Save Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell wrote one of the books that I have loved the most. That is not to say that he wrote my favorite book (A tie between The Man Who Was Thursday and Watchmen) nor the book that I necessarily believe to be the best ever written (well, I’d need a couple of weeks and few reams of graph paper before I’d even be comfortable hazarding a guess) but the book that I poured the most of myself into and saw the most of myself reflected in. It’s not the one you’re thinking of either. Number9Dream is something of the black sheep of Mitchell’s bibliography.
Dismissed as a Murakami imitation by the harshest critics, held in gentle bafflement by his supporters as the one that doesn’t just fit, not as ambitious as Ghostwritten, not as poetic as The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet, or as naturalistic as Black Swan Green. Number9Dream is the story of a lonely Japanese nineteen year old’s journey of self discovery, augmented with virtuosic flourishes, wild flights into fantasy and interspersed with some staggering moments of pulp violence. It spoke to me in a way that no other book had before, and to a certain extent since. It contained that electric feeling of connection that only the best literature provides, not only with character but with an author.
It also showed Mitchell as an author of outsized ambition and wild talent. At a time when literary fiction has grown more and more hermetically sealed, Number9Dream was the work of an author who was trying to fit the whole damn world in his book.
Which is fittingly enough, exactly what he did for his follow up. Cloud Atlas, his portrait of karma in motion, was a book that fit the entire damned world into its pages. Also the past, the future, the fate of humanity as a whole, and the fate of a single human soul, which is of more importance. All told in prose that managed to be funny, beautiful and profound held together by a structure as precise and intricate as a hanging garden.
So, a natural for a film, yes?
Then again, the Wachowskis have never been ones to take the easy route. Their debut film was Bound, a post Tarantino crime film that promised the exploitation style adventures of two lesbian thieves and managed to deliver one of the most genuine homosexual love stories that mainstream cinema has ever produced. These are the folks who created one of the most bracing action films of all time, and then devoted its two sequels to enough chit chats about philosophy to make Neil Stephenson’s head spin, while delivering the message that violence, no matter how cool looking, was pretty much a stupid waste of time (in an action film). These are the folks who created Speed Racer, a jarring piece of pop art that asked the question “What would happen if the average Adam West Batman episode cost 200 million dollars?” while delivering their trademark obsessions about Foucaultian power structures, artiface and stylistic kink- all in a PG kids movie with Monkey Poo jokes. These are the folks who prior to making Cloud Atlas were attempting to fiancé a movie about a romance between a male American Soldier and an Iraqi Insurgent, that somehow featured Jesse Ventura with a third eye in the middle of his forehead.
They are awesome.
So the maybe the fact that they independently raised 100 million dollars to shoot Cloud Atlas, drafted fellow 90’s wunderkid Tom Tykwer to help them pull it off, managed to convince Tom Hanks to star in it and then got Warner Brothers to release this 3 hour, R Rated behemoth relatively unmolested isn’t all that surprising.
Unfortunately neither is the fact that the movie has split critics right down the middle, and been a rather resounding commercial flop.
In all fairness Cloud Atlas isn’t perfect. It’s closest corollary would be Zack Snyder’s Watchmen which like Cloud Atlas, gets an A for effort and comes about as close to bringing an unadaptable piece of literature to life as one could hope for, while never quite surmounting the fact that this particular story was never meant to exist outside of its native medium. The Wachowski’s and Tykwer simplify, and in two segments downright subvert, Mitchell’s message. Their much vaunted decision to cast multiple roles with a single actor, across racial and gender lines works on an aesthetic level, but is more problematic on a narrative and thematic one as each actor can either be playing an incarnation of a single soul through the different eras, or are each is a separate soul making their way through different karmic trajectories, but they cannot very well be both, as the movie seems to imply. More problematic is the film’s abandonment of the novel’s meticulous structure, using instead a much more haphazard form of intercutting that weakens each segments connection to each other and thus the resonance of the story as a whole.
These flaws aside, Cloud Atlas is still a work of staggering ambition and has in it moments of stunning beauty and fierce emotion. Therefore I’m asking you, if you believe that ambition still has a place in the American cinema, if you believe in genre fiction made for adults, if you believe in films and books that push the boundaries of convention narratively and aesthetically, to buy a ticket and see Cloud Atlas. Say what you will about it, but its not the same old pabulum, and it more than deserves your support.