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Cloud Atlas Rumble: A Movie and Book Critic Square Off Over the Centuries-Spanning Film

A scene from the epic drama “CLOUD ATLAS,” distributed domestically by Warner Bros. Pictures and in select international territories.
A scene from the epic drama “CLOUD ATLAS,” distributed domestically by Warner Bros. Pictures and in select international territories. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Movie critic David Edelstein and book critic Kathryn Schulz engaged in a long conversation over the new film Cloud Atlas, based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell. A shorter version of this exchange originally appeared in the October 29 issue of New York Magazine.

David Edelstein: Do you want the true-true? I think the film of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is dumb-dumb. Andy and Lana Wachowski (the latter once Larry, and her transformation into Lana might well tie into the notion expressed in this film and the Matrix trilogy that identity is fluid and that physical boundaries are made to be transcended) and Tom Twyker have seized hold of Mitchell’s enlivening literary tour-de-force, passed it through the Benihana chopper, and extruded the most jaw-droppingly woo-woo piece of sci-fi-romantic drivel since The Fountain.

I’ll leave it to you to enumerate Mitchell’s accomplishments on paper, but one thing I loved about the novel was that each of its six subplots — the “Pacific Journal” slave melodrama of the nineteenth century, the epistolary section from the early twentieth, the paranoid-conspiracy seventies thriller, the present-day totalitarian old-age Kafkaesque yarn, the clone-war adventure of the near future, and the postapocalyptic jungle saga of the distant one —each had its own integrity, its own style, its own present tense. From the start of the movie, the Wachowskis and Tykwer give us a hash of crisscrossing plots tied together with music (in a desperate attempt at fluidity) and featuring the same actors with laughably egregious makeup jobs. Our dawning awareness in the book of the all echoes and crosscurrents and themes and variations become fast-food metaphysics on a cartoony canvas.

The cinematography is indifferent and the editing too on the nose, but it’s the acting that’s the shocker. The cast comes off like a third-rate stock company on the matinee after the night on which everyone got bombed on mescal (and possibly mescaline). They’re a flailing bunch, unprotected by their directors, their hamminess cruelly exposed. Tom Hanks is a smart performer, but he’s rusty and here, at times, risible: The role needs a Peter Sellers–level impersonator-clown who can take off into the stratosphere. But he’s game, I’ll give him that. Halle Berry doesn’t change my perception of her as a lovely non-actress, Hugo Weaving is just as one-dimensional as the villains he plays, Susan Sarandon has nada (and when she intones spells with what looks like feces spread all over her face, less than nada), and Hugh Grant manages to play an ooga-booga cannibal in war paint without losing his English lockjaw. Jim Sturgess as Ewing and Ben Whishaw as Frobisher register (tellingly, they have no greasepaint and putty), and Jim Broadbent conjures some pathos as the publisher, Cavendish, although one misses the character’s sleazy side. Doona Bae as the “fabricant” Sonmi-451 has a lollipop head, a kewpie-doll mouth, and a lithe body, but it’s hard to detect much of anything under the surface.

Even given the obviousness of the writing, do you think viewers who haven’t read the book will know what’s going on (assuming they can understand the dialogue, much of which the soundtrack garbles)? It’s all flashcards until the last movement, when such lines as “separation is an illusion” and “my life extends beyond the limitations of me” are like Buddhist placards.

Kathryn Schulz: Oh, damn, you stole my true-true line. As that suggests, I find myself largely in agreement with you, although — and to my surprise — I’m perhaps slightly less prepared to dismiss the film as just dumb. Or dumb-dumb. The “to my surprise” part is because I’m a raving David Mitchell fan; I’m not sure there’s a novelist working today who impresses me more, and I’ve been uneasy about the idea of turning Cloud Atlas into a film from the moment I heard it was going to happen. (In fairness, I was a huge fan of The Matrix and of Run Lola Run, too, but that didn’t assuage my qualms. Felt like my best friend was going on a date with my sister or my ex or something: You can admire all the people involved and still feel awfully queasy.)

Anyway, to answer your question: I have no idea if viewers who haven’t read the book will be able to understand the movie, but I sure did wonder while watching it. For one thing, there’s that rapid cross-cutting from story to story that you cite. I found many of those transitions — the exact moment and manner of getting from one tale to the next — to be well done, if still nothing like Mitchell’s magic. (He gets you from story to story so adeptly that, in at least one instance, I actually exclaimed out loud). But the overall effect is hectic, especially in the first half of the film, and I’m not at all sure that audiences with no preexisting sense of the storylines will be able to follow. (I have a solution to that problem, which I’ll probably say 12 more times before we’re done here: just go read the book. It is beyond outstanding.)

Then there is, as you point out, the linguistic gobbledygook, which drove me absolutely batty. One of the many things I loved about Cloud Atlas, the book — a retronym I resent having to type, by the way — is the way it shows language itself changing over time. You get immersed in these successive argots, from a mid-nineteenth-century English that feels archaic to an invented 22nd-century idiom that is dystopically new (half the nouns and verbs come from products: cameras are kodaks, etc.) to an even more distant future where the language, like the culture, has lapsed back into something rough and primitive again. It’s slightly difficult to manage that newest and most invented language even in the book, but by the time you get there, 300 pages in, Mitchell has entirely earned your trust. The movie, by contrast, opens with Tom Hanks babbling in this made-up lingo, and the combination — the lingo, and Tom Hanks — almost made me walk out of the movie before it had barely started.

This is, I think, part of my larger objection to the movie: i=It never achieves the remarkable sense of sweep that the book does. Cloud Atlas, the book, has both grandeur (a magnificent and humbling sense of the passage of time) and wit: Somehow, you simultaneously get swept up in the story yet remain aware enough of what’s going on to be awed by the author. Cloud Atlas, the movie, never quite impresses you on either front. I appreciated its ambition, and I did admire it in moments, but it never felt like more than the sum of its parts.

Oh, wait, wasn’t I supposed to be defending this movie a tiny bit? Okay, here goes: I loved the Robert Frobisher section. I thought Ben Whishaw was terrific — he seemed like he’d stepped out of my mind onto the screen—and his story is far more self-contained and emotionally plausible and carefully told than the others. We also get, in that section, a scene that is not only the loveliest of this film but one of the lovelier ones I’ve seen in any film in a long time: that destruction-of-the-china-shop moment. I also liked the Luisa Rey section, and found it a bit tantalizing; it’s probably as close as the movie comes to mimicking Mitchell’s incredible feel for — and incredible fun with — genre.

Edelstein: You can tell watching Cloud Atlas why the Wachowskis (who enlisted Tykwer) responded to the material — not only for its notion of a cosmic commingling (which in their minds perhaps necessitated the interweaving) but its racial themes. The brother and sister have a yen for miscegenation, both literally and spiritually. As he’s flogged, Autua the slave communes with Ewing through the eyes. (Ewing even passes out — leaves his body — in the film.) Hanks’s Dr. Sachs feels a transcendental link to Berry’s Luisa (and he will ultimately mate with her in a different form). Sonmi is an example of that excellent Asimov/Star Trek trope in which the artificial life form develops emotions that are even more nakedly human than the humans. (She then mates with a man). Even in the Frobisher section, the Wachowskis have cast the half-black Berry as Ayrs’s wife and Frobisher’s lover, while Ewing’s wife is played, bizarrely, by Doona Bae in a red wig with freckles. The strain of Gnosticism in The Matrix has here become a full-fledged transmigration of souls, the body but a weak and temporary vessel. And for the Wachowskis, the Powers That Be are those who preserve artificial boundaries — racial, sexual, economic, and, ultimately, spiritual. Free will in their films is a matter of learning to “free your mind” as Morpheus tells Neo in the dojo sequence of The Matrix. And once you’ve freed your mind, there is but one possibility: revolution. Social and economic justice for all!

So, yes, Cloud Atlas in rich in thematic material. But as I’ve said, it’s all in the form of flashcards and placards, without Mitchell’s writing — which is so exquisitely malleable that the language itself conveys the larger idea of one entity changing and adapting to different cultures and eras. The evolution of language that you so lucidly trace barely registers onscreen.

I’ll concede that the Frobisher section is smooth, the music lovely, and the performances of Whishaw and Broadbent better than good. The Luisa Rey action plot — car crashes, shoot-outs — is standard stuff but hits its marks. Put it all together, though, and you’ve still got multiple B movies bicycle-pumped into something supposedly momentous. Many viewers will doubtless find it just so. Consider the reams of blather written about Inception — and the attacks on anyone who thought it maladroit. Cloud Atlas the movie is this year’s Inception.

Schulz: Nice work on pulling together the two points I was about to make separately: about race, and about free will. I’m going to dilate on each for a moment, and with luck maybe I can pull them back together at the end.

So, race: many commentators have objected to the use of yellowface in the film — CGI-ing and makeup-ing the heck out of white actors so they can play Korean roles. I think you have to be oblivious to the history of racism in the United States to blow past that objection, but I also had other fish to fry here. For one thing, and back to language for a moment: what’s up with having everyone in Neo-Seoul speak English in faux-Korean accents? Either have them speak in Korean and use subtitles, or have them speak regular English, which surely requires less suspension of disbelief than Tom Hanks as a 25th-century shepherd. But can we please move beyond this ridiculous movie convention of conveying the fact that people are speaking a foreign language by having them speak bad English? It is, in every sense of the word, alienating.

Anyway. The defense you could mount of the yellowface in the film would be to point to its literal and figurative contexts. The literal context is that every major actor in this film plays multiple roles, and many of them change gender and race along the way. As you note, both Barry and Bae appear in what I reluctantly call whiteface — reluctantly, because there’s no easy equivalency between white actors playing non-white parts and non-white actors playing white ones. The figurative context is the one you cite: the thematic emphasis on the transmigration of souls, which I think means we’re supposed to take the yellowface and whiteface and womanface and whatever-face as a sign that, oh, hey, we’re all just the same human soul underneath. Radical!

Trouble is, neither of those held up for me in the execution. Yes, each actor reappears in many parts, but the only way we get a sense of their connectedness is when the characters themselves point it out. (“From the moment I met you, you seemed so familiar!” I paraphrase, but you get the gist.) Nor was I able to track—and thus feel—the development of a given “soul” over time. So I’m not sure what the cross-casting of all these actors buys us, except maybe an Oscar for makeup. It’s a technical achievement but not an emotional one, and we certainly shouldn’t fool ourselves that it’s a political one. “We’re all the same underneath” is a lovely sentiment, and to some extent a true one — hey, I’m a humanist, too — but it’s also a cop-out. It lets you drift around in this misty terrain of transmigrating souls, assigning all the blame for evil and all the hope for redemption to individuals without troubling yourself too much over the structural issues at work.

This brings us back around to my free-will issue with this film. The Matrix explored, about as intensely as you can, the illusion of free will — to my mind, very deftly. But Cloud Atlas gets itself into a muddle on the subject. We hear over and over that “Our lives are not our own.” But we also hear that, “By each crime, and every act of kindness, we build our future.” Well, wait a sec. If it’s an act of kindness or villainy, presumably it’s a choice: Action implies agency. But it’s not at all clear how we’re supposed to square that with the notion of fate that permeates this film: “Our lives are not our own.” As a result, the other thing that permeates this film is a kind of moral incoherence.

Free will is probably the thorniest problem of philosophy, and it’s not that I think the Wachowskis are responsible for figuring it out here. But I wish they hadn’t sorta pretended to do so, with their surface-appealing but ultimately simplistic appeal to reincarnation. The book is thematically far subtler; in fact, its only moment of heavy-handedness, and the only part I could have done without, is the way the comet-shaped birthmark migrates from character to character. It says a lot about the movie that not only does it take that birthmark and run with it, it clutches for every other possible way to underline these characters’ connections to one another over time. (And while we’re on the subject of the birthmark, a petty complaint: the makeup artists can make Hugo Weaving look like a woman but can’t make a birthmark look like a birthmark? Oy.) As you pointed out, David, the result is a film that veers dangerously close to woo-woo land. In fact, my hunch is that this is what will separate fans from detractors: do you go for this hokey past life/united souls stuff or not? Me, I have a very low tolerance for anything New Age–y, so you can tell what camp I’m in.

But one last thing. As I type all this, I’m aware that I sound more strident on the page than I felt when I walked out of the theater. I liked watching Cloud Atlas. I didn’t ever get bored, despite the fact that its running time rivals Paul Ryan’s imaginary marathon; I was mostly absorbed by what was going on  onscreen, and I was interested in watching the way the filmmakers set up and solved a set of problems, even when they did so imperfectly. When Mitchell himself reflected, in the New York Times, on the process of watching his book get made into a movie, he said, “Perhaps where text slides toward ambiguity, film inclines to specificity.” I think that’s right, and it’s one reason I didn’t wholly like the movie; it told me what to think too much. In that spirit, and as the representative of text in this conversation, I’m inclined to slide toward, and side with, ambiguity. Unlike the book, Cloud Atlas, the movie, is not groundbreaking and dazzling and brilliant and epic and all the rest of those other over-the-top reviewer words. But I also didn’t find it dreadful, or dumb. I’m glad I saw it. I’m inclined to tell other people they should go see it, too, with one massive, all important caveat. You know what that is. Go read the book first.

Edelstein: Your summary is deft, Kathryn, but I can’t let Mitchell’s remark—“Perhaps where text slides toward ambiguity, film inclines to specificity” — go unchallenged. In fact, I call bullshit. Film is certainly a medium of surfaces, and yet all manner of artists have found ways to gesture toward that which cannot be pinned and wriggling on the wall. The problem, I think, is that for all their mysticism, the Wachowskis are very literal — perhaps even materialists. This is why as soon as soon as the Matrix sequels veered into overt religious allegory, it turned lugubrious and laughable. I admire their daring — and, hell, I didn’t hate watching the movie, although I had a lot of bad laughs at its expense. Only the language grated. When Hanks’s little girl said, “Mama, I hungry,” I wanted to find that missing verb and beat the screenwriters over the head with it. Also, Frobisher’s “What happened between Vivian and I … ” shouldn’t happen to you, me, or anyone in a $100-plus million dollar movie. And that’s the true-true, Rue.

Cloud Atlas Rumble: Movie Critic vs. Book Critic