Cloud Atlas

“Our lives are not our own, from womb to tomb we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”—- Cloud Atlas, Sonmi 451

Near where I work, across the highway, there’s this neighborhood that’s really run down. Tucked into the NorthWest corner of the gigantic High Five interchange, there are a few square miles of apartments that are nowhere to be wandering late at night.

When they were built – I imagine in the late 1970’s – they must have been nice… full of young folks hanging around the pools, new wave music pumping out the sliding glass doors, Coors Beer and big hair everywhere. When I moved to Dallas in 1981, a lot of my friends lived in an area just like that, a few miles to the south, around Park Lane and 75. A lot like right now the economy was horrible everywhere in the country except Texas, and young folks were streaming from everywhere to get work. The difference was that interest rates were in the double digits and nobody could buy a house, so the apartment complexes were teeming with these ambitious newcomers. It was an exciting time to live in Dallas.

Within a short few years however, the interest rates dropped and all these people could suddenly buy themselves a house in the exploding northern suburbs. At the same time a new interpretation of federal law made it illegal to have a “singles apartment complex.” Rents fell below the cost of maintenance and these apartments across the city fell… and fell fast. Within a few years it was crack city. Nobody seemed to care, there was plenty of land to the north, but to me – it marked the passing of something special.

As the apartments fell into disrepair the surrounding commercial district fell too, though more slowly. There was a nice multiplex movie theater right across the highway from my work that hung on until a couple years ago – until it too went under and has been sitting vacant.

Now, though, there are stirrings of revitalization, spates of rezoning, threats of demolition of the more neglected properties, contentious City Council Meetings, rumors of big money beginning to move. And suddenly, the movie theater is renovated in an amazingly short time and reopens as a Studio Movie Grill.

I’ve been prattling on about the cycle of a neighborhood that you don’t care about because I’m thinking about the first film I saw in that Studio Movie Grill, a film unstuck in time, a movie about decay, about cycles and revitalization, about evil crimes and disaster, about friendship and love… I went down this weekend and saw Cloud Atlas.

I was eagerly awaiting this movie. The book, Cloud Atlas, was… is… arguably the best thing I’ve read. It is massive, subtle, complex, and with a unique structure. I clearly remember reading the thing and thinking, “Well, there will never be a movie done of this thing, it could never be done.” I was wrong.

You see the book consists of six separate stories – far apart in time, and in tone. They are arranged from the oldest, set onboard a sailing vessel in the South Pacific in the nineteenth century, and progress through time until the sixth one occurs in the far dystopian future. There is no transition between stories -each one ends suddenly, unexpectedly, literally in the middle of sentences and the text then jumps to the next, where the previous story appears as a work of fiction. After the far future story ends(it is the only tale told in one piece) the book winds back down, finishing the tales, one by one, until it ends where it began. The structure looks like this:

  1. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
  2. Letters from Zedelghem
  3. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
  4. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
  5. An Orison of Sonmi-451
  6. Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After
  7. An Orison of Sonmi-451
  8. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
  9. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
  10. Letters from Zedelghem
  11. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

How do you do this in film? I had no idea. I waited for the movie to come out and decided to see it, on opening weekend at the new Studio Grill across from where I work. Ordinarily, I would go to one of the art-house cinemas… but we want to support the place.

I have to say that I enjoyed the Studio Movie Grill. The seat rows are set wide apart, and each seat has a swiveling table built into it. There is something enjoyably decadent about having a nice draft of wheat beer while a waitress brings you some grilled chicken during the opening trailers. It’s not cheap – but I think I’ll go back. They are building an Alamo Draft House near where we live – that sounds even better.

The film – at first I was taken aback. They solved the problem of the complex structure of the book by making it more complex. Abandoning the orderly stair-like nested structure of the book, the movie jumps willy-nilly from story to story… seemingly at random.

Soon enough, though, I realized the jumps were not random. They were stringing the scenes together by theme. This emphasizes the connections between the stories, the eternal ideas across time, and that works in a fast, visual medium. The fact that the movie jumps across such a wide swath of space-time helps in that it is never a problem to figure out where you are.

I don’t know how confusing all this is to someone that hasn’t read the book… but I don’t think you will have a problem. Of course, you could save yourself the trouble by reading the damn thing. Really, read it.

What didn’t work? Well, first, the language. It’s hard to follow sometimes, really tough to figure out what the hell they are talking about. They should have used only a taste of how the characters actually spoke… and then slipped back to contemporary English. The same handful of actors play multiple roles – and that is generally cool. The only problem is that having certain characters jump across racial lines was a bit awkward – some of the makeup is too obvious and distracting. Now, I do have to say that Hugo Weaving makes an imposing and effective evil Nurse Noakes. The credits show all the characters the major actors play (watch for one of Hugh Grant’s performances – you will not recognize him).

The connections between the stories are much more obvious in the movie than the book. Even little things – all the stories (except maybe for one) – at a moment of extreme tension and risk to the heroes – have someone smashed over the head of the bad guy unexpectedly by an off-camera rescuer. Watch for a blue glass button – it ties together the first and last stories.

So did I like it? I loved it. Not everyone will (it doesn’t look like it’s doing well at the box office). It’s a difficult movie, very long (almost three hours – which went by quickly for me), extremely ambitious – obviously an attempt to make a big-budget, big-star, big-time art house film. It’s surprisingly violent and relies a lot on its special effects. It requires work on the part of the viewer, and a lot of people don’t like that.

But in the end, I gave a damn about the characters – and that’s the important thing. The movie is different from the book – less subtle, more flashy – but in the end that’s actually a good thing. Instead of one, we have two… or more accurately, instead of six, we have twelve great stories.

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13 responses to “Cloud Atlas

  1. Good review Bill. It’s a nice way to spend 3 hours at the movies, but it’s also something that may not change your life, even though that’s obviously what the directors are going for here. Still, a great movie none the less.

  2. Great review. That sounds like an awesome theater, too. Wish I had a place like the Studio Grill near me. I need me some chicken with my films! ^_^

  3. I’m going to see it as soon as my bf finishes reading the book. He read it when it first came out, and wants a refresher before the movie (I just read it — and loved it — last year.)

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