Cloud Atlas

PhotobucketSix different historical epochs are interwoven to tell a story of humanity’s pursuit of righteousness. I must admit I had to be ambiguous in that description because I honestly couldn’t make heads or tails of this movie. In an effort to be more specific, I looked up the official synopsis which reads, and I quote, “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” I question whether the person who wrote that nonsense actually saw the finished product because that outline is far from evident after watching this production.

Cloud Atlas is an epic adapted from the 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell. Directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski clearly think they’re making some grand statement about the nature of mankind. The movie is made up of different parables from the past to the future that ostensibly relate man’s inhumanity to man. As a complete work, the six stories are mildly interconnected as a whole, but evaluated on their own merits, the individual tales are rather simplistic. Surely their purpose is to promote an idea more intellectual than some people are good and others are bad. But that’s the clichéd moral Cloud Atlas tells over and over throughout its massive length. Each one unfolds like a dumbed down version of a better movie. For example, it’s not enough that a book publisher and his fellow patients are trying to escape from a mental institution. We’re also presented with Hugo Weaving dressed up in drag to look like Nurse Ratched to further the homage. I won’t spoil the other 5 (or more) films this rips off. That’s half the fun. Cloud Atlas is undeniably a visually stunning work that utilizes superior production design and makeup to present a portrait of society. Rarely has superficial embellishments been utilized so beautifully to “cloud” a story so inherently shallow.

In a story that demands an emotional connection, the narrative is sorely lacking in character development. Give that there are 6 parts, that leaves roughly 30 minutes per episode. In the original novel, these adventures were told chronologically allowing enough moments to develop feeling for the people. However in the film, the pieces are thrown into a cinematic blender where we’re only given brief glimpses before moving on to the next story as we cycle through each tale over and over through distinct time periods and people. One key character commits suicide for example and I felt nothing. We seem to start in the middle often without much exposition and leave at random junctures. The effect is to often muddle their innate simplicity by constantly introducing a new plot before the old one has a chance to flourish. The historical eras might be grouped by similar themes, but the picture suffers from the chopping. 40 minutes into the movie, having switched focus several times, the results were headache inducing. The ADD style of the shifting storyline is a frustrating chore to follow for almost 3 hours. The overall effect isn’t innovative, it’s mind numbing.

To further complicate matters, all of the lead actors star as different individuals in each of the various sagas. This is accomplished by a dazzling array of incredible makeup, regardless of age, race or gender. Apparently each performer is portraying the same “soul” reincarnated throughout the ages. However this isn’t always clear because in some parts, the actors are completely unrecognizable. It’s a testament to the incredible talent of the makeup department. At the very least, they deserve an Oscar nomination if there‘s any justice. Halle Berry as the wife of a Belgian composer, a white woman, and as a male Korean doctor in the future, are both a marvel of modern makeup.

Cloud Atlas is a beautiful fiasco. It’s impressive production design and ambitious scope fall apart under the weight of an unwieldy and largely incoherent narrative. Had the account been told from beginning to end, from past to future, this would have made more sense. However that decision would not have rendered the parts any more interesting. I suspect the decision to chop the chronicles up into an ever fluctuating storyline is an unsophisticated attempt to make it seem more complex. In fact, the dizzying time shift jumping makes things seem convoluted. Its constantly changing art direction impressively creates wildly divergent eras that are dazzling to look at but emotionally hollow. Add that the frequent star turns by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving et al, popping up in the various stories as miscellaneous characters is distracting. I will concede I had fun playing “guess the actor” though. It may be an impressive display of makeup, but it does nothing to increase our sympathy. As I am unfamiliar with the source novel by British author David Mitchell, the film may hold more interest for fans of the original text. Alas, with apologies to Dave Eggers, Cloud Atlas is a heartbreaking folly of staggering incoherence.

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39 Responses to “Cloud Atlas”

  1. This one’s gonna get me talkin’ some:

    Exactly one week ago, I tweeted this:

    “Is it just me, or does anyone else think ‘Cloud Atlas’ looks REALLY stupid?”

    I’d seen the trailer, and it looked abysmal, like an insulting demon child of The Fifth Element, with even more ADHD (but your review says to me that inflicts on the storytelling, as well).

    I got one reply:

    “@moviefreakblog It’s incredibly good so…no.”

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger variety of feedback for this film. IMDb rates it 8.4/10 (I guess that means they made room for it on their 250) and Roger Ebert went to the top of his scale; whereas Rotten Tomatoes reports mixed feedback (62%), as does Metacritic (55%, although at one point they had it at 37%).

    I usually see your two-star grades and try to find a loophole, haha. I’m often curious. But with the extensive running time, I guess Cloud Atlas isn’t even worth a try. Thanks for seeing it for me. ;)

    • This is one of those polarizing films. Critics seem to either love it or hate it. It’s hard to get invested in a story when it keeps changing every 5 minutes. Add to that the fact that different actors keep popping up in different stories and it inadvertently becomes a game of “guess the actor”. This movie has impressive style. I’ll give it that, but it wasn’t enough to disguise the fact that the stories were actually simplistic versions of other better movies.

  2. I won’t be seeing this one :)

  3. Sorry that you didn’t like it as much as you said you wanted to, Mark. I like it much more than you, but I agree that the emotional connection was a bit lacking in some stories. I think the one I like most is the sci-fi segment in Neo Seoul.

    The stories aren’t new but the way they were presented were unique and for sure visually, it was a spectacle. So I think it’s still worth seeing as there’s nothing else out there in Hollywood out there.

    @Alexander – I wouldn’t dismiss it so quickly

    • I agree with you there. Of the six stores, my favorite was also the one that took place in futuristic Korea 2144 (seemed inspired by Blade Runner). The rest were simplified riffs on Amistad, Amadeus, The China Syndrome, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Mad Max.

      That last one, the pidgin post-apocalyptic future that bookends the movie, was my least favorite. It was just so uninteresting. What was up with that leprechaun devil anyway?

  4. I think I’ll leave this for DVD – by the sounds of it, I’ll need to watch this over a whole weekend!

  5. Good review Mark. Not as smart or thought-provoking as it likes to think it is, but it’s still an entertaining and interesting movie to see where it goes with itself and how. It’s probably not going to make any of it’s money back, but hey, at least it’s an effort that I’m glad I saw. For free, mind you.

    • Yeah the movie bombed at the box office this weekend. I think the negative reviews might’ve caused people to stay away, although word of mouth has not been good either. The film earned a dreadful C+ CinemaScore.

  6. I was a little kinder on this than you were but I completely agree with most of your criticisms. The whole “guess the actor” thing was just distracting and while a lot of the stories were good in their own regard, they just plain and simply did not need to be together in the same movie. In any case, I won’t be shedding too many tears at the film’s dismal box office returns, but I hope the Wachoski’s can find their Matrix/V for Vendetta mojo again

    • P.S. I also completely agree about the tagline, I hate it when a movie’s officially released synopsis isn’t remotely close to what the movie is actually about

    • I didn’t mind the wildly different stories being in the same movie. I just think it would’ve served the plot better if they hadn’t chopped the stories up so that the narrative kept switching every 5 minutes. It was such a chore to follow.

      I think the Wachowskis should go back to their independent roots and do something on a small scale next time.

  7. I thought it was interesting and confusing. I liked that. If a movie 3 hours long can keep me awake, then there is something there, peaking my interest. I’ll admit I didn’t quite get the whole message of the movie, until it was explained to me, then I just went, “huh”?

  8. Lots of greatly stated insight into this movie that sounds like a beautiful fiasco
    I’ll pass

  9. Yeah, Mark, all that’s fine; but don’t hide your feelings: did you LIKE it?

    I didn’t see the movie and probably never will so I can’t agree or not (between you me, I’m pretty sure I’d react the way you did only moreso), but I DID enjoy the vitriol you summoned up to describe the thing. There’s nothing more fun than a really BAD review. Under the original premise of FAST film reviews though, shouldn’t the writeup have to be limited to something like, “DON’T BOTHER!”

    And the way you sum it up — a LOOOONG movie in which a group of separate incidents from different historical eras is strung together to contrast the human capacity for good and evil — it sounds like … what else, film fans? “Intolerance”! Maybe they should’ve held “Cloud Atlas” back a couple of years and released in on the hundred-year anniversary.

    • True I could’ve dismissed this with a SKIP IT but that’s not my style. I’ve always seen it as a challenge to intelligently explain why I hated or loved something. I’m fully aware there are people out there that actually love this thing and I feel like it’s my duty to justify why I didn’t elevate this letdown to the status of a masterpiece.

      Comparing Cloud Atlas to Intolerance is a brilliant reference. But please don’t give the filmmakers any ideas. I don’t want to see Cloud Atlas 2016 Edition: Intolerance 100 Years Later. I have never seen the 3 ½ hour epic from 1916 . However, I suspect you give Cloud Atlas more credit than it deserves by comparing it to what is considered to be one of the great classics of the Silent Era.

      Regardless, I have no doubt that you would hate this film so much, it would make my review seem like an effusive recommendation of praise. By comparison, I think you might re-adjust your opinion of Barry Lyndon after having watched this.

  10. Good read! Can’t agree about the makeup, but most of your other assessments are sound. I’m trying to find input from people who have read the novel to see how it holds up, but it seems like most of the film’s most vocal responses have been written by critics who haven’t.

    • I’ll grant that some makeup was more effective than others. South Korean actress Doona Bae as a Mexican woman was pretty bad (and borderline offensive) for example.

  11. Mean Mark is back and I love it!
    Haha, in all seriousness, great review! Looking forward to watching this one. We’ll see if I agree with you or not :)

  12. Haha not a fan then? I am good with that :D

  13. One of the most divisive films in recent memory. I’ve seen lots of people I truly respect and usually agree with call it one of the best of the year and others call it a travesty. I’m in the same boat as you. I appreciate what they’re trying to do, the visuals are impressive, but man, the character development is bad and I had absolutely no connection to anything that took place. And I disliked the blender effect, too. Good review!

    • Thanks. I haven’t seen the critics this divided since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (a much better film also starring Tom Hanks).

      I too am shocked by the sheer number of critics I respect, go all ga-ga over this. The general public has largely ignored it however, and with good reason.

  14. Given the divide amongst… well, everybody, I choose to just wait for the movie on DVD. I haven’t read the novel but one of my friends is a huge fan. She tried to explain to me what it was about. I just had this quizzical look on my face.

    But I have to say that movies that have big rifts among viewers are the ones I find really interesting. We’ll see within a few months! :)

    P.S.: Just when I thought the film couldn’t be any more random, I read that leprechaun comment. Wow.

    • I can still imagine loving the book. I must admit that on paper it sounds rather interesting. However since the film was such a lugubrious slog to sit through, it’s not high on my reading list.

  15. I’m going tomorrow to see this with a few friends. I’ll set my expectations very, very low. The reaction is so divisive I really have not a clue what to expect. Ah there’s no way to put a stopper on my curiosity!

    • And we ended up seeing Taken 2 instead. So we turned down a bad movie for perhaps an even worse movie. Blah.

    • I didn’t even bother with Taken 2, a rental if I ever saw one.

      • I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s pretty dumb. I had lots of fun laughing at it. We were actually stuck between Cloud Atlas and Paranormal Activity 4, but we arrived too early for Cloud Atlas, and the guy collecting tickets stopped us from seeing PA4 because we weren’t 17. I’m sure that either way, though, we’d have been sitting in front of a debacle.

  16. With a running time of over 174 minutes,it was just not that tempting to just give “Cloud Atlas” some effort. This was a huge overbloated mess of a movie. Made at a reported cost of ove $102 million,this movie tells in interwoven stories about six separate,cosmically connected people(with actors playing different characters through several ports of time. First off we go from a ship in the South Pacific during the 19th Century to a post apocalypse future of what is left of planet Earth. It made by a crazy ambitious film,but it was well executed. But lets face facts here,for a movie that runs close to three hours “Cloud Atlas” is nothing but sound and fury,signifying next to absolute nothing. All the fantasia masks the fact that this film is,at its core,a merely CGI laced dime store reincarnation bunch of morality plays,albeit an elaborate one. Tom Hanks plays several characters in this movie….one he plays a murderous 19th Century doctor;an unscrupulous Belgian innkeeper;a whistle blowing nuclear scientist in 1970’s San Francisco;a murderous Cockney author;and a 22nd Century American actor and a cowardly neo-primitive on after the apocalypse of Earth. Halle Berry also plays several characters in this movie including one as a “Avatar” type character on a distant planet after she mends Tom Hanks’ cowardly sociopathic ways. Maybe its just bad karma here but for a movie that is confusing as its characters are,well with a running time of over 174 minutes,it was way too long and way too confusing.

    • I really can’t disagree with anything you said.

      Having the same actor play different parts in each story really felt like a decision based more on whimsicality over a desire to extract the best performance. Tom Hanks was miscast in roles that require an actor with a chameleon-like ability. Post-apocalyptic warrior? Cockney gangster-novelist? Sorry, didn’t buy it. Halle Berry’s uninspiring performance as an investigative reporter in the 70s continues to illustrate how Monster’s Ball was a display of artistry we may never see again.

      I will offer that Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant were surprisingly good though.

  17. Awesome review! I agree that film was lacking both in story and character development department. The script was such a mess I was shocked that the studio even green lit this mess. Wachowskis should just go away and stop making films.

  18. I’ve been holding off reading your review as this movie has only just opened here, was held back for quite some time and I was looking forwards to it. Have to say that I loved it, have seen it twice and fully intend further viewings. My review is up on Monday Movie Show for a more thorough read (http://wp.me/p1LZxf-10F).

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