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Navigating The Shift From Complex To Cineplex

Oct 26, 2012

David Mitchell's epic philosophical novel Cloud Atlas was widely considered unfilmable — even by its author — when it came out in 2004. That's because the book's ornate structure, with stories nested inside stories across five centuries, seemed too complicated to be taken in quickly in a movie. But those complications were what attracted The Matrix's Andy and Lana (nee Larry) Wachowski, and Run Lola Run's Tom Tykwer to the project. Turning complexity into cineplexity is kind of what they do.

Not content with Mitchell's complications, in fact, they've added a few of their own, with the result that the unfilmable Cloud Atlas is now a film, for better or worse. Mostly worse I'd say, but give these folks credit: Undaunted by a novel with six plots, each with its own genre, time period and lingo — from 1840s slave melodrama to 1930s love story to 1970s corporate thriller to present-day crime comedy to futuristic clone wars saga to post-apocalyptic 23rd century epic — they decided it needed a little tricking up to keep it interesting.

Rather than telling each story on its own, they've opted to weave the disparate threads together and cast each of their principal actors in five or six roles, more or less ignoring whether they're conventionally suited for them or not. Halle Berry, for instance, plays a black journalist, a white Jewish-German intellectual, an Asian man, and three other parts. Hugo Weaving inhabits a variety of villains including a Nurse Ratched lookalike. Tom Hanks is a tattooed goatherd in the post-apocalyptic future, a murderous doctor in the distant past, a scummy writer in the present, and in the 1970s, a principled scientist who says things like this:

"Belief, like fear or love, is a force to be understood as we understand the theory of relativity and principles of uncertainty."

Dunno about you, but I understand the theory of relativity and uncertainty principles in verrrrrry surface-y, insubstantial ways, and I think I understand belief, fear and love pretty well. But I fear I don't love dialogue that gets this squishy, so let me just summarize: We are all interconnected; the things that separate us shouldn't; freedom is precious; self-expression is essential, and when a butterfly flaps its wings ...

Look, it would be hard not to admire what's being attempted here, and there's no discounting the cleverness Tykwer and the Wachowskis have brought to overcoming the book's logistical challenges. They've divided up the six segments (Tykwer took the 20th century and the present-day sequences, the Wachowskis tackled the more distant past and future), and restructured, rethought, recombined and somehow found time in between to let Hugh Grant express his inner cannibal.

They've also employed enough putty noses, tattoos and false teeth for a decade's worth of Halloweens, which makes sorting out who-was-who during the end credits kind of fun, even if it gets in the way of any kind of emotional involvement.

But there's a downside to making the literary literal in Cloud Atlas. The directors can make it fluid, comprehensible and gorgeous to look at, but they can't keep what struck many readers as profound on the page, from seeming profoundly obvious on screen, especially when every point gets reiterated six times.

Except for the sequence that's both post-apocalypse and post-English, with Tom Hanks urgently saying things like, "tell me the true-true," the film rarely prompts actual giggles. But the true-true is that flashy visuals and fortune-cookie philosophizing do not a resonant movie make.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

David Mitchell's epic novel "Cloud Atlas" was widely considered unfilmable, even by its author. That's because the book's odd structure, with stories nesting inside stories, seemed too complicated to be taken in quickly in a movie. But those complications were what attracted the three directors of a new movie adaptation. They came to the project with plenty of experience filming difficult stories, including "Run Lola Run" and "The Matrix." In fact, they ended up adding complications of their own. The result, says Bob Mondello, is that the unfilmable "Cloud Atlas" is now a film for better or worse.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Mostly worse, I'd say, at least compared to the book, but give these folks credit. Confronted with a novel with six plots, each with its own genre and time period across five centuries, from 1840s melodrama...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

MONDELLO: ...to 1970s corporate thriller...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

MONDELLO: ...to futuristic clone war...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

MONDELLO: ...they decided that wasn't nearly complex enough. Rather than telling each story on its own, they opted to tell them all at once and to cast each of their actors in five or six roles, more or less ignoring whether they're conventionally suited to those roles. Halle Berry, for instance, plays a black journalist, a white Jewish intellectual, an Asian man and three other parts. Tom Hanks is a tattooed goatherd in the post-apocalyptic future, a murderous doctor in the distant past, a scummy writer in the present and in the 1970s a principled scientist who says things like this - now listen carefully.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

MONDELLO: Don't know about you, but I understand the theory of relativity and uncertainty principles in very surface-y, insubstantial ways, but I think I understand belief and fear and love pretty well. And I fear I don't love dialogue that gets this squishy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

MONDELLO: Quantum trajectories? OK, let me just summarize: We are all connected. The things that separate us shouldn't. Freedom is precious. And when a butterfly flaps its wings - look, it would be hard not to admire what's being attempted here, and there's no discounting the cleverness directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski have brought to overcoming the book's logistical challenges. They've restructured, rethought and still had time to give Hugh Grant a chance to express his inner cannibal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLOUD ATLAS")

MONDELLO: They've also employed putty noses, tattoos and false teeth enough for a decade's worth of Halloweens, which makes sorting out who-was-who during the end credits kind of fun, even if it gets in the way of any kind of emotional involvement. But there's a downside to making the literary literal in "Cloud Atlas." The directors can make it gorgeous to look at, but they can't keep what struck readers as profound on the page from seeming profoundly obvious on screen, especially when every point gets reiterated six times.

Except for the sequence that's both post-apocalypse and post-English, with Tom Hanks urgently saying things like, tell me the true-true, "Cloud Atlas" rarely prompts actual giggles. But the true-true is that flashy visuals and fortune cookie philosophizing do not a resonant movie make. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.