Trouble is, neither of those held up for me in the execution. Yes, each actor reappears in many parts, but I wasn’t able to track the development of a given “soul” over time. So I’m not sure what the cross-casting of all these actors buys us, except maybe an Oscar for makeup. We’re all the same underneath is a lovely sentiment, and to some extent a true one—hey, I’m a humanist, too—but it’s also a cop-out. It lets you drift around in this misty terrain of transmigrating souls, assigning all the blame for evil and all the hope for redemption to individuals without troubling yourself too much over all the structural issues at work.
But I liked watching Cloud Atlas. I never got bored; I was mostly absorbed, and I was interested in watching the way the filmmakers set up and solved a set of problems, even when they did so imperfectly. When Mitchell himself reflected, in the New York Times, on the process of watching his book get made into a movie, he said, “Perhaps where text slides toward ambiguity, film inclines to specificity.” I think that’s right, and it’s one reason I didn’t wholly like the movie; it told me what to think too much. In that spirit, I’m inclined to slide toward ambiguity and tell people they should go see the movie, with one massive caveat. Go read the book first.
D.E.: Your summary is deft, Kathryn, but I can’t let Mitchell’s remark go unchallenged. In fact, I call bullshit. Film is a medium of surfaces, and yet all manner of artists have found ways to gesture toward that which cannot be pinned and wriggling on the wall. The problem is that, for all their mysticism, the Wachowskis are very literal-minded—perhaps even materialists. I admire their daring—and, hell, I didn’t hate watching the movie, although I had a lot of bad laughs at its expense. Only the language grated. When Hanks’s little girl said, “Mama, I hungry,” I wanted to find that missing verb and beat the screenwriters over the head with it. Also, Whishaw’s “What happened between Vyvyan and I …” shouldn’t happen to you, me, or anyone in a $100 million-plus movie.