Note: There are lots of spoilers contained below for both Mother 3and “Cloud Atlas.” If you’ve yet to read David Mitchell’s wonderful book, please steer clear of this blog post (for now)!
I would really love to be wrong on this one, but I don’t see how the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of “Cloud Atlas” can be anything besides an ambitious failure. From the Hollywood casting to the very literal interpretation of the book’s reincarnation device, everything in the recently released trailer suggests that this seemingly unfilmable is exactly that. I admire the effort, but the structure and scope are simply too much for an 164 minute running time. Thankfully, even when the “Cloud Atlas” film does eventually crash, there’s a perfectly great spiritual companion already available – it just so happens to be in the form of the Japanese Game Boy Advance game, Mother 3.
Mother 3, Shigesato Itoi’s seminal RPG tells the story of the town of Tazmily, a rural outpost that is gradually transformed into a garish, neon metropolis by the end of the game. Though much of the time players will control the young psychic, Lucas, entire chapters are devoted to Flint, his father; Boney, his dog; Salsa, an enslaved monkey; Duster, a “master” thief; and Kumatora, a princess. At least at the outset, it’s unclear how their fates are intertwined, but the Pigmask Army threat and frequent visits to Tazmily are enough to hold Mother 3 together in the early chapters.
“Cloud Atlas” is similarly sprawling, though its structure is far more complex (which is to be expected from literary fiction). In case you haven’t read the book but insist on spoiling enjoyable things, the book is told through the perspectives of six different characters separated by time and location. The reader initially only gets the first half of each story, but later on, characters discover extra chapters or passages that allow the stories to be completed. If this all sounds confusing, know that the two halves of “Cloud Atlas” mirror each other, so that the book opens and closes in the 19th century Chatham Islands.
Right away, we see that both Mother 3 and “Cloud Atlas” are not interested in purely linear narratives. However, what struck me about both is how they manage to be simultaneously intimate and epic. If you consider Mother 3‘s ties to its predecessors, the two take place over the course of hundreds, if not thousands of years. “Cloud Atlas” “ends” with the world in ruins, whileMother 3 stops just shy of that point. And yet, Mitchell still has pages to devote to the meandering Timothy Cavendish, whose most significant accomplishment in the book is escaping his nursing home. We spend as much time with the shiftless Frobisher as we do with the intrepid reporter uncovering a power company conspiracy. Though there’s a heavy dose of cynicism throughout, Mitchell balances this with beautiful moments of humanity.
Mother 3 has a much lighter, irreverent tone, but it also excels at balancing the grim and the optimism. Early on, Lucas loses his mother to a tyrannosaurus attack – believe me when I say that this is much more effective in practice – and her death ripples throughout the entire game. Through magic televisions and sabotage, your nemesis, Pokey, brings Tazmily to the brink of destruction, and there are a handful more casualties along the way. These hardships eventually make way for a massive reset, in which order and happiness is restored at an unknown cost. The fate of your party and company remains ambiguous. This left me with bittersweet feelings at the time, and I still feel both profound sadness and joy when I think back on Mother 3. There’s a reason why Nintendo infamously advertised that the game would make you cry.
As Tazmily’s secrets are slowly revealed, you come to realize that the corruption of the game world is cyclical; the world of Earthbound was lost to the same powers that threaten Mother 3. “Cloud Atlas” shares this world view. All six protagonists butt heads with the rich and powerful, often settling for symbolic victories as their oppressors continue to abuse their power. In the Sonmi chapters, “Corpocracy” is the dominant political ideology of a unified Korea, in which citizens are forced by law to become malleable consumers. Though Mother 3‘s Pigmask Army is less overtly menacing, Porky’s crash commercialism ultimately has the same effect on Tazmily’s townspeople. The only difference is that the “Cloud Atlas” apocalypse was the result of supreme negligence, whereas Mother 3′s apocalypse is a deliberate choice to preserve the world by destroying what it has become.
Thankfully, “Cloud Atlas” doesn’t end in a devastated future Hawaii. Once we’ve seen the worst, Mitchell gives us a few moments of triumph throughout the six stories to remind us of the positive side of human nature. What’s impressive is that he’s able to do so while convincingly borrowing and imitating several literary genres. For instance, Luisa Rey’s “Half-Lives” hearkens back to some of my favorite 70s conspiracy thrillers (specifically “The China Syndrome”), while Sonmi’s orison depicts an elaborate dystopia. Mother 3 doesn’t attempt as many voices, but it definitely subverts genre expectations. Fans of Earthbound, likely the only English-speaking players who would seek out its sequel, probably came into Mother 3 expecting more suburban Americana and modern trappings, only to find a small Western outpost. Flint, the first playable character, isn’t a plucky kid but a stoic cowboy, searching the wilderness for his lost son. Before you get to the modern trappings we all know and love, you’ll first go through a medieval castle, a vast desert and other locales you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
Any Earthbound fan expecting to immediately “get the band back together” would be surprised to find that the characters don’t really connect until halfway through the game. Until then, their intersecting adventures form a richer world, one that’s both familiar and foreign. This is driven home in Mother 3‘s conclusion, when your group of heroes is loosely connected to Ness and his cohorts from the previous millennium. Again, the reincarnated characters, birthmarks and meta-commentary in “Cloud Atlas” serve a similar purpose: tying stories and fates together that would otherwise seem grouped arbitrarily.
Perhaps most importantly, both works are incredibly accessible. Their authors may have had lofty goals, but neither Mother 3 nor “Cloud Atlas” has an ounce of pretension. Their structures are to be marveled at, their threads gradually unraveled, but all the clever tricks in the world couldn’t hide a lack of wit and soul. If you’ve made your way through one and not the other, you owe it to yourself to complete this half-finished love affair.