Why ‘Cloud Atlas’ is no ‘Magnolia’
Cloud Atlas is no Magnolia.
Cloud Atlas is a sprawling, epic tone poem that ruminates on the ‘natural order’ behind slavery, and the revolutionary forces that rise up against it. It cross-cuts 6 stories staggered across time and space, from 1849 to 2321, from a South Pacific island to Neo Seoul to some distant planet out in space. It is startlingly ambitious, gorgeously shot and acted, full of brilliant moments, scenes and lines, though in the end it is disappointing, because it fails to deliver any larger karmic punch, and never unites its disparate threads into one climactic montage of rising action.
In this area, Magnolia succeeded. Here I’ll explain why, and how to apply those lessons to fix Cloud Atlas.
I believe the lack of a rising climax is the major failure point of Cloud Atlas. This problem is very visible in the movie, but was quite likely baked in from the start, with the David Mitchell novel showing the same lack of substantial connections between the 6 narratives, connections required to reach Magnolia’s climactic heights. Resultingly, to get around that lack in both the book and the movie, numerous tricks are played to make it seem as though Cloud Atlas is actually a unified story, when it barely is. These tricks are largely cosmetic, surface level effects used to fake a greater coherence. The most obvious of them is the experimental narrative structure.
In Mitchell’s book, the six stories are told in a matroska-doll style, with each story nested inside the previous story. This means there are six beginnings; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, for something like 30 pages each, followed by 6 endings; 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The stories are organized by time, so we start in the past, zoom to a mid-point in the future, then zoom back to the past again.
This structure forces us to abandon each story halfway through, and spend the rest of the coming stories wondering how it will tie in, so when we do find links, however tenuous, it feels mildly satisfying, even if in terms of plot there is never any confluence at all.
In the movie the matroska style is abandoned, perhaps to the story’s detriment, replaced with a blend of all 6 stories happening ‘at the same time’, and cutting between them. The directors Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer made the point that what works in a book won’t work in a movie, and delaying the start of the 6th story, introducing all new characters, until the 90 minute mark of the movie would be disastrous.
Who knows though? I think it may have been better, more honest, more natural than the insane amount of cross-cutting they ended up with. Because Cloud Atlas cross-cuts wildly. Obviously there can be no rhyme or reason to these cuts, except at opportune, perhaps similarly themed moments. At one point Sonmi 451 (the fabricant clone/slave in future Neo Seoul, 2144, story 5) is asked what the afterlife might be like, and she says she imagines “heaven is a door opening”. We cross-cut to a gate opening in the middle of Timothy Cavendish’s (a chap locked up in an old people’s home in 2012, story 4) escape attempt. Is there any connections between these two? None, except the notion of a gate, perhaps as a symbol of freedom.
And so Cloud Atlas is seasoned liberally with symbols. There is the comet birth-mark shared by 6 of the characters across the 6 stories, in each case possessed by the character who fights back against slavery. There is the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’, a piece of music composed in story 2 (Robert Frobisher, who fights against a kind of enslavement from his composer boss in the 1930s) being repeated in every successive story; in a record shop for Luisa Rey (a journalist seeking the truth behind a coming nuclear accident, story 3), in the background of Cavendish’ story 4, as the song the fabricants sign as they ascend to exultation in story 5, and probably somewhere in story 6 too.
There are also the tricks of actor and location. One of Cloud Atlas’ best known tricks is having the same actors play different characters in each story, often slathering them with disguising makeup (which changes Halle Berry from black to white, Doona Bae from Asian to white and Mexican, Hugo Weaving from male to female, and so on). They also re-used stage-sets repeatedly, simply redressing the same spaces with some of the same items of furniture for different scenes across different times. There are also repeated props, like the button of Will Ewing’s shirt (Ewing is a lawyer fighting the slave trade in blacks in 1849, story 1) recurring as a jewel in another story.
Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in their various roles.
Huge Weaving as various bad guys (and one girl).
These symbols offer a bridge of connectivity, but one that is wholly cosmetic. There is still some satisfaction to spot them, in being first to shout out “hey that’s Hugh Grant!” but none that make up important moving parts, except for the very weak sense that each story ‘inspired’ the next.
Sonmi 451 (story 5) watches a clip of a movie based on Timothy Cavendish’ escape (story 4) and is inspired to start a revolution. Luis Rey (story 3) reads Rufus Sixsmith’s letters (story 2, Robert Frobisher’s lover) which makes her wonder “why we keep making the same mistakes”. Zachry (a valleysman after the ‘fall’, story 6 in 2321) has a vision-dream and receives a prophecy, both of which feature snippets of the 5 other stories, as well as generally revering Sonmi 451 as a goddess figure. Yet none of these connections are that important. Sonmi 451 finds much better inspiration for her revolution. Luisa Rey’s letters don’t affect her choices materially.
These are all tacked on. Like the swapping actors, they are fun to spot, but don’t add to any sense of rising action or important connection.
More experimental narrative
However I didn’t finish describing the narrative. The following tricks seem unnecessary, and are probably a large part of the reason Cloud Atlas confused many people. It’s hard enough that there are 6 stories told across time and place, but the directors further confuse matters by not starting each respective story at the beginning. Rather many start with flash-forwards, to a point of high drama, before cutting back to their actual beginning.
The movie starts with old Tom Hanks (Zachry in story 6) telling the story of his life in retrospect. We then see snippets of Luisa Rey’s midpoint (story 3) with her car being driven off a bridge, Frobisher’s ending suicide (story 2), Sonmi 451′s near end inquisition (story 5), and perhaps others too. I didn’t mind this too much, but I do feel it’s a little lazy. The writer/directors clearly scoured their material for the best stuff to ‘engage’ the audience, found none of it at the start, so simply chopped a bunch of stuff from later on and moved it to the beginning.
It’s too much, really. It felt a little desperate to me.
So how did Magnolia deal with all this? That was a complex, ambitious narrative, principally thematically based around the various forms of child abuse, and their impacts on both victims and perpatrators. There’s Tom Cruise who hates his absent bastard of a father, and becomes a very negatively presented pick-up artist motivational speaker. There’s the girl who was abused by her father, and only now coming to terms with it, and the father’s view as well. There’s the smart kid forced to do quiz shows by his domineering dad until he wets his pants. There’s the lonely cop and loser burglar, who may or may not have parental issues, but perhaps expand the theme to include lonely people as well.
One thing Magnolia benefits from that Cloud Atlas can’t is that all these stories are happening at the same time, on the same days, in the same city. This allows paths to cross over several times. The abusive father is also the host of the quiz show the kid is on. The lonely cop dates the abused girl, and also meets the lonely burglar. Etc… Each of these connections, when they come, is very satisfying. It makes it feel like there is some reason we are watching these particular characters, at this particular time. It strengthens the bond we feel for them, and makes us care more.
And in Magnolia, there is rising action, with a global act-of-god event that connects all the stories together. It is perhaps ridiculous, but it is also amazing, and ties every story up at its peak beautifully, allowing each cross-cut to just amp up the climaxes, one on top of another.
Of course, it rains frogs. At the same moment, Tom Cruise is giving his career best performance, ranting at his dying absent-father in a hospital bed, the abused girl gets sympathy and understanding from a mother figure at the same time, the lonely cop and burglar talk to each other, perhaps save each other to some extent. Everybody gets a climax, all at the same time, and when that is over, the movie is over. Boom.
There is nothing like that in Cloud Atlas. Across time and space, how could there be? Instead we get a series of rolling climaxes, as in each story the comet-birthmark character steps up to the plate and strikes a blow against the ‘natural order of things’. Will Ewing (story 1) quits the slave trade, confronting his father-in-law who is a slave maven. Frobisher (story 2) actually wimps out, with suicide, so a fail there (though he argues suicide requires the greater courage). Luisa Rey (story 3) rather sort of survives, gets lucky, but with no satisfying denouement (she never faces evil Hugh Grant down). Cavendish (story 4) escapes the old people’s home with a bit of cunning, then bashes Nurse Noakes’ (Hugo Weaving) head in with a bit of help. Sonmi 451 lays the seed of a revolution (story 5) then dies like Christ. Zachry (story 6) mans up, ignores the satanic Old Georgie, and kills the cannibal Hugh Grant.
Good. Nice. But there is no tie-in. I wish there could be some sense that these were not just independent short stories of bravery, and in fact they really were caused by a ripple effect through history, as the trailer promised. But really they are not. They are individual stories with only cosmetic connections, so as one reaches dramatic height, there is not a lot of carry-over from one to the next. In addition, several of them have dramatic heights that are anti-climactic, or too comedic. Cavendish’ story is comedic, and while comedy certainly has a place in a movie like this, I would argue it doesn’t come in climax. Frobisher and Luisa Rey both whimper out. Story 6 has a climax, as Zachry gets to put aside his cowardice in the same place that his cowardice lost him his brother and niece in the beginning, but it’s not on the same order as story 1 and story 5.
Stories 1 and 5 are direct blows to the slave trade, and the most thematically connected. 1 is a slave-trader giving up his business, and 5 is a slave rising up. They are the strongest climaxes, and the most relevant. Sadly they don’t get the maximum play they would need, to approach rising action near the levels of Magnolia.
And how to fix it
So how can we fix this sprawling mass of narrative? Does it even need fixing?
First off, I’ll argue no. As a tone poem, a meditation on a theme from different perspectives, it does not need changing. It is beautiful, exciting, and there are climaxes to every individual arc.
Secondly I’ll argue yes. Alongside a movie like Magnolia, which used its stories to bring us to a fever pitch climax by the end, each building on the others, Cloud Atlas performs poorly. It does not rise, it does not link, and everything that happens in the middle stories feels largely irrelevant to what happens at the end. It’s just a bunch of bits, told in funky out of sequence ways so as to make the most of dramatic spikes.
So how to fix that? Here are a few ways.
1- I would refocus the stories around the most important, most dramatic event- Sonmi 451′s rebellion. I would use her as the frame story, perhaps even keeping it as her inquisition at the start. Then I would have every previous story come as an ingredient to Sonmi’s decision to rebel. They go this way a little bit already, with her watching Cavendish’s talking “I will not be subjugated.” It should be taken further, with his lines being the last lines she says before she dies, as they are clearly the most powerful thing influencing her on her martyrdom.
Then we enter Cavendish’ story, and somewhere at his moment of truth, he will think back to what inspired him, in his case- Luisa Rey. Then we see Luisa Rey’s story, and she’s inspired by Frobisher’s music to be strong, who in turn was inspired by Will Ewing.
In fact I think I may have just inverted the matroska structure here. Ewing is now the heart of the movie, which actualy makes more sense, since he is the earliest in time, and everything from him is a ripple. Then Sonmi is the frame, which makes most sense since we want to finish with the thing that came last.
I suppose if we’re going in this direction, we can add Zachry back in. But then his finale needs to carry more weight. His faith in Sonmi needs to give him strength to do something for himself, rather than simply be rescued, as he is now. I’d like Halle Berry’s tech up on Mauna Kea also tell him that the raiders were coming, via radar or what not, in time for him to get down from the mountain and fight. Or perhaps they have already been enslaved? Then we have a brilliant moment as he faces the giant Sonmi statue, and considers his choices. Then he’ll race down the mountain, and fight. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter if he wins or not. what matters is that he fight. End.
The current Zachry ending is weak. Great climaxes come when both good and bad guy are at their most powerful moment. Zachry however finds Hugh Grant asleep. Easy. Then he wins not by being resourceful or badass, but because Halle Berry has an awesome gun. Nice, but not satisfying as a conclusion to the story of finding the strength to rise up against unbeatable odds.
So we need that to be the throughling- finding the strength to rise up against unbeatable odds. And it is because of the hero’s actions in the previous story, that the next hero finds the strength to rise up and fight back.
That’s in Cloud Atlas now, but so lost and diluted, more footnotes than prime motivators (for example, Luisa Rey is far more inspired by her father than by Frobisher’s music- for the narrative to hold, it must be the music that inspires her, likewise for Frosbisher, he enjoys Ewing’s story, but we can’t say it’s his main reason to fight his boss, chiefly he fights cos he wants to be famous, and also he fights by accident). We need those 6 decision moments to be inspired each by the last, for the movie to have that rising sense that something massive, a great ripple through time, has been affected.
I’d also like to know that Sonmi’s revolution somehow either caused the ‘fall’, or helped avert it from being even worse. I want it to have meant something more than the utter failure of humanity. Perhaps it could be more explicit that it was her influence that seeded the space colonies.
I’d like to see this version. Of course it will never be made, but existing footage could probably be cut to straighten things out a bit more, and make for a much more powerful climax.