cloud atlas feature 2

Everything is connected. (Thanks Mikhail) Review of David Mitchell’s novel from The Washington Post:

Marx warned us that history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. British novelist David Mitchell suggests a few more iterations: grade-B pulp thriller, creepy dystopian scifi, Hobbesian nightmare. Mitchell has already earned high praise for his previous novels, Ghostwritten (1999) and Number9Dream (2001), the latter of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His latest effort, Cloud Atlas, revises Marx’s quip to meet the demands of contemporary fiction. Hopscotching over centuries, Cloud Atlas likewise jumps in and out of half a dozen different styles, all of which display the author’s astonishing talent for ventriloquism, and end up fitting together to make this a highly satisfying, and unusually thoughtful, addition to the expanding “puzzle book” genre.

Novels whose plots hinge on intricate puzzles — e.g., The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four — are all the rage these days, but the puzzle of Cloud Atlas isn’t in the book, it is the book. What appears at first glance to be a novel is in fact six novellas whose interrelatedness is only hinted at during the book’s first half, then revealed fully and splendidly after the book’s middle, which is really the book’s end. Confused? You’re supposed to be, at least for a little while: It’s from this starting point of dislocation that Mitchell begins a virtuosic round trip through the strata of history and causality, exploring the permanence of man’s inhumanity to man and the impermanence of what we have come to call civilization.

Mitchell begins his chronology of our fall from grace with a character named Adam, naturally. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” presents us with the diary of a seafaring 1850s American notary, killing time on the Chatham Islands off New Zealand as he waits for his homeward ship to set sail. Engaging in the amateur anthropology of the visitor, the morally upright Ewing struggles to square his belief in the civilizing, beneficent aspects of colonialism with what he sees before him, “that casual brutality lighter races show the darker.” He also befriends an English doctor who diagnoses Ewing with a rare, brain-destroying disease, and who begins treating the American immediately with a cocktail of powerful drugs.

Then, in mid-sentence, Mitchell whisks us away from the scene, and suddenly we are reading the letters of one Robert Frobisher, a charmingly louche, happily bisexual British composer of the 1930s whose tendency to skip out on hotel bills has finally caught up with him. As he recounts his ambitious plan to evade creditors and gain hitherto elusive fame by exploiting an elderly maestro, we merrily follow his rake’s progress and almost forget the plight of poor Adam Ewing — until, that is, Frobisher mentions in passing that he has serendipitously found and read one-half of a bound copy of Ewing’s journal. (The second half is damnably missing.) Shortly thereafter, we take our leave of Frobisher just as abruptly as we were introduced to him, and Mitchell drops us down in 1970s California, at the opening chapter of a crime-fiction potboiler whose heroine, a plucky magazine journalist named Luisa Rey, is on the verge of uncovering a nefarious conspiracy.

And so it goes, again and again: a cycle of starts and stops that vectors through past, present and future, linked by buried clues and the twin refrains of deceit and exploitation. What all these stories have in common is that each draws its lifeblood from the same heart of darkness. Cloud Atlas is a work of fiction, ultimately, about the myriad misuses of fiction: the seductive lies told by grifters, CEOs, politicians and others in the service of expanding empires and maintaining power. Soon we meet Timothy Cavendish, the curmudgeonly editor of a London vanity press, who is tricked into incarceration by his vengeful brother. We meet a wise, world-weary clone from 22nd-century Korea, where hypercapitalism and biotechnology have fused into absolute tyranny. And finally, in post-apocalypse Hawaii, we meet a storyteller who enthralls his listeners with the tale of a suspicious visitor from a far-off land, echoing the account of Adam Ewing that opens the book.

At this point the novel’s action rapidly reverses course, going back through time and picking up the abandoned narrative threads, weaving them together to craft a fascinating meditation on civilization’s insatiable appetites. Even Mitchell’s characters seem to voice uncertainty about their creator’s grand plan. “Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished,” admits Frobisher of his own “Cloud Sextet,” a musical composition whose ambitious six-part structure mirrors the novel’s. And Cavendish, the editor from the old school, has his qualms, too: “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory,” he harrumphs.

But sometimes novels filled with big ideas require equally big mechanisms for relaying them, and it’s hard to imagine an idea bigger than the one Mitchell is tackling here: how the will to power that compels the strong to subjugate the weak is replayed perpetually in a cycle of eternal recurrence. Rarely has the all-encompassing prefix of “metafiction” seemed so apposite. Here is not only the academic pessimism of Marx, Hobbes and Nietzsche but also the frightening portents of Aldous Huxley and the linguistic daring of Anthony Burgess. Here, too, are Melville’s maritime tableaux, the mordant satire of Kingsley Amis and, in the voice of Robert Frobisher — Mitchell’s most poignant and fully realized character — the unmistakable ghost of Paul Bowles. Here is a veritable film festival of unembarrassed cinematic references and inspirations, from “Soylent Green” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “The Graduate” to the postwar comedies of England’s Ealing Studios. Here is an obviously sincere affection for the oft-maligned genres of mystery, science fiction and fantasy.

All of these influences, and countless others, gel into a work that nevertheless manages to be completely original. More significantly, the various pieces of David Mitchell’s mysterious puzzle combine to form a haunting image that stays with the reader long after the book has been closed. Cloud Atlas ought to make him famous on both sides of the Atlantic as a writer whose fearlessness is matched by his talent.

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  • Dylan

    It looks phenomenal, but my biggest concern is running time. Will there be enough time to tell six satisfying stories in ~2 hours?

  • Maris

    It’s been confirmed that the movie is 3 hours long. Still, even 3 hours doesn’t seem enough for this sprawling story.

  • Mattoc

    Man, I do not know what to make of that. It looks like a mess, but hopefully a glorious mess.

  • Friedl

    Tree of Life the Sci Fi version! Sort of.
    Looks like something you can get lost in & have to find your way out of. I.e. awesome!

  • This sounds like a fantastic film adventure. If it’s 3 hours, I think that may allow enough time to flesh out all the narratives. But a part of me thinks that something like this should be a 8 part miniseries on HBO or Showtime, just to allow even more breathing space between the decades/centuries. I look forward to watching this.

  • Looks like the sort of thing that won’t be able to live up to its own trailer…

    If they can sell this as an event movie, like Avatar, they could spin it into a hit. But it’s long, obscure and R-rated, so this could easily flop hard.

  • steve50

    This will be a real challenge, so everyone involved deserves credit in advance for even attempting to film this great book. There is enough content to easily fill a couple of seasons on HBO, so 3 hrs will be a Coles Notes version – but probably as much as your typical ADD moviegoer will be able to handle. I don’t know how they are going to manage it without giving us whiplash.

    I’m expecting some major extended versions once disc time comes around.

  • therealmike

    It looks interesting. Some parts looked beautiful, some cheesy and messy. I hope it turns out well, but for now I don´t know if I trust the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer enough to be excited.

    Halle Berry looks very good in this, btw.

  • That looks like something I’ll either love or hate. The cast doesn’t seem to include any one of my peeps so it’ll have to be good on its own for me to like it. I was a fan of the Matrix films, unlike most people, REVOLUTIONS was my favorite of the three, then RELOADED. In fact that looks like it’s supposed to be a trilogy. It’s not?

    Berry does look better with that hair.

  • Anna

    That trailer is way too long! It feels like it’s trying too hard and then I got bored halfway through. That doesn’t bode well for the movie!
    And it looks like Tom Hanks was slighted with another bad wig. Poor guy!

  • Walt Gamble

    Wow. That was epic.
    It looks like it may be terribly bloated, but it may also be something spectacular.
    I was just watching the film Little Fish again (starring Cate Blanchette) Hugo Weaving is fantastic in it (especially if you grew up in western Sydney, he is pitch perfect) as he is in Proof, The Interview, Last Ride and so many other Australian films. It’s a terrible shame he doesn’t take more diverse roles in hollywood films, he is far, far too good an actor to be typecast as the villain. That trailer (I admit to ignorance, I have not read the novel) doesn’t look like it will do much to change things.

  • rufussondheim

    This looks amazing, I am starting the book ASAP.

    “A half-finished book is like a half-finished love affair”

  • Geremy

    I’m definitely intrigued. Though from the trailer this could either be glorious or dreadful. It’s all going to depend on the pacing of the film. The editors and writers of the film have all been hit and miss throughout their careers, so if they manage to keep an audience invested through an entire 3 hour movie that will be a huge accomplishment for them.
    Jim Broadbent looks terrific; imo he should have been nominated last year for The Iron Lady.

  • Geremy

    This reminds me of Aronofsky’s The Fountain, which is one of my top 20 favorite films of all time. If Twyker and the Wachowski bros can come anywhere near what Aronofsky created, I will be very happy. What a great year for film!

  • appleeatingdog

    I’m pissed that Zhou Xun is in it for like a second, in unrecognisable makeup as some Caucasian tribe fairy or some shit.

  • julian the emperor

    Jim Broadbent nominated for The Iron Lady!? That would have been my least favorite outcome of any Oscar season ever… even though I’m still mightily pissed about Roberto Benigni and The Secret In Their Eyes winning over The White Ribbon and Un Prophete.

  • lazarus

    Too bad that What Books Should We Discuss? poll wasn’t taken AFTER this trailer appeared.

  • Nik Grape

    The link doesn’t work for me 🙁 And looks like Warner did their business on every youtube video of the trailer too. Damnit!!

  • i can’t seem to catch my breath after watching this trailer!! i hope its not a mess with so many stories of different times!! even if it is, i’ll still watch it. stunning.

  • simone

    All I know is that after watching that trailer, I’m going to have a shot of espresso so that my mind is alert. It’s going to be one of those films that if you haven’t read the book, you better keep focused on the film or you’re going to miss something and be lost forever.

  • David

    Yes, this definitely looks like a faithful adaptation! I’m really excited, even though it has massive flop potential. Either way, that was a very pretty trailer and the M83 at the end was glorious.

  • ChrisFlick

    Wow. Had no idea this was coming. Great to see Halle Berry get a movie such as this. I sometimes wonder has she soft-retired.

  • Evan

    I was extremely interested in the first half of that trailer and then it got all action-y. Blech– seems like it doesn’t fit with the themes set up in the first half. Then it just kept going and going…

    I dunno.

  • Reform the Academy


  • The Great Dane

    The music from the trailer, is it all new or taken from another film?

    This “trailer” is EPIC! Can’t wait to see what they leave out in the final theatrical trailer. They can’t keep all the storylines going in a final trailer, so which will they drop?

    All in all, had no idea this film was being made (where have I been?), but this has become my #1 must-see of the year now. Looks very much like Terrence Mallick meets “The Red Violin” and “The Fountain”.

    Man, “The Red Violin” has almost disappeared from the face of the Earth. A deeply touching film with an amazing score. Its score won the Globe, as far as I can remember, and so did the film itself (Best Foreign Language Film, even though much of it is in English).

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