Not ‘the whole true’

By Scott Pruett Source:Global Times Published: 2013-2-4 17:58:00


Cast members of Cloud Atlas, all of whom play multiple roles Photo: CFP
Cast members of Cloud Atlas, all of whom play multiple roles Photo: CFP

Comparison of full vs. edited 'Cloud Atlas' reveals flaws in system

In an interview discussing the movie Cloud Atlas, Tom Hanks told Showbiz Junkies, "The movie that we're going after is a unique one-of-a-kind Deep Throat far out into the cosmos that was gonna have to be a bulls-eye."

Guiding the two-time Oscar winner toward that lofty target were Matrix (1999) directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and their "adopted sibling" Tom Tykwer, best known for Run Lola Run (1998). Going on the wild ride with Hanks was an ensemble cast that included Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, James D'Arcy and Chinese actress Zhou Xun.

Cloud Atlas premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and instantly began dividing critics into two camps - those who put it on their top 10 list and those who named it one of the year's worst. About two-thirds of the early reviews from North America lean in a positive direction, and you can easily read or listen to any number of them online. But here in China what people are buzzing about is the nearly 40 minutes of footage that was cut. Having watched both the short then the long version within hours of each other, I would like to share some thoughts about what is missing and why, but first I can tell you this: with fully one-quarter of the contents gone, Hanks had no chance of hitting the bulls-eye in China.


Based on the eponymous book (a 544-page tome that became a best-seller in 2004) by author David Mitchell, tangible props - music, letters, a journal, a film, a button - are used to connect six seemingly independent stories spanning hundreds of years. But the writer/director trio added a new level of narrative in the film version by having one actor play several parts. This is perhaps the films most talked about characteristic, though not its most interesting.

Hugh Grant, whom you will want to see in more bad-guy roles after this, said in an interview at TIFF, "I thought it was a brilliant script: absolutely fresh, inventive, and incredibly ambitious." He later added, "Each story is told with a nod toward its traditional genre."

Grant was referring to the shooting style of each of segment. In chronological order the stories fall into the following genres: clipper ship voyage in 1849; high-society intrigue of Britain, 1936; crime thriller in San Francisco, 1973; present day (2012) comedy in the United Kingdom; high-tech sci-fi actioner set in Neo Seoul 2144; and a post-apocalyptic tale of survival dated 106 winters after "The Fall." Given that the look of each segment should fit its genre, the directors needed to meet the challenge of matching the tone - like movements in a symphony.


Andy Wachowski said in an interview with Badass Digest, "They are the same stories in a lot of ways. The story is about power dynamics and exploitation, 'the weak are meat, and the strong do eat,' and they follow similar arcs."

At the same interview, Lana Wachowski explained that, "When we started looking at the way the stories connected, we were immediately drawn to this concept where [we said] 'what if the villain of one story is actually the hero of another story played by the same actor … and how does a villain become a hero,' that became an incredibly dynamic meta-narrative." Interestingly, Hanks - whose six characters do go from villain to hero - first played six roles in 2004's Polar Express using motion capture techniques. Perhaps that fact is what first made the directing duo think of enlisting him in the project. It's possible, but they aren't saying.

Add multiple layers of love, religion and philosophy and one wonders whether a modern audience can follow a film written at such depth when it is presented like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle poured out onto a table. Answering that concern Lana said "audiences don't merely want to be passive consumers; they want something more than mild entertainment." Now, US audiences are satisfying their desire for complexity less at movie theaters. Instead, they have migrated to watching TV shows like Lost, The Wire, and Six Feet Under: "These are 'pulsive' narratives that are quite complex and fragmented and tell stories through multi-branched structures."

The 'true true'

When watching something this challenging one might conclude that the audience can use all the help it can get. But here in China, Dream of the Dragon Pictures, the film's distributor and one of its producers, decided "less is more" - 39 minutes less. The company said in an official statement that, after screening the film with a Chinese audience, the shorter version would not affect the audiences' overall understanding of the film.

Oh, really? Then let's examine some of what was missing.

By now, anyone with a mild interest in Cloud Atlas knows that some nudity involving Chinese star Zhou Xun was edited out. It's a one-second topless close-up that is not nearly as sexy as many other scenes in which she appears clothed. Verdict: a pointless cut.

At the other end of the significance scale is a sex scene between Somni-451 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess). Without the intimacy, upon being told that the other has been killed, the audience cannot fully feel the impact. It's the difference between the death of a schoolmate versus a spouse. Also, it prevents the theme of forbidden love from ringing clear. That theme is most prominent in the 1936 storyline in which the principal love interests are both men: the gay thread was snipped into nearly unusable fibers.

Most of the snippets and chunks were taken out of the first two hours when relationships are being formed and themes of truth, freedom, choice and enlightenment are being established. It feels like once the regulators got it down to an acceptable time, they became less picky. Perhaps next time they would be wiser to work backward when making their cuts.

Rest assured all the action sequences are still in. In fact, Sturgess looks to succeed Keanu Reeves in the Wachowski line-up. His heroism in the ultra-futuristic scenes of Neo Seoul might leave you feeling as if you had watched an action flick.

At its soul, Cloud Atlas is most certainly a philosophical puzzle filled with poetry, aphorisms and quotes by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The truth of heroes leads to revolution while villains insist the natural order of the world must be protected, a way to rationalize oppression of the weak.

It's a powerful theme, but there is one scene you will not see in the shortened version. I'll leave it up to you to decide why.

Aboard a clipper ship in 1849, a lawyer asks a runaway slave, "Why were you being whipped so savagely?" Answer: "My uncle was a sailor. He took me on a ship when I was 10 years old. I seen too much of the world. I no good slave."


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