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Film review: 'Cloud Atlas' is worth the ride

October 26, 2012|By Andy Klein | By Andy Klein
  • Tom Hanks as "Zachry" and Halle Berry as "Meronym" in the epic drama "Cloud Atlas."
Tom Hanks as "Zachry" and Halle Berry as "Meronym"… (Courtesy of Warner…)

David Mitchell's 2004 novel “Cloud Atlas” was ambitious, sometimes confounding, and absolutely riveting. Viewers are likely to find the film “Cloud Atlas” — written and directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix”) — even more ambitious, possibly more confounding, and very nearly as riveting.

It's more ambitious because the structure of the book, its trademark peculiarity, simply wouldn't work onscreen. It comprises six stories, each within a different genre, set in a different time and place, with a different group of characters. The stories are presented in what has been called a “nesting doll” order: With the exception of the central tale, their first halves are presented in chronological order, followed by their second halves in reverse order. Designated by year, it would look like this: 1849 (I), 1937 (I), 1973 (I), 2012 (I), 2144 (I), a post-apocalyptic adventure in its entirety, 2144 (II), 2012 (II), 1973 (II), 1937 (II), 1849 (II).

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The five split stories are a sea yarn, a melodrama, a mystery, a comedy and a science fiction piece, loosely interrelated only by a recurring comet-shaped birthmark and a thread of nested connections — i.e., the hero of the post-apocalyptic tale watches a holographic record that is the 2144 story; the heroine of that story is affected by a film version of the 2012 story; and so on, back to the 1937 guy reading the journal of the 1849 sea voyage.

That each of the first five sections only tells half of its story is one of the reasons readers are driven to keep going. The film's writer/directors knew that this simply wouldn't work on screen, so they decided to splinter all six stories and intercut them. This also helps underline the book's fuzzy thematic subtext — all things are connected, all moments and places are part of the fabric of existence — and other notions that, depending on your mood and beliefs, are either Buddhist wisdom or shallow New Age nonsense.

Does this make the material more confusing? Hard for me to say. I had no problem because I'd read the book a couple of years ago and already knew how each plot would unfold.

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