprisonment and isolation in Cloud Atlas. Some of it is self-imposed, as in the way Tom Hanks’ distant-future goat herder keeps himself at an emotional remove from his tribesman because of a shameful secret that plagues him. Some of it is very literal, such as when Jim Broadbent’s book publisher is interred in a locked-from-the-outside retirement community against his will. In every case, the protagonist cannot extricate her- or himself from her or his plight unilaterally. Be it by the aid of a slave who was once done a small kindness or by the setting aside of relatively petty differences in the interest of larger concerns, no one goes it alone. The only other option is sacrifice, or martyrdom for the cause of humanity.
Tykwer and the Wachowskis illustrate the irremovable ties among all people at all times chiefly by casting the same actors in different roles for each of the six tales. The performers are repeatedly tasked with portraying different ages, different accents, even different races and genders. The effect is not a subtle one, nor should it be. We the audience are meant to recognize that Hugh Grant is playing both the slimy nuclear energy CEO and the successful brother of the book publisher or that the Korean fabricant cafeteria worker is also the Caucasian wife of the aristocrat. It becomes apparent that we are watching as a small company of players don costumes from a trunk and put on a show for us. That quaint show just happens to also contain tens of millions of dollars’ worth of sets, visual effect, pyrotechnics.
Another benefit of the repeated recasting is that it allows us to more easily compare the characters in different eras to one another. Should we decide to entertain the idea that the character played by James D’Arcy in one story is the reincarnation of his character from the previous chronological tale, we can further reflect on the persistent theme that people are capable of change. It’s immediately clear that some actors remain malevolent throughout (such as Hugo Weaving) and some benevolent (Doona Bae). Others, however, particularly those we would call our leads (Hanks, Halle Berry, Broadbent) evolve, some of them on a clear and straightforward path and others (Hanks especially) in a fluctuating dance between good and evil. The juxtapositions of roles by the same actor also allow us to consider how the expressions of good and bad have changed through time and, more importantly, how they have not. There is a tellingly unsubtle repetition of references and allusions to persecution. From black people to Jewish people to women to fabricants, the subjects of oppression by the ruling sect may change but the nature of it does not.
Sometimes an unconventional undertaking requires an unconventional approach. Perhaps it was only with three directors that a film as great as this one is in the traditional sense could be as great as it is in the other sense. More than that, they all had to be absolutely tapped in to the right wavelength to make a film that looks and feels so of a piece with itself. Well, they were and they did and so we may enjoy Cloud Atlas, one of the best films of the year.
Great review! I’m a big fan of the Wachowskis’ and when I first heard the premise of the film I thought it was very interesting concept. I listened to the audiobook and it is by far one of the best contemporary novels I’ve ever read.*
David you probably hit upon one of the major themes of the film. I wouldn’t call it a “Leftist” story as much I would call it post-modern. In a sense this is one of the biggest problems that I have with the book. Post-modernism suggests that truth, or what we think of as the truth, is part of a larger meta-narrative that is influenced by those with power. It is not a worldview that is unique to the Left, which you can see if you look at the current manufactured controversies over climate change and evolution. But for decades postmodernism has been the major territory of the left. George Orwell’s 1984, many people don’t recognize it today, is a condemnation of the post-modernist view of the state that was championed by many Left-wing socialists and Communists of the 1940s.
My biggest problem with the book, which I will assume will be carried over to the film, is the 1970s story. The pot-boiler story about an intrepid reporter who exposes malfeasance of in a nuclear power plant. I’ve spent that past several years of my life making a documentary film about nuclear power. It has given me the chance to interview journalists, engineers, scientists, executives, and citizen activists. And I must say that the anti-nuclear journalists are far FAR from the Luisa Rey character in the novel. In fact the anti-nuclear journalists that I have met are some of the most repulsive individuals I have ever met! I’ve written about this extensively on my blog, which you can view here if you wish:
*Though I don’t read too much contemporary fiction. The last novel I’ve read where author and I were alive at the same time was a book by Arthur C. Clark. I still have yet to finish Murakami’s Wined Up Bird Chronicle.
I don’t think David Mitchell or the directors of the film are specifically condemning nuclear power. I think unethical corporate practices are the target. My feeling is that Mitchell likely chose a nuclear power plant because it was timely for the early to mid-1970’s setting of that story.
Just got back from watching the film and I need to say that it is even better that I could have anticipated! It is very different from the book which I am very happy with that. I probably would not have liked the film if it was a direct adaptation of the book, and plus that would have been impossible. One example Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, which is a film that I admire a lot. Though the film stays pretty slavish adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel, to the point where the movie feels like little more than cliff notes for the book.
They simplified many of the stories, while maintaining the themes and general arch of the characters. The Sonmi 451 story is less heavy-handed. I liked the fact that they decided to focus more on the relationship between Frobisher and Sixsmith and downplay the relationship between Frobisher and Ayrs. And what I liked best is that they changed Alberto Grimald from a nuclear industry executive to an Oil lobbyist posing as a nuclear industry executive to purposefully sabotage the nuclear power plant, in order to turn public opinion away from nuclear.
The only things that I missed was that the book took time-out to allow it’s characters to explore ideas. What I loved the most about The Matrix movies is that the ideas existed as much for their own sake, just as much as the action existed for their own sake. I could see why the book appealed to the Wachowskis’. There is a glorious takedown of the idea of the “nobel savage” in the first few chapters of the book. And Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn plays an important roll in the movie that they felt it was necessary to give the roll to Susan Sarandon.
Really enjoyed this movie, as well as David’s thoughtful review. But am puzzled by his characterization of the film as leftist. Totalitarianism (at least in the real world, as opposed to the movies) results from unchecked power of the state, not corporations. Hard to argue that the modern left is interested in constraining the power of the state. Also, since when does the idea that we are all in this together, that we all must work together, belong primarily to those on the left?