The Three Hour Avalanche: Cloud Atlas

Books are books, and movies are movies. I usually don’t want or expect any adaptation to copy its source — in fact, it’s usually in everyone’s best interests for a derivative work to strive to be its own thing, and not… well, derivative. But Tom Tykwer and Lana & Larry Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas turned out to be an astonishingly faithful adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel. For a book so sprawling and commonly deemed unadaptable, I fully expected more characters and incident to have been necessarily jettisoned. But almost everything is there, with most of the screenwriters’ additions coming in the form of structural changes rather than material.

Being so faithful to this particular book comes with a potential downside. One of the greatest pleasures to be had in the novel is its wide range of genres and tones. Sequences include a pulpy 70s thriller, a light-hearted old folks farce, a sci-fi dystopia, and a postapocalyptic wasteland. Each is familiar to a degree, but only insofar as Mitchell employs known genre tropes to his own ends. Each is written in a different voice, ranging from archaic historical vernacular to imaginary fractured and devolved languages of the far future.

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas
Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas. Hanks’ character on the metaphysical conundrum: “times are you say a person’s beliefs ain’t true, they think you’re saying’ their lives ain’t true and their truth ain’t true.”

These devices may work better on the page than on the screen, for a reader is able to savor the lushly stylized language of each period. But subtract the novel’s devices of epistolary exchanges, internal monologues, fireside storytelling, and formal interviews, you’re only left with dialogue and visual depictions of action. What’s illustrated on screen comes across as a gumbo of The China Syndrome, The Matrix, The Road, and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. For instance, when David Mitchell took on the tone of a conspiracy thriller, I found it impressive. But when it’s realized on screen, it feels like a Friedkin or Frankenheimer knockoff with extra corny dialog.

The aforementioned faithfulness extends to plot, tone, character, theme, incident… almost everything except structure. The elegantly spiraling structure of David Mitchell’s novel is one of its most justly celebrated features, and it could have theoretically been adopted to cinema. Instead, the film scrambles the various story lines into one long montage that comes at you in a nearly three-hour-long avalanche. The obvious benefit is the highlighting of how recurring themes are interlinked and interwoven, how patterns of behavior repeat throughout history, and for the more metaphysically inclined, how souls are reincarnated, and how good and bad deeds echo forwards and backwards through time.

James Darcy and Ben Whishaw in Cloud Atlas
James Darcy and Ben Whishaw in Cloud Atlas. “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

The three directors told the A.V. Club that they all worked simultaneously in close collaboration, but were required to be credited for specific sequences. For better or for worse, it seems pretty clear to me that the action sequences set in futuristic Korea have the Wachowski brand all over them. In this dystopia, corporations have replaced both government and religion, not that dissimilar to the world of the Wachowski-produced V for Vendetta). While intense and lengthy, these glorified chase sequences are not as extreme as their eyeball-spraining 2008 film Speed Racer. But Tykwer is a highly kinetic and visually oriented director as well, as he proved right away with Run Lola Run, so maybe I’m off base here.

One of the primary selling points of the movie is its stunt casting of a relatively small troupe of actors into a multitude of roles. The sad truth is that many of the makeup effects for actors playing across gender or race boundaries just don’t work. Hugo Weaving suffers in particular, with no amount of latex able to disguise his permanent menace and leer (how much do you want to bet he’s a sweet family man in real life?). But there are a few triumphs. For instance, I didn’t recognize Hugh Grant in at least two of his roles. Tom Hanks runs up and down the hamminess scale, but I thought he was genuinely excellent in the role of Zachry, a humble but atypically thoughtful goat herder whose deepest religious beliefs are challenged.

Bae Doona in Cloud Atlas
Bae Doona in Cloud Atlas. “Wars do not combust without warning.”

Like many, I fell in love with the beautifully written, structured, and ingenious novel. But most interestingly of all, it’s the first thing I can remember reading in a long time that had anything approaching a message, or, for lack of a better term, a “moral of the story”. In short, resisting oppression of all sorts is always worth it, even if one person can’t fix the world. Mitchell shows us a world seemingly inevitably doomed to drastic decline via slavery, global warming, societal collapse, and world war, but its heroes nevertheless act against political, corporate, or religious oppression. Many (but not all) of them suffer for it, but their acts resonate in ways both large and small.

It is in this context that I must pinpoint one serious crime the movie commits against the book. I noticed only one significant deviation from the novel that, for me, almost negates everything I found most powerful in the book. I don’t object that something was added (in fact, I usually argue that most adaptations of books need to be more liberal in their interpretations), but rather that what was added betrayed a desire for sentiment — in essence, a happy ending. Anyone that has experienced the novel and the film will know exactly what I’m talking about. The movie ends on a positive note for humanity at its chronologically latest point, while the book ends with a moving internal monologue set near the beginning, as a character decides to dedicate his life to the abolitionist movement.

Despite serious reservations like this, I was totally swept up in the movie and have to rate it highly overall. As a movie, it’s a towering, almost unbelievable achievement. It was essentially an independent production, with a large portion of the financing coming directly from the filmmakers themselves. Cloud Atlas was not made as a corporate exercise; it exists because three filmmakers felt they had to do it. The message of resisting oppression of all sorts, including corporate, must not have been a good selling point when it came time for them to shop their movie around to potential distributors, giant corporations all. So go see Cloud Atlas, if for no reason other than its verve and audacity.

It’s All Too Much in the Wachowski’s Live-Action Cartoon Speed Racer

The good news is that Andy & Larry Wachowski’s Speed Racer is fun and eye-poppingly extraordinary to watch. As with their breakthrough The Matrix (1999), there’s the strong feeling that you’re seeing something new; not just emergent technologies but a whole new style of moviemaking. But the bad news is that it’s all… too much. Why undertake such huge effort and expense just to replicate the essence of a poorly written and cheaply animated TV series that no one, not even the geekiest Japanese anime otaku (fanboy), really misses? This film might have been so much better if they had jettisoned the baggage of the intellectual property (a misnomer in this case) and told an original story in this radical new style.

The movie incarnation of Speed Racer has inherited the visual quirks of the original 1960s cartoon, cross-bred with the information-rich computerized motion graphics of modern televised sports. The color scheme is dominated by bright, primary colors like Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (made in a era before computer graphics and digital color grading). Talking heads laterally pan across the screen, usually redundantly narrating the onscreen events for us. The effect is like watching ESPN; when two cars crash, an announcer promptly tells us that two cars have crashed.

Christina Ricci in Speed Racer
Christina Ricci can see for miles and miles

The film is also modeled after video games and Japanese anime in general. Huge sequences are entirely computer generated, with what little live action photography there is most likely shot against greenscreen soundstages. The Wachowskis’ resident special effects mad scientist John Gaeta meticulously stages the many incredible car chases like battles in a war movie from an alternate universe. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogies, the movie practically is animated. Just watching it, it’s possible to imagine what the tie-in video game must be like.

Every single line of dialog is a cliché, and so too is the plot. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is a young race car driver, a lone honest man in a corrupt industry. Yes, his name is actually Mr… Speed… Racer. His disgraced older brother Rex died a mystifying death years before, providing Speed with the motivation to prove himself both as a driver and as an honest man. Pops and Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman) sometimes appear in the same shot but hardly ever exchange words. Speed also has an insanely annoying little brother with a Brooklyn accent and, god help us all, a monkey. The oddball extended Racer family also includes the Australian mechanic Sparky and Speed’s helicopter pilot-slash-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, whom at some point has lost her endearing baby fat and now seems startlingly skinny). The whole gang apparently lives together in the same house, with Speed’s car parked in the living room like an extra sibling.

Lest all the action be of the vehicular variety, the Wachowskis wisely scatter about a few awesome wire-fu fight sequences designed (apparently not designed by The Matrix’s genius choreographer Woo-ping Yuen). The most exciting and visually impressive fight takes place on a snowy plain, with the falling snow providing manga-like motion lines (a characteristic of Japanese comic books). The fights are even more fun when John Goodman gets in on the act, and one understands why he might have signed on to such a project (if for reasons other than a big studio paycheck).

Emile Hirsch in Speed Racer
Like audiences worldwide, Emile Hirsch is a little overwhelmed by the visuals

If I were to single out one tragic flaw, I would say that Speed Racer suffers, like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, with too much backstory. Overlong for a kids movie, it’s almost one full hour before we get to the main plot: Speed Racer must join forces with adversaries Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Korean popstar Rain) to accomplish something-or-other and defeat some kind of injustice that I can’t quite recall, all of which has something to do with veteran racer Ben Burns (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). Who can remember details after two-plus hours of sheer sensory overload? Speed Racer feels like a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen, with enough threads left dangling (mostly involving the true story of Speed’s brother) to set up a hypothetical third episode.

For any number of possible reasons, this very expensive folly bombed and we almost certainly won’t see that trilogy. The Wachowski brothers were perceived to have fumbled the wildly popular Matrix franchise with two obtuse sequels (although this Dork Reporter would argue in favor of the minority opinion that the second, The Matrix Reloaded, is actually their masterpiece), they produced the thickheaded V for Vendetta (muddying up and widely missing the point of the powerful anarchist graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd), and one is rumored to have had a sex change. With such a track record it’s not surprising that the moviegoing public, even the genre-loving fanboys that make up Chud.com and Ain’t It Cool News might have soured on them. Plus, the original Speed Racer cartoon is exceptionally cheap and lame, so much so that even myself as a child could tell it was crap.

Warner Bros. revealed their embarrassment by issuing the DVD as a bare-bones single-disc release, at time when even the crappiest movie seems to merit a deluxe multi-disc package padded out with hours of self-congratulatory value-added material. There’s nothing at all on the DVD about the obviously groundbreaking special effects. Instead, the filmmakers decided that what audiences wanted was more monkey (the vile beastie stars in the closing credits sequence) and more annoying kid brother (who costars in a mockmentary feature with an embarrassingly poorly acted appearance by producer Joel Silver).