Cloud Atlas, Battlestar Galactica, music and Korean robot martyrs

Cloud Atlas the movie has a lot more soul than Cloud Atlas the book. Unfortunately, it’s stuck in a paradox of accessibility: to like or even understand the movie, you probably have to have read the book, and if you liked David Mitchell’s chilly and intricate ruminations on How We Are All Connected, you might not appreciate Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings reducing all of those grand intellectual thoughts into love stories.

But wow, I did. Tykwer and especially the Wachowskis actually made me care about the characters by turning Mitchell’s vague reincarnation tales into stories of lovers losing and finding each other through the ages. Some of that effort didn’t always work out - poor combover-scientist Tom Hanks got about 45 seconds of chatting with investigative-journalist Halle Berry before deciding he was in love with her, and then dying. But adding romance to the post-apocalyptic Hanks-Berry story worked a lot better than I expected, and the Jim Sturgess-Doona Bae relationship just got me. I loved that the Wachowskis gave us that emotion to hang onto, that they emphasized the importance of Adam Ewing’s wife and gave that couple the happy ending in the past to make up for their tragic ending in the future. I also liked the decision to make the Sonmi/Hae-Joo relationship sincere rather than to stick to the novel’s plot and have him manipulating her, with her knowledge. Sturgess and Bae were just ridiculously sweet and sad together, and while I spent the movie waiting for his duplicity to be revealed, I’m glad that it ultimately didn’t exist.

The Sonmi storyline also reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Battlestar Galactica — a scene also involving an android, played by a Korean(-American) woman, with a complicated love life and a martyr complex. The beginning of Galactica's first-season finale, “Kobol’s Last Gleaming,” shows the android Sharon shot by her human lover after he discovers the truth about her. That couple eventually gets their happy ending, but not before death and other tragedy comes to some of the Sharon characters.

What made that Galactica episode memorable is how that scene is intercut (sound familiar?) with several other simultaneous stories, while a fugal piece of music (sound familiar?) plays over it all. I’ve been listening to the Cloud Atlas soundtrack on Spotify nonstop since leaving the movie - it’s addictively, beautifully, maddeningly repetitive and keeps the stories alive in a way that the book never did. I haven’t listened to a piece of pseudo-classical music this intensely since Galactica aired that episode and handed the entire opening sequence over to Bear McCreary’s Passacaglia. Which is still in heavy rotation on my iTunes, because every time I hear it I think of Lee’s fight and Kara’s betrayal and Boomer’s attempted suicide while her clone fights with her lover, because that piece of music actually managed to transform what was otherwise a decent episode of a good sci-fi TV show into something that’s still memorable and inventive, years later. The movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas has the same striking effect on me - it might not be a commercial success, but it’s unexpectedly touching and memorable. 

Movie hopes lowered: David Mitchell’s soulless Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is the book equivalent of Mad Men: intellectually polished, impressively intricate, chilly and soulless.

In full disclosure, I haven’t finished reading the book yet; I have one chapter left. I’ve had one chapter left for about a week, since I ran smack into yet another narrative wall in the novel, wrenching me away from characters I’d almost started to care about and dropping me back in the lap of characters I’d now forgotten. It’s possible that the last 34 pages of Cloud Atlas will completely change my mind and make me realize what a brilliantly moving, important piece of literature this book is. But having barely slogged through the first half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the Ye Olde Historical diary that opens and closes the book, I’m not holding out great hope for its conclusion.

This isn’t to say I disliked all of the book. I don’t mind abandoning novels that bore me, but Cloud Atlas - once my desire to compare it to the movie powered me past that great bore of a first chapter - has kept my interest sporadically, in almost alternating main characters. Adam Ewing? Don’t care. Robert Frobisher? Gradually started to care, with a neat segue into the much better Luisa Rey. And then the awful Timothy Cavendish, relieved by the superlative Sonmi-451, and then a plummet into the interminable Zachry. The trip back has been less fun, because I read Sonmi’s conclusion dreading the return to Cavendish, and now that I’ve finished Frobisher, I really am not interested in whatever happened to Adam Ewing, and what it all means in Mitchell’s grand matrix-y philosophy of past and present and future and reincarnation and whatever other grand intellectual things he’s trying to say with this very dazzling book.

It’s hard not to admire, in a freshman crit-lit seminar sort of way. Mitchell skips easily, showily from historical epistles to hard-boiled 70’s thriller to a futuristic Aldous Huxley pastiche to an apocalyptic pidgin folk-story. He’s very accomplished. But every time I start to lose myself in the story, to become subsumed in the message rather than having the message whacked over my head with birthmarks and dreams and sextets, Mitchell yanks me back by switching characters. I could have easily spent an entire novel in the futuristic “corpocracy” of Korea, where clones are bred and then butchered and “pureblood” humans are endowed with “Souls” that track them and require them to spend a certain amount of their salaries every day. The semantics alone of this world are dazzling, and the clone narrator is the most fully-realized and sympathetic of all of Mitchell’s protagonists. But on the verge of her execution, she gets rushed off-stage to watch a movie about the bumbling Cavendish, and Mitchell again pulls me out of his story.

I first started reading this book because I wanted to compare it to its new movie adaptation. And I was hoping, before reading it, that the directors of the first Matrix movie and Run Lola Run would deliver a kinetic, sparky science-fiction film with just enough philosophy underneath the dazzle. Now I’m afraid it will be the other way around.

I’ll still see the movie. But now that I’ve read their source material, I’m bracing for something from the directors of the last Matrix movie and The Princess and the Warrior.