Since Oliver Twist hit the screens in 1909, audiences have lamented that the movie is not as good as the book. No one expected Cloud Atlas to break from that trend, but the fact that it went out of its way to be more complicated and less moving than David Mitchell's sci-fi bestseller still came as a surprise.
In my review of the book, I took issue with the stories' thin characterizations, but the narrative sequencing was actually least of the novel's problems. Naturally, this is what the film decided to dismantle first.
The first half of the book introduced us to the six reincarnated lives of one soul. Each person's story started, continued long enough for us to get a feel for the plot and personalities involved, then ended abruptly at a climatic point, to be followed by the next life. In the second half of the book, we revisit each life and witness the end of the story. The six lives are tenuously connected and it's difficult to divine the karmic evolution of the soul, as it travels from one life to the next. Do the people pay for past sins? Are they rewarded for growth and selflessness? Not so you'd notice. Rather than learning life lessons through the centuries, they appear to be on a cosmic treadmill, just as prone to a misstep, to make mistakes, even the same mistakes, in the 1800s as they are 500 years later. Furthermore, the reincarnated characters might share a birthmark from one life to the other, but do not particularly share other traits. At the end, I wondered why Mitchell even bothered telling us that the six tales involved the same people reincarnated, rather than just presenting them as six short stories, with slightly overlapping themes.
Instead of minimizing the book's flaws, the movie tries to continuously "connect" the stories in the most fatuous way possible, obliterating most of the author's content in the process.
The six stories are spliced together, intercut so that we never stay in one lifetime more than two minutes at a time. Running 2:50 hours, if the film had followed the movie's outline, we would have spent a half hour on each life, 15 continuous minutes in the beginning and then returning to give us another block of 15 minutes at the end. This would have been the best way for the diverse plots to come together to make one big picture in the end. As it is, when we cut away from each story after a minute or two, you never become fully immersed in any of them and they're never tied together. Instead, an actor intones a cliché like "I believe that life never ends. Death is just a door and when one closes another opens' and basically taunts, That's all the cohesion you're gonna get!
To make matters worse, on the page the same soul can inhabit different bodies, regardless of race, sex or age, but it's hard for that concept to translate onto film. Why compound the problem by having the actors play different reincarnated souls in each life? In one story Halle Berry plays the soul we recognize through the crescent-shaped birthmark she bore in the past. Yet, in the next segment, it's Tom Hanks who bears that birthmark. You can't buy the idea that two people are soulmates, destined to be linked through all eternity, when you can't even identify them as the same spirits, from one life to the next.
They have as little in common with their past selves as they do with each other, from one existence to the next.
In the book, Robert Frobisher and Zachry were the most intriguing and empathetic protagonists. In Mitchell's hands, music composer Frobisher chose death. It wasn't forced on him, because he painted himself into a corner. Instead, he was, perhaps, bi-polar and killed himself in a moment of acute restlessness. He didn't act out of grief or fear, but was spurred by the nothingness that remained following great excitement and (delusional) emotion. Certainly, his bisexuality was never a factor in his suicide because it was portrayed with humor, rather than shame.
All that changes in the movie. Frobisher falls in love with the older composer whom he only used in the book. When he's spurned, blackmailed and faced with ruin, he shoots the composer, flees, is forced into hiding and penury, then kills himself. The written Frobisher was so used to a life of deception he would have found such contretemps a lark, not a dilemma. He picked death as one of the many options available to him, not as a last resort. The film made his mental problem a mechanical one. Replacing introspection with a gun can never improve a story.
The movie seems obsessed with offering the reason that things happened, never mind the fact that its reasons are absurdly shallow ones. In reality people hate, love and leave you with no rationale, or one that's too nebulous, complicated or multi-folded to comprehend. Black and white is neat, but not compelling. For instance, in the Timothy Cavendish tale, a publisher's brother has him confined to a mental hospital. Cavendish has no idea why he's victimized this way, but in the book he repeatedly is. Thus, his brother's specific motives are inconsequential. It's more intriguing to ask what weakness Cavendish possesses that causes everyone to immediately view him as a mark. The film tells us that his brother set him up as revenge for an affair Cavendish had with his wife. This thought occurred to Cavendish in the book, but the answer remained a mystery. For me, that was best. Brothers hate brothers and if you ask Cain why, I doubt he'd have a single response for you. There wasn't one transgression, there were many, since Abel's birth, and they gathered threads, thwarts and thorns, forming one big ball of rage that finally exploded one day. That's how life happens and we usually can't specify the day or insult that caused everything to fall apart.
Brother Denny Cavendish's conduct puzzled me too. Since he'd lent his brother money in the past, I thought he must have some feeling for him. Perhaps, he met to rescue him from the institution shortly, but died before he could. In the movie, he simply turns on him in spite. Fiction is often concerned with tying up loose ends, but pat explanations are worse than none at all.
In Zachry's story, although he and the Prescient from a more advanced world marry in a gratuitous "happy ending" they have less of a bond than they did in the book, as platonic comrades. His distrust of Meronym, the Prescient, dissolves slowly as they come to empathize and rely on one another in the book. In the movie, she is on a dangerous exploratory mission and he agrees to help her only because she has the sophisticated medicine needed to save his niece's life (it was his sister in the book, where Zachry was decades younger than Tom Hanks), not because he has grown to relate to her, despite the devil on his shoulder warning him that he shouldn't. Her commander warns her not to corrupt and alter his world by sharing her technology with Zachry, but when he implores her, she can't resist. As they soften towards each other, they sacrifice everything just to protect their friend. We sense more of the past-life instincts that draw them together in the book, while circumstances do most to bind them together onscreen.
If the five stories involving humans were lifeless, then the one with the fabricant, Sonmi, were even more so. Again, instead of sacrificing herself to change mankind's heartless ways, in the movie she is motivated as much by love as civil rights. We see her spooning romantically with the union leader who recruits her, rather than dispassinately realizing she's just a tool in his crusade, as the written Sonmi does. The only thing her plot had going for it was it's larger focus on humanity, over the individual humans that comprise it. This story served as the umbrella under which the other five operated, which is why the evil that has built over generations and culminates with her civilization finally implodes upon itself. The planet is reborn, from remnants of the destruction. Only Zachry's almost prehistoric world remains. In the last reincarnation, Zachry's, Sonmi is revered as a God by villagers who have found the artifacts of her words and embue them with biblical significance, centuries after the true facts of her life and death have been lost to time.
While Sonmi's story should have been the largest reflection of the small themes (freedom, prejudice, equality, greed, betrayal, and cruelty) that ran throughout the other plots, it centers instead on Sonmi's love for the union leader who enlists her and, as she rides shotgun, races through space shooting up their enemies like Neo, just without the long trench coat. Sonmi's language and world, some of the more unique aspects of the book, are stripped away and redressed as trite.
Cloud Atlas, the book, was less about love triumphing over time and death, than about our persistent battle against hate and evil, in relationships, societies, and universes. The small plot point should have been an echo of the large one, instead they all run adjacent, like different lanes on a track, but no obvious finish line in sight.
While the paranormal plotting should have been all the "action" the movie needed, it gives each story unnecessary "chase" scenes and weaves them together, in back to back snippets, so they are collectively less exciting than they would have been individually developed and fully played out, without interruption.
If the fight scenes are underwhelming, the other segues are stultifying. A door opens in Luisa's story and closes in Tim Cavendish's. Transitions can enhance if they highlight important plot parallels, but when they only emphasize how superficial the chain keeping each element of the cloud atlas together is, everything suffers. This film was a case in which the sum lessened the six parts.