Before reading the film review, check out the piece I did on the novel in anticipation of the movie and just be in awe of how right I was about LITERALLY everything. I wish I had mentioned that I thought the music was going to be great but underutilized, because I did, and it was.
In the interest of charity, I’ll say that the three people I went to see Cloud Atlas with enjoyed it, and one of them is even a meteorologist’s daughter. Perhaps I am only playing the part of the guy who read the book and won’t shut up about how they ruined it. If with this review I do offend, then think it no more yielding but a dream. In fact, that brings to mind my wife’s comment on Twitter last night.
Kierkegaard once said that to win a crowd is no art: for that only untruth is needed, nonsense, and a little knowledge of human passions. And so, in order to balance the cosmos after the release of Cloud Atlas, I will downplay the entertainment factor in this review and attempt to say something significant.
Occasionally you will come across a window with gorgeous things happening inside with which you ought to be engrossed, but you’ve caught the reflection of yourself instead and Narcissus must be honored. I think that’s what happened to Larry Wachowski when he read Cloud Atlas.
The film puts the ‘overt’ in overture, so much so that it makes me suspicious in the other direction: maybe the recent transgender journey of the elder Wachowski is more publicity stunt than proper inspiration. If so, Andy Kaufmann and Joaquin Phoenix have some competition for the insane-commitment-to-leveraging-your-entire-life-and-hoping-you’ll-make-a-return-on-that-ridiculous-investment award. But I think he’s probably not that self-aware. The filmmakers’ favorite theme from the novel was clearly the idea of innate and unalienable human dignity and equality. However, they’ve stripped this theme of all distinction and subtlety in order to make it marketable (palatable to their own sensibilities). What they present instead is an androgynous, homogenous caricature, which, coincidentally, is exactly what I thought the first time I saw Larry Wachaowski as “Lana.” Didn’t seem worthy of the depth of that particular experience.
The biggest problem is, a caricature is never lauded as worthy of its subject. We don’t ever see them tastefully hung over a roaring fireplace in a billionaire’s study. They are often instead lost in a shuffle of boxed papers in the attic, barely worth the $10 shelled out at the County Fair. I recently tweeted a picture of a poster I had come across which featured a polar bear relaxing on its back, with a bit of Psalm 34:7 penned beneath. I commented that it was in bad taste. The problem, I stated, was that neither the medium nor the image does justice to the text, and this work would have been better left undone if the aim was to elucidate the scripture. However, if the aim was to elevate the medium, then perhaps (even if at the text’s expense), the object was attained. Memes are only so powerful an art form, and Holy writ has been misappropriated for far more insidious causes, as is even a theme in Cloud Atlas.
The filmmakers certainly achieved some brilliant heights. It was the fastest paced, most consistently entertaining three-hour movie I’ve ever seen. In fact it flew by, which in many ways was a disappointment. When I looked down at my phone to see if the babysitter had called, I noticed two hours had elapsed and was then very sad that I hadn’t been moved yet (aside from a deeply disquieting scene featuring the abuse of a slave). It seems to me that every decision made was a compromise in the direction of blah. Most of my favorite moments were gone. The sharpest corners were rounded off. The vignettes that could have been most effective at driving the point home were ignored or glossed for the sake of making the film watchable.
I may lose some folks here (a huge price considering that only Joseph Williams and my mom are still reading at this point), but one does not have to eschew subtlety and distinctions in order to celebrate equality and dignity. 2000 years a go a man famously, groundbreakingly, and counterculturally wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one…” That same man also made clear his belief that males are males, females are females, Jews are not Greeks, and many people are going to hell, and he did so without abandoning the former claim. Cloud Atlas seemed to be saying, “All boundaries are conventions. Everyone is the same and eventually you’ll be happy. Just hang on.” How impotent and uninteresting. How trite and unable to compel. I wish Terrence Malick could have made the film instead. I would have watched all 43 hours of it.
But maybe the film version only exposes and amplifies the weaknesses of the novel. That’s something caricatures do very well – exaggerating buck teeth and freckles. But even if that’s the case, then I still recommend the novel, for the simple virtue that it is very well written and deeply affecting. If you liked the movie, then please read the book. It’s way better. (Unless what you liked about the movie was all the things I thought were stupid, then please know that I think you are also stupid). If you loved the book, watch the movie. Keep in mind that it earned its ‘R’ rating and probably then some, but it will remind you of all the things you loved about the book and you’ll want to read it again.
I could say a lot more, but I’ll refrain. Suffice to say, if you’ve never seen a cloud, then a child’s drawing of one might serve you well. Just try not to be overly impressed with it.