Garrett Harris 10:11 p.m., May 23
Oh, boy, this is a sad story. Not the story in the movie - that was meant to be hopeful and even happy in places. No, I'm talking about the story of the movie.
So the Chinese distributor for Cloud Atlas decided to cut about 40 minutes from the version of the film released in that country on January 31. (Some reports say 30, some 40.) On the one hand, no big surprise: they invested $10 million in what turned out to be the most expensive indie film ever made, they wanted a chance to make their money back, and they knew that some things just weren't going to fly with the Chinese authorities.
On the other hand, 40 minutes is a lot of cutting, even for a film that was 172 minutes to start with. And the distributor didn't bother to run the cuts past the directors and producers, but still expected them to come to China and stump for the finished product. Which they did. Ouch. Small wonder that co-director Lana Wachowski said of the situation, "It sucks, really."
Why did Wachowski go to China? Because of the money. After a dismal domestic run, the film has clawed its way to $85 million worldwide, but with a reported production budget of $100 million (and that's before marketing), it's still a commercial failure with a lot of disappointed investors behind it.
Yeah, yeah, it's a tough business. Artists have to make compromises with business realities. But this time, there's a special twist to the economic knife, and not just because the directors invested some of their own money in the film. Again and again over the course of its six storylines, Cloud Atlas asserts the absolute autonomy of the individual against an oppressive system or culture. That's the point of the film. And here we are, with the autonomy of the individual (in this case, the directors) being compromised by an oppressive system or culture. Ouch again.
Oh, it gets better (worse). Lana Wachowski is transgendered, and says she made the film because she is "interested in engaging with the world, hopefully in a way that makes some people not as afraid of people like me or view people like me as these others who aren’t as human as them or different than them." She compares herself to the film's android, Sonmi, who dares to live and love as a human. "Like Sonmi, there are people who will spit on me, want to lynch me, want to crucify me," she says. Among the cut scenes? You guessed it: Sonmi's android-on-human sex scene. Sure, you can make a case for the film surviving such a cut, but given that sexuality is at the very heart of Wachowski's perceived otherness, the removal of that scene has to be a bit of a blow for a director who identifies with the character.
On top of that: Lana Wachowski is married to a woman. Also cut from the film: the gay love scenes between a young composer and his boyfriend.
Warner Brothers didn't even offer Christopher Nolan's blockbuster The Dark Knight to China for distribution, citing "prerelease conditions" and "cultural sensitivies." No doubt, they also didn't feel much need to do so, citing "massive quantities of box-office cash." But Cloud Atlas needs the dough, and so it seems that they can't play artistic hardball. Or, you know, hold to the principles espoused in the film.