Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

Pondering Cloud Atlas, the movie (minor spoilers)

November 3rd, 2012

I finally saw the movie Cloud Atlas yesterday and have been pondering it since, but probably not for the reasons the creators would like.

Background: I read a sample of the novel on my Kindle, enough to know some details of the initial setting, and I had heard that the film takes place across a wide span of time, with interconnected lives. Other than that, I didn’t know much about it, as I prefer reading reviews and analyses after seeing a movie, and not before.

Also, I have some pretty serious facial recognition issues, so the identity of actors in multiple roles was not at all obvious to me, which pretty much guaranteed the story would be over my head. I had to read an IMDB summary afterward to get the core idea.

But it’s not the intricate story that leaves me pondering. It’s the treatment of race and setting. A lot has been written about Caucasian actors playing Asians in the film. The logical reason for this is pretty straightforward: people are reincarnated with varying racial backgrounds and for continuity the same actors were used regardless. It’s probably fair to ask why Caucasian actors were chosen—and the film might have done better with more mixed-race actors come to think of it. Halle Berry seemed able to pull off the various roles better than most, from my perspective.

But for me personally, the 1940s fake-“Asian” look was very unsettling, very distracting. For me, it doesn’t even trigger the meme “Asian.” More like “Romulan,” or “Vulcan,” or “holy cow, what in the world are they doing…?” I am told this was an indie movie and maybe they didn’t have the budget to do it right, but given the lush, eye-candy settings throughout the film, that’s a little hard to parse.

One racial aspect that I found almost no mention of online was that the people in the opening chapters of the book who were Maori, became people of African descent in the movie. I can come up with possible reasons for this, but it still seemed like Polynesia was being “disappeared,” written out of world history and replaced by another people.

And then there was “The Big Isle.” I gather from comments I’ve heard and from Wikipedia that in the book this actually does refer to our “Big Island,” Hawaii, the largest island in the Hawaiian Archipelago. But I can tell you that was not the Big Island. There was nothing about it that recalled the Big Island: not the geology, not the flora, not the people, nothing.

I raise my hand and plead guilty to writing about places I haven’t been, but I have to presume the makers of this film could have gone to the Big Island if they wanted to. So I have to assume they found a more budget friendly location, which is fine, I understand that.

But why is every post-apocalyptic survivor on the “Big Isle” seemingly pureblood Caucasian? I don’t think it’s a big secret that here in Hawaii there are a lot of people of Hawaiian ancestry, along with many other racial groups. I also don’t think it’s a secret that here in Hawaii we tend to marry across racial lines very, very frequently (I volunteer myself as an example). For at least twenty years the standard couple in banking commercials has been Asian/Caucasian. These days it seems more unusual to see people of the same race marrying, than to see mixed marriages. So…what happened during the apocalypse to erase our mixed race society? The science-fictional mindset kicks in and I find myself wondering if a racially targeted, engineered virus wiped out all but the Caucasian purebloods…but that has nothing to do with the story. So again, I’m distracted from the actual story by the (to me) inexplicable world-building choices–which goes to show the importance of world-building.

I will try to stop pondering now. I have my own stories to write, my own world-building choices to make. I’m sure I won’t always get it right, but I’ll keep trying.

Posted on: Saturday, November 3rd, 2012 at 2:14 pm
Categories: Hawaii, Movies.
Tags: ,

4 Responses to “Pondering Cloud Atlas, the movie (minor spoilers)”

  1. Paul (@princejvstin) Says:

    I don’t think it’s a big secret that here in Hawaii there are a lot of people of Hawaiian ancestry, along with many other racial groups.

    I admit when I was very young, and before I learned anything about Hawaii, I thought Hawaii was plenty of Caucasians (Navy types), and Native Hawaiians. And that was it. I learned that was far far from the truth from a strange and weird source– a combination slide show and guide book.

  2. Linda Says:

    I’m kind of surprised by the lack of commentary I’ve seen on this issue. I guess it bothers me more because I do live here, and I’ve flirted with post-apocalyptic Hawaii settings — and they don’t look like that! 🙂

  3. SMD Says:

    Most of the discussion about Hawaii’s racial problems are relegated to radical political centers (groups, radio programs, etc.) and academia. That’s the sad truth of it. Americans by and large do not want to have a serious discussion about the status of Hawaii, or why Native Hawaiians often resent or distrust non-Hawaiian ethnic groups in the islands (part of the reason is that the colonial government established there through plantations intentionally brought Asian laborers into the islands in order to increase their voting block, and thus deny Native Hawaiians sovereignty by way of arguing that clearly non-native interests outweighed those of the natives; this is only one in a long line of shifty things the U.S. did in order to control Hawaii, including the kidnapping of their Queen, the forced annexation by legislative trickery, the blood-based laws which governed who could and could not claim Native Hawaiian status in legal terms, etc. etc. etc.).

    That said, there is probably a logical argument to be made that shifting the racial heritage slightly in the film actually allows it to connect with an American audience, since that audience would likely not have the historical knowledge available to make the connection apparent. It’s difficult to find any American who does not understand the slave narrative of America’s past on some basic level.

  4. Linda Says:

    Agreed on the second thought, and this was my suspicion of why it was done. But we do in fact have a mixed race, multicultural society here in Hawaii now, today. So how do we get from here to the post-apocalyptic, racially unitary future shown in the movie? That’s what I’d like to understand.