Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

MV5BMTczMTgxMjc4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjM5MTA2OA@@._V1._SY317_David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an outstanding book — one of the best I’ve ever read. The Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas is a terrible movie. But quite aside from being confusing and even racist the movie’s biggest flaw is reducing the book’s complex themes to a simple, cheerful message.

In the movie, that message is delivered by Adam Ewing, a 19th-century plutocrat, who upon being told that he is just one drop in an ocean responds stirringly, “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” From the editing and the rising music we are clearly supposed to take from this slogan the lesson that so long as one does good (in this case, fighting to end slavery) then however futile an individual effort may be it will contribute toward the long-term fulfillment of justice.

To be fair, this dialogue is taken directly from the book. But in transposing Ewing’s words to the screen the Wachowskis have transformed what I took to be a fairly naive sentiment into the thundering lesson of the six interconnected stories. By my reading at least, that is not at all a lesson that the book supports.

Ewing’s story is Cloud Atlas‘s first, and in many ways the most optimistic. Every subsequent story takes us further into the future, and deeper into the barbaric variety of human oppression. Ewing’s “multitude of drops” leads not to freedom, but to a heartless corporate conspiracy, a high-tech totalitarian dictatorship, and ultimately to a devastated wasteland in which slavers once again hold the upper hand. True, in each story the individual in question ekes out a personal victory of sorts. But jump ahead a few generations and what we see is not that brave legacy carried forward, but a massive social regression in which the individual’s triumph is badly distorted, if it is remembered at all.

Unlike the movie, Cloud Atlas the book is ambiguous about what matters more: the little triumphs or the larger movements. Mitchell could be read as saying that each individual’s efforts spark an improvement in his or her present day — a positive social change that he perhaps deliberately does not recount — and that the spark persists as an inspiration for future generations when the arc of the moral universe reverts to injustice. In a way the structure of the novel supports that interpretation. The stories are nested together like Russian dolls, so that we get six beginnings in a row, chronologically, and then six endings, reverse-chronologically. It could be that the reverse order of the last half of the book is meant to provide a lineage of sorts to the ideas about freedom, and resistance to oppression, that are repeated to each successive character.

But Mitchell never outright says so. And in a way I think it’s more plausible to read Cloud Atlas as a bleaker story about the futility of fighting humanity’s worst tendencies. However courageous Ewing, or Luisa Rey, or Sonmi-451 may be, the world still ends in nuclear disaster and generations dying in captivity. It’s this harsher interpretation that gives the book its edge, an undercurrent of unease and even skepticism about the tidy genre stories Mitchell tells. The movie mostly ignores this darker reading — and suffers for it.

★☆☆☆☆

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The Wheel of Time Ends

MoL_logo_med_KO1Fifteen years ago, nearly to the day, was the last time I read a Wheel of Time book. The occasion was the publication of The Path of Daggers, the eighth book in the series, which I borrowed from a friend and read over winter break. I remember feeling frustrated at the slow pace of the series and vowing I would not read another word from Robert Jordan until the end was in sight.

Well, the last Wheel of Time book comes out today. It has the best title of the series — A Memory of Light — and it is written not by Jordan, who passed away several years ago, but by Brandon Sanderson, a more-than-capable fantasy author whose Mistborn trilogy was one of the best original works of fantasy of the last decade. When Sanderson announced on his blog that A Memory of Light would be released in January 2013, I remembered my vow and immediately penciled in a date to start rereading the series anew.

I’m not quite up to date — in a fitting coincidence, I’ll probably finish The Path of Daggers this week — but I have been enjoying myself far more than I thought I would. Fifteen years is long enough that I have only dim memories of the high points of the series, leaving plenty of room for suspense and surprises. At the same time, I’ve grown up enough as a human being and a reader that the series’ faults have become ever more glaring. 

There are plenty of very interesting retrospectives on The Wheel of Time out there. But I might as well provide my own in this vanity space. I’m planning to begin with a post on the overarching weaknesses of the series, at least as far as I’ve gotten. And I’d like then to do a post on each book with a few scattered thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of that volume. Let’s see how far this goes.