A reader’s review of ‘Cloud Atlas,’ the movie (versus the book)

I’m an unabashed fan of the novel “Cloud Atlas,” so I was pretty nervous about the idea of a movie. After the critics panned it, I should have been forlorn, right? But I saw it for myself and loved it, really loved it.

The reviews of the movie “Cloud Atlas” have struggled to summarize its storyline because its based on a novel that heaps storyline upon storyline and leaps from one time period to another. It’s about a young attorney in the 1700s on a voyage through the South Pacific who succumbs to a strange illness and tries to help an escaped slave. It’s about a dashing young musician in the 1930s who wins an apprenticeship with an aging composer. It’s about a muck-raking reporter in 1970s California who tries to expose a cover-up at a nuclear power plant. It’s about an aging English publisher in the 1990s; he’s unwittingly committed to a nursing home by his malicious brother. It’s about a science-fiction future, when a clone tries to escape enslavement from “corpocracy” and inspires others to rebel. And it’s about the farther future, after “The Fall,”  when humanity tries to put itself back together in Hawaii after apocalyptic cataclysm.

Like most postmodern or post-postmodern novels, “Cloud Atlas” the book reminds readers constantly that what they’re reading is fiction. Its purpose is to layer multiple stories on top of each other so that a larger, different story emerges, much the way impressionist painters layered paint on canvas. It’s not a traditional narrative, but a story of ideas.  “Cloud Atlas” then becomes a meditation of how the strong prey on the weak, how the predators justify their actions, and how the weak find ways to resist.

The movie, interestingly, embraces most of the novel’s strange quirks and narrative play. (It also takes some interesting liberties with the book’s plot.) This isn’t a movie with a beginning a middle and and end, but many beginnings, many middles and many endings.

Different actors play different roles in the film, and some have suggested that one way to read this casting is as the same souls traveling through time. I would reject this reading of the progression of souls — even if the filmmakers intended it. For one thing, the idea doesn’t make much sense, and in the movie there’s no natural sense of how the characters are particularly connected. And for another thing, some of the actors are in such heavy make-up that you can’t even tell it’s the same actor. (I strongly disagree with the reviews that claim the actors always remain recognizable.)

So then why do I think this casting “works” anyway? Because it reminds you that the specific stories are connected thematically, not literally. It’s like a live stage play where the actors play different roles; it serves to remind you that you are watching a narrative that was created by human beings to explore ideas.

I went to “Cloud Atlas” with someone (Mark) who hadn’t read the book. He said he enjoyed the movie and could follow it easily; it wasn’t as complicated as the reviewers would have you think. So with all that in mind, I would urge you to see “Cloud Atlas”. It doesn’t tie up all the loose ends in a big bow or end with a big musical number. Instead, it’s just an interesting, beautiful movie that will make you think.

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