Reviews: Cloud Atlas

What is the fuss about?

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a novel that consists six stories hidden inside one another (Inception style). They encompass a whole variety of genres and settings, from 1970s thriller to 1930s romance, far future sci-fi distopias to 21st century comedy. It is a compelling idea, and the book has garnered an astonishingly positive response. Astonishing I say, because I don't think it is particularly good.

A commendation should be made to Mitchell for his ability to switch between entirely different genres, settings, characters and tone. But these individual tales are no good. These short stories (because that is what they really are; the perfunctory metaplot is just a ploy for the sake of publishers who believe short stories don't sell) are competently written, but generic and uninspired. Mitchell perplexingly communicates this flaw through his characters, having them repeatedly point out the similarities of their situation to other famous novels. In one instance, a cloned slave in a totalitarian future specifically mentions reading 1984 and Brave New World.

I can't figure out what Mitchell is doing by pointing out the similarities. Perhaps he thinks that by doing it first, we are unable to make the same criticism. Or perhaps he is just suggesting that the Tropes Are Not Bad. Unfortunately, in this case, these tropes are bad. The dystopian tale pales in comparison to its forefathers, Huxley and Orwell. There is another story in which a young female journalist fights to expose evil corporate figures, which equally proves to be an inferior derivative of the countless (aready derivative) identical thrillers. All the short stories suffer this same problem. They are uninspired, and going through the motions.

Perhaps one could argue that the sum of these flawed parts make an ultimately compelling, over arching narrative. They'd be wrong. The meta plot scarcely exists. The only thing connecting these diverse characters and scenarios is the identical brithmark they all have. No explanation is given for how these characters have this token thing in common. There is no suggestion as to why it matters. Ultimately, there seems to be little point to it all.

Film vs the Book

Having read the book, I'm in an awkward position to review the film version of Cloud Atlas. The few people I asked about the film, who hadn't read the book, found it confusing. I never had that problem, but I can't say whether that was because I was better at parsing the film's narrative, or just because I already knew the story. Understandability is something I'm going to have to leave out of my review. So how does the film compare to the book? Well...

Certain mediums have advantages over others. For film, its chief advantage is immediacy: within a second of looking at a scene, the audience member knows whether they are in 2012 Scotland or 1970s USA. The film of Cloud Atlas takes advantage of this, ricocheting between stories to interconnect similar themes or emotional cues. Without these "jump cuts", the novel has to make do with segregating its stories, themes and parallels over chapters. The result is that the film does a better job of forming a meta-narrative than the book.

Another criticism I had of the book, the derivative nature of each story, also doesn't apply to the film. A movie can get away with familiar settings, as long as the aesthetics, cinematography, and other visual aspects are distinct enough to distinguish it. Without visuals, a book depends on the reader to create the mental image, but when a book borrows so much from other works, the mental image often ends up being recycled too. This is why the film's future Seoul feels like a vibrant, distinct piece of cyberpunk, whilst the book's feels like a carbon copy of an Orwell or Huxley dystopia. The few images unique to the book feel tacky and uninspired, such as future Disney making hentai porn.

The film has its own issues. The make up quality is inconsistent; the Yellow Face and Devil make up, for instance, looks too Star Trek. The CGI also struggles to be convincing too, looking cartoony at times. Finally, despite the benefit of a clearer narrative, the film needlessly explains its own themes to the audience. I got it, thank you.

Over all, I hold the film in higher regard to the book. I'm tempted to revisit the book, just to see if I can spot what I apparently missed the first time, but for now, I'll just stick with a more enjoyable, more imaginative movie.

An odyssey of the human condition told across lives and time.

Where to begin with this film? I shall begin my review as regards to how it uses the medium of film. The audience is introduced to the characters and various settings first, though some are at the end of their stories when we meet them, while others are halfway through, and still others just beginning. Following that, the plots of each vignette are built upon and the underlying arc connecting them is slowly revealed.

The transitions from each scene to another are smooth as the director's skill comes into play. Going forward or back, each sequence follows the recognizable narrative structure with some clever or logical lead ins to each bit. Leading to scenes where mundane troubles, individual bouts, and battles for civilization are played alongside each other yet there's no mood whiplash because both sets of characters are in the appropriate amount of peril to their respective settings.

For tropers, there's no better way to recognize what we are than this film. The time periods and characters are so varied that it almost transcends genre conventions while still telling a single story. By throwing out the comforts of linear continuity and fixed settings, the audience is forced to recognize the Jungian archetypes we call tropes. "Hero" "Message" "Truth" "Freedom" "Monsters" "Tyranny" "Friend" "Love" we are shown the various forms these ideas take in the world. It shows how little humans have changed throughout our history. While the cynic may take that at face value and say we've not truly advanced to anything beyond more sophisticated savages. My view is that we've advanced precisely because what we are hasn't changed. No matter what era, no matter what form of evil, there is ALWAYS good to oppose it. ("Within the context of the film." Disclaimer for cynics.)

What is Cloud Atlas then? Is it an epic about life? The purest form of mono-myth? Or just a collection of connected vignettes? My opinion is that it's all these things and more. I loved this movie and won't be forgetting it anytime soon.