Cloud Atlas (2012)

The Wachowskis crave complexity. David Mitchell gave them the fix they needed with his novel Cloud Atlas.

After the Matrix franchise had revolutionised cinema in terms of imagination, of story-telling and of special effects, the two brothers (now both transgender and hence sisters) sought new heights to conquer.

I wonder just how many scripts from wannabee Matrix-writers they thumbed through in despair and dropped into the waste paper basket? And I wonder how many dud scripts were set in a dystopian future where heroes wear Ray-Bans and Hugo Weaving is an implacable foe?

They finally found the novelty, the bizarre storytelling, the offbeat, eccentric narrative they longed for in the 500-plus-page novel of David Mitchell. (For the avoidance of doubt,  Mitchell is not the TV comedian married to Victoria Coren, but an English novelist who writes eccentric stuff – think of him as the Tracy Emin of the typewriter).

The result is a two and a half hour long epic, released in 2012, which displayed great cinematic virtuosity but attracted plenty of both brickbats and bouquets.

Cloud Atlas tells six stories: A young lawyer crossing the Pacific in 1849 and turning against slavery; a young gay musician blagging a living as an assistant to an ageing composer in 1930s Edinburgh; an investigative journalist in 1970s California going after Big Oil companies; a present-day vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors and becoming trapped in a clinic from hell; a genetically modified woman replicant in Korea in 2144 recounting to her jailer how she led a rebellion; and a Pacific Islander, in 2321, one of the few survivors of a nuclear apocalypse, witnessing the end of science and civilization.

It was said of Mitchell’s book, published in 2004, that it was unfilmable – a claim that the three directors, Lana Wachowskis, Lilly Wachowski and German director Tom Tykwer, have decisively disproved.

Tom Tykwer (known best for Perfume, 2006)  directed Luisa Rey, the 1970s story, Timothy Cavendish (the present day), and the Robert Frobisher story which is set in the 1930s. The Wachowskis directed Adam Ewing’s story, the 1849 Pacific voyage, and the two futuristic Sci-Fi stories, Sonmi and Sloosha’s Crossin’.

In the book, the stories are presented in series, first the beginning of each, and later the endings, which some readers found confusing. In the film, the directors used the kind of fast inter-cutting used successfully in The Matrix to intertwine all the narratives from the start – creating even more confusion among cinema audiences.

It might have been more accurate to say of the novel that it shouldn’t be filmed, rather than couldn’t, because it breaks so many of the novelists’ ten commandments.

The first law of novel-writing is that the story must be rational. It can be surreal, bizarre and include magic realism if that aids communication, but it must not arbitrarily be irrational for plot purposes.  If the hero is in a fix, he may not get out of it by simply disappearing, unless the ability to disappear is part of the story and has been foreshadowed – otherwise the story follows no rules, has no logic and does not merit our attention.

Nowhere is this rule more obvious than in science fiction, more than any other genre. New and astounding technology, miraculous feats of mind are expected in SF, but they too must be grounded in the rational.  In The Matrix, the directors created the rules for an entirely new universe, but they then stuck rigidly to them.

In Cloud Atlas there is not one new universe but six of them. The central premise of the novel and film is that past, present and future interact in recurring ways and that a word or gesture in 1849 can have consequences in 2321. The film’s tag line is “Everything is connected”.

The trouble is that the premise and its mechanism have no rational basis, even within the fictional worlds depicted. And rather than discovering or disclosing the connectedness of everything, the book and film are really all about manufacturing connections – often rather superficial connections.

The past affects the present in the Wachowskis world not because a Mobius figure offers us a red pill that gives us eyes to see the truth, but merely because Mitchell and the Wachowskis say so.

It’s fine for a story and a film to have a metaphysical proposition at its heart – am I a philosopher dreaming of a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of being a philosopher? But it is not OK for a story to have a superstitious contention at its heart – we, or someone like us, are reincarnated and our past actions can influence our future lives. That is a proposition to be proved by a story, not one to take for granted as a starting point.

It is the job of a writer not only to propose a theme for his work but also to prove that theme by means of his narrative, not merely to continually reassert the theme in the hope that repetition will somehow give it reality.

In fact, there is no real connection between the six stories, other than a few sticking plasters contrived by the writer-directors to paper over the cracks (of which more later) and the vague suggestion that reincarnation might somehow be at work here in some unknown way.

The Wachowskis have, however, forged a connection between the stories that is not present in the book because it was not available to the novelist: they have used the same repertory of famous actors to populate each story – suggesting the reincarnation idea even more strongly.

Famous names who appear again and again include Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Wishaw, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant and others. The makeup is so good that part of the fun is spotting the celebrities under the latex and the prosthetics, and watching the credits at the end in disbelief.

Given that there is no real connection between the six stories, the central question for a critic becomes, would any of the stories stand up on their own? Do they become any better when linked by the gossamer thin rope of reincarnation?

The answer has to be no to both questions. I strongly suspect that the Wachowskis may have looked very closely at the futuristic sci-fi tale of Somni the replicant girl as a possible stand-alone subject. But they would have decided that it is nothing like strong enough to stand unaided. It would have been compared very unfavourably with The Matrix. And even more unfavourably with Ridley Scott’s seminal Blade Runner of 1982 – thirty years earlier. Cloud Atlas the novel is no Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

To compensate for the weakness of the individual stories, the directors have been lured into the two biggest mistakes of the film: using tropes with which we are already familiar from other successful books or films, and relying on special effects to paper over the cracks.

Sometimes, these devices are no more than a nod to a reference source like the cityscape from Blade Runner. Sometimes, they are original ideas lifted wholesale such as the decapitating explosive neck band from Asimov’s Foundation and Empire trilogy.

Eagle-eyed audiences will spot borrowings from Gattaca, Blade Runner, Soylent Green, Planet of the Apes. The China Syndrome and One flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, complete with a tyrannical Nurse Ratched.

Perhaps the most important rule that Cloud Atlas breaks is that great stories are cut from whole cloth. Moby Dick, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Gone with the Wind, The Matrix are all perfect examples of well-integrated storytelling centred around a single core idea. Stitching together a lot of little stories, as Cloud Atlas  attempts to do does not make one big story: it makes a patchwork quilt.

The ‘connection’ between these stories in cinematic and narrative terms – that is over and above the phony reincarnation malarkey – is opportunistic rather than artistic. The writer looks for and pounces upon anything that can be pressed into service to suggest some underlying thematic link – a journal, a musical phrase, a letter, a lightning bolt, a heroic gesture, fleeing from one’s enemies – any device will do.

Finally, the title itself. Cloud Atlas is the name of a piece of music by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was Yoko Ono’s first husband. Mitchell said he bought the CD just because he liked the title. This level of superficiality characterises the entire novel.

My good verdict: Cloud Atlas is a big story that makes a big film (two and a half hours.) It is packed full of entertainment and the novelty of seeing some of our favourite actors getting maximum mileage from the makeup department. There is spectacle and action as well as tenderness and love. The stories are all resolved, some happily , some tragically. An evening well spent in front of the telly with a doner kebab and a Spanish winebox.

My bad verdict: The Wachowskis’ thirst for novelty has led them into frittering away their talents on a worthless vehicle that provides no more than a moment’s diversion on a wet Monday evening.

So where do we (by which of course I mean the Wachowskis) go from here? First they should count their blessings. They have Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, and the ability to attract the cream of English acting talent. They have imaginative special effects that are still superior to many if not most films. In my opinion it is impossible to emulate, let alone surpass, The Matrix and they should stop trying. Instead they should accept that a smaller canvas does not necessarily imply a meaner use of their talents.

There are plenty of high-concept novels out there that would make a much better film. The end of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas springs immediately to mind, along with my own Dead Secret.   🙂

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