Cloud Atlas may well be the most disappointing movie of the year. I’ve had the book on my to-read list for several months, and in the lead-up to the release of the movie I had numerous friends tell me this was one of the best books they’d ever read.
Granted, this was an ambitious undertaking. The book follows six different stories, telling the first half of each, then passing off the tale to someone in the next before looping back around to give all 6 conclusions:
1) In 1850 a sick notary on a ship befriends a stowaway slave and writes letters to his wife;
2) In 1931 a young musician reads those letters, and also writes letters to his lover as he composes the Cloud Atlas sextet;
3) In 1975 said lover passes information on an unstable nuclear reactor to a journalist (who also reads the musician’s letters);
4) In 2012 the journalists’ life story is presented to a publisher who is unjustly locked up in an institution;
5) In 2144, the publisher’s life story becomes a movie watched by a clone who has been unjustly oppressed and now chooses to rebel;
6) That clone has become a goddess in the eyes of a post-apocalyptic tribal people.
Aside from the fact that it is LONG and BORING, Cloud Atlas is just… uncomfortable. I was put-off by the image of Jim Sturgess in yellowface from the beginning, and in the context of the film it is just as unsettling. This racebending occurs from black to white to Asian to Indian and back again (though notably, no one ever wears blackface), and it all took me right out of the movie. I don’t know how to process someone using racial slurs against someone who isn’t actually the race they’re playing, e.g. calling an Asian woman playing a Latina a “wetback.”
The founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans had this to say about Jim Sturgess’ portrayal of He-Joo Chang (via HuffPost):
“It would have been a great, stereotype-busting role for an Asian American actor to play, as Asian American men aren’t allowed to be dynamic or heroic very often… You have to ask yourself: Would the directors have used blackface on a white actor to play Gyasi’s role?” asked Aoki, referring to David Gyasi, the freed slave in the film. “I don’t think so: That would have outraged African American viewers. But badly done yellowface is still OK.”
The Wachowski siblings defend their casting choices by stating that “The intention is to talk about things that are beyond race,” and that “The book suggests that there is a humanity that is beyond our tribe, our ethnic features.” In theory it may sound admirable to attempt such “colorblind” casting and filming, and it’s true that in one or two instances the direct parallels of the storylines are highlighted nicely by parallel casting – e.g. two characters playing lovers separated by circumstance, with two very different endings to their tales in different lifetimes.
But the “colorblind” casting philosophy ignores the reality: that black/yellow/brown/red “face” has historically been used by the white majority to homogenize, dehumanize, and marginalize other races.
Putting a black man in yellow face isn’t progressive, it just highlights the fact that so few Asian actors are allowed the opportunity to star in Hollywood films. Though we’ve mostly moved away from offensive stereotypes as blatant as Mickey Rooney’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (though not entirely), the starring roles in movies like The Last Airbender and Dragonball Z, which should go to Asian actors, continue to be whitewashed. The casting choices for Cloud Atlas only continue this unfortunate – and truly harmful – trend. As Aoki stated, this would have been a great opportunity for an Asian actor.
And for those who might argue that it “doesn’t matter” because Halle Berry and Bae Doona put on whiteface, Racebending.com has a quick overview of why yellowface (or any -face) is problematic.
“Ultimately, whatever the film’s grand aspirations (or achievements), my belief is that Cloud Atlas will eventually be viewed through the same lens as films like The Good Earth, Birth of a Nation, or even Dumbo. ….
Some will suggest that the racebending roles given to some of the actresses in Cloud Atlas mitigate or even forgive the use of yellowface in the film. This strikes me as tokenism of the worst kind. Placing a white performer in yellowface is to put a megaphone to the lips of an A-list actor so he can announce “chink” before an audience of millions. The equivalent use of “whiteface” cannot compare to the act, because there is no history of white exclusion from the American mainstream. In the last decade, 71% of Warner Bros movies’ lead roles went to white men. All other demographics – black, Latino, Asian, Native American, women of any race – have access to one-quarter the leading roles as white men.”
I also want to draw attention to a study cited in that post, which suggests that television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for white and black girls and black boys, and an increase in self-esteem among white boys. Children are directly – negatively – affected when they don’t see themselves represented in TV and movies.
Beyond the specter of racism, the role-reversals were just plain unnecessary. We’ve already established that these characters are meeting again and again in different lifetimes, through heavy-handed monologuing and careful editing. (The latter was overdone; I understood that the director was trying to show the parallels between stories and lifetimes, but it only served to cut up story lines into segments so short and disjointed that I honestly stopped caring about each.) But if those clear parallels weren’t enough, we even have a comet-shaped birthmark presenting a big neon sign to the audience – “These are the same people! Get it? Like, reincarnation, or… something? Birthmark!”
So why the actors overlapping story lines? I felt that entire conceit was used for one “satisfying” moment – when Sonmi imagines a door opening in another life and we see that parallel as she opens a door in a different story line. Otherwise… useless. Often the lead actors play peripheral roles in subsequent storylines, or switch from good to evil characters, which dispells any notion that they are playing the same soul reincarnated – you can’t tell me Tom Hanks in 1850 is the same soul in 1975 or in the dystopian future. Even Roger Ebert admitted in his otherwise positive review, that “On my second viewing, I gave up any attempt to work out the logical connections between the segments, stories and characters.” He seems to think this adds complexity; I see that as thoughtlessness and cheap gimmickry.
It’s just distracting to look at all the racebending roles, particularly with such well-known actors. All you can think is “Wow, Hugo Weaving is Asian?” or “Hugo Weaving is Mrs. Doubtfire?” or “Hugo Weaving is a giant green leprechaun?” rather than paying attention to his character’s purpose.
Surprisingly, I also realized in watching Cloud Atlas that Tom Hanks is a terrible character actor. He can play leading men like few others, but as a goofy, buck-toothed surgeon? No. As an indigenous, pidgin-speaking tribesman? SPARE ME. That dialogue was Jar-Jar levels of ridiculous. “Yousa been savin me twicely nah, I’ba gon’ takya ta mounty mount, true true!”
Fortunately there were two bright spots in this otherwise leaden script: Frobisher’s romance and plotline were sweet and poignant; and Cavendish’s escapades were amusing, if seemingly random (and plagued by the off-putting sight of Weaving as Nurse Ratchet) – “Soylent Green is PEOPLE!” got several chuckles.
The futuristic world of Neo-Seoul held the most promise in my opinion, but the story itself was so poorly told that I couldn’t appreciate the adventure or the emotional resonance they tried to build. Why did the resistance care so much about Sonmi?! WHY!?
Overall, I came out of this movie exhausted and annoyed. Major disappointment.