Cloud Atlas: Ambition, Esoteric, but is that Enough?

Some movies, owing to their nature to discombobulate, function like jigsaw puzzles. They don’t reveal themselves suddenly, rather in fragments. And they need the sum of their parts to present the bigger picture, literally, and even metaphorically, to arrive atthe truth, the reason for all the madness and indulgence. But what sets apart a movie from a jigsaw puzzle is fluidity. The individual elements of jigsaw puzzles are static and fragmented, to the point of being inane. But movies can’t afford to be like that; the isolated frames, no matter how esoteric, have to be fluid, captivating our attention. Otherwise a movie truly mimics a jigsaw puzzle, consisting of lifeless, half fructified pieces, which grapple for meaning throughout.

Cloud Atlas is a movie of gigantic narrative ambition. It consists of six seemingly parallel story-lines, set in vastly different times: sample this, the movie’s story-lines careen from the Pacific Ocean in 1849 to a post-apocalyptic future, and in the process encompasses a futuristic world set in Seoul, San Francisco of 1970s, Belgium of 1930s, and a story set in United Kingdom. Just from the scale, you can gauge the movie’s gargantuan ambition. And as if the movie’s multi-threaded story-line wasn’t overwhelming enough, across the stories same actors essay different roles (although this is far from a gimmick and sits well with the movie’s underlying motif).

Cloud Atlas

The movie has been adapted from the novel of the same name by David Mitchell. I firmly believe some novels are unfilmable, and should be left as they are. Couple of weeks back, I wrestled with similar thoughts as I saw a sloppy movie adaption of a mighty fine novel (The Perks of Being a Wallflower). Though I have not read this novel, but while watching the movie the fact kept bothering me – adapting novels to movies. Some novels are particularly supple, quite content to be molded, others, not as much, enslaved to their literary whims. Cloud Atlas looks one such novel. The massiveness of its scale is not the movie’s only problem. Bizarrely, a more pressing problem is that each of its individual stories are quite intimate, and they somehow fail to coalesce with other stories. It’s not hard to imagine Cloud Atlas being a multiple point of view novel, with transitions in narrative voices quite sudden and jerky. What’s slightly jerky for novels can translate to being nauseatingly tedious while watching a movie. Because when adapting a work of art from one medium to another, the adaptations are seldom one-on-one: there’s a chance of camouflaging the positives, and amplifying the negatives. It appears that’s what happened in Cloud Atlas’s case — the disparate narrative voices and stories which could have worked well within the confines of a book, fails to hold up on screen.

With movies dabbling multiple story-lines, it pleads something essentially fundamental — unification. It could either be that one moment which ties everything together, or something encompassing all the stories, theme wise. In Cloud Atlas, that sense of coming together is largely absent. You can’t have six stories in a movie where each of them acts like stranger to each other. Also, something has to be said about the number of stories Cloud Atlas is trying to balance: six. It’s a behemoth number, and it shows. Especially when the director wants to do justice to each and every story. And since all the stories are based in such different times and places, it takes some time to get ensconced in a particular story. And when one has to do it for story after story, it makes for a very tedious and tiring watch. Also, with half-a-dozen parallel stories, this constant effort to re-align one’s allegiance to a story can become quite a chore. The movie’s ostentatious narrative ambition keeps infiltrating with our emotional investment in individual stories.

Cloud Atlas is one of those difficult movies: one of those movies that keeps you on your toes, one of those movies that respects its audience so much that they end up feeling stupid, at times. I wish I could say I completely understood the movie in one viewing. But that doesn’t elevate the movie’s stature automatically. Because a puzzle is worthy only if it’s wrapped in intrigue. Because if the individual pieces of puzzle themselves are listless and uninspiring, then it doesn’t matter what the final outcome is.

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