REVIEW : “Cloud Atlas”

“Cloud Atlas” has already stirred up quite a discussion between moviegoers. It’s safe to say the film has earned its fair share of fans. But it’s also true that it has its share of detractors. To be honest I can see where people could either love it or hate it. It’s a highly ambitious picture that pulls off an incredibly clever storytelling technique. But it could also be viewed as a three-hour grind that features many of the Wachowski’s familiar self-indulgences. So how was it for me, a groundbreaking cinematic accomplishment or an epic sized disaster? Well neither, But I did find it a chore to sit through despite the things it does right.

It’s practically impossible to give any kind of brief synopsis of the plot of “Cloud Atlas”. It’s basically six individual stories that take place at different points in time. The first story is set in the 1800s and follows a young lawyer handling business for his father on a voyage across the Pacific. The second story takes place in England during the 1930s as a young unfulfilled composer is hired to help an older accomplished composer create his music. The third story is set in the 1970s as an investigative reporter finds herself in danger after uncovering a nuclear energy conspiracy. The fourth story, set in 2012, follows a writer and publisher who finds himself in debt and in deep with some local mobsters. The fifth story jumps to a futuristic high-tech Seoul, Korea where a clone is believed to hold the keys to the future. The final story leaps further into the future where mankind is left to live in a barbaric caveman-like world.

Now there’s a process to watching “Cloud Atlas”. First the audience must adjust to the fractured form of storytelling. The Wachowski’s and co-writer and co-director Tom Tykwer don’t tell the six stories separately. Instead, the movie jumps from one story to another requiring the audience to keep up. For this to work, we first have to get to know the characters. For the most part the introductions work pretty well although I did struggle to connect with some of them. Once the characters and their stories are laid out then the audience can sit back and watch things unfold. This is when the movie was most effective. In fact, I found myself completely absorbed in what I was seeing during the middle of the film. Then the audience has to piece each of the stories together, some through more obvious and straightforward connections and others through more cryptic and allegorical meanings. This is another place where I felt the film really stumbled.

I want to start with the positives. The storytelling technique employed in “Cloud Atlas” could have potentially been a disaster. Earlier I used the word ambitious and for good reason. Taking pieces of six individual stories, breaking them up, and interweaving them together while maintaining a good strong narrative is an incredible challenge. I was blown away with how well it was done in this movie. We seamlessly move back and forth from story to story and the filmmakers are able to keep total control of the narrative. Even later when the transitions seem to come quicker and quicker, the broader story never loses its sense of cohesion. It’s intelligently crafted and executed and it serves as a great reminder of the power of cinematic storytelling.

There are also some amazing special effects and spectacular cinematography. The overall visual presentation of “Cloud Atlas” gives it a true epic motion picture feel and it beautifully captures the various time periods that it dabbles in. I loved the period-perfect look of the 1800s as well as the futuristic landscapes and technologies from the later period. Every place we visit in time looks and feels perfect. It also helps to have such a superb cast involved. The movie is loaded with strong performances from actors and actresses playing multiple roles. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, Hugh Grant, Bae Doona, and Jim Sturgess all do great work in bringing this complex story to life. Each play a variety of different characters in the different storylines often in heavy prosthetics and sometimes in full drag. This is a good lead-in to some of my questions and concerns about “Cloud Atlas”. I’m not certain why it was necessary to have these actors play multiple roles. I’m assuming the filmmakers felt it added a sense of connection between the stories. Or maybe there was another underlying intention that I just don’t care to figure out. Regardless, do we really need to see Hugo Weaving dressed up as a husky female nurse?

Then there is the issue with how some of the individual stories end. There are a couple that I found quite satisfying. But then there are those that feel a little too tidy and borderline conventional as well as one that’s just flat-out silly. Also I never felt as though I made the full connections between some of the storylines. The movie simply doesn’t tie them together sufficiently. Now to be fair, a movie like this almost begs to be viewed a second time. I’m certain there are little nuggets of information that I missed. But the problem is that I’m not sure I want to tackle it again and that’s in large part due to the sometimes laborious 3-hour running time. Now I don’t mind long movies, but there were stretches in “Cloud Atlas”, particularly in the first and third acts, where the film seemed to be spinning its wheels. This isn’t unusual for the Wachowskis and I had a similar problem with their Matrix series. Much like those movies, this film at times feel bloated and self-indulgent. I also found the social commentary to be obvious and heavy-handed. Even in the instances where the message is good, they sometimes come across as blatant and contrived. Now to be perfectly honest, I’m not at all familiar with the source material, but I can’t imagine it being as glaringly in-your-face as the film can sometimes be.

“Cloud Atlas” is a difficult movie to process. It can sometimes be exhilarating cinema and at other times a frustrating chore. From a technical standpoint the film is astonishing. Both the visuals and sound design are phenomenal and the ability to capture the uniqueness of each time period is quite amazing. Even more impressive is the artistry involved in the unconventional storytelling method. There’s a crisp lyrical harmony to how we’re moved back and forth from one story to the next. Unfortunately there are a host of other problems, including those mentioned above, that keeps “Cloud Atlas” from being a really good film. But I haven’t asked the bigger question surrounding this movie. What’s it really about? Is it above love conquering all? Is it about choices and the blessings or consequences that follow them. Is it about a deep interconnection that all mankind share? I’m not sure, but in the end “Cloud Atlas” is a relatively small movie hidden underneath its lavish ambition and grandeur. It’s an exercise in style over substance that has enough flaws and misguided conceits to overshadow the things it does really well. That’s a shame.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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25 thoughts on “REVIEW : “Cloud Atlas”

  1. Marvellous review Keith. Very well structured bro and you weigh up the pro’s and the con’s skilfully. This is a film that really appeals to me. I love the concept and I look forward to seeing it. However, I won’t go into it with big expectations. Thanks man.

    • I appreciate it Mark. Are you familiar with the source material? I wasn’t and I’m not sure if that hindered or helped. But ambition and the willingness to take chances goes a long with me. This film certainly takes chances. Unfortunately I felt in spins it wheels way to much & by the end it didn’t feel that connected. But it’s incredibly well told via the fractured style. I’m amazed at how well they pulled that off.

      • I’m not familiar with the source material either man but I love the idea behind it. For a film to show this type of ambition is worthy of attention. It’s saddening to hear it doesn’t quite capture it successfully but I’m intrigued nonetheless.

  2. Beautiful Piece Keith ! I will see it this weekend and I expect that it will either be spectacular or a train wreck. I don’t know, looking at a scope of a movie, I think it will be difficult to come to the conclusion right away. Let us see how it goes.

    • Thank you very much. Appreciate you stopping by. I found it to be right in the middle of sensational and disastrous. It’s not as big as it’s epic scale will have you believe. But technically it strong and the storytelling method is incredibly well-done.

    • Thanks man! I struggled with the movie even though it was pretty impressive. It’s a movie that I feel I need to watch again even though I have no desire to do so anytime soon.

  3. Yep. great review. took me a day to process before posting my review. I liked it a lot. I had a hard time though trying to figure out which characters were played by who in the movie. once I let that go, i was able to enjoy it. While it is long, I will be seeing it again to catch all I missed.

    kudos on the callout of Hugo as the husky nurse. smh. LOL

    • I just couldn’t bump it up to three stars. I know many love it but there are too many things I had problems with that I couldn’t look past. I’m like you, I may watch it again on DVD but I’m in no hurry!

    • Thanks for stopping by Vic! It definitely has its good points and I know some people really like it. But I can see why it has detractors. I’m really anxious to hear more opinions from my blogging buddies.

  4. Ah man!! Sorry, it was not better for you. I knew this would happen–this kind of film is a divider–some will love it–others will hate it–and others will be in the middle.

    I loved it. In a world full of more-of-the-same, remakes, sequels and low brow entertainment, I will take Cloud Atlas any day. Personally, I did not feel the 3 hours…I was immersed and completely engaged throughout (and plan to watch it again soon to catch more little details).

    I found there were more abstract themes rather than actual ties. Love. Cowardice. Faith. Bravery. Evil. I feel like the strokes were broad on purpose to show the universal impact they could have. Each soul had its own arch of evolution within themselves and it affected others, both in small and in big ways. (Example: Hank’s Doctor’s evilness and greed lead to his cowardice and suffering in the future–and he then has to break the cycle.)

    I also enjoyed the fact that the stories were connected in some form of a storytelling medium–a novel, a piece of music, a film and finally a video archive. Obviously, the power of that art form is not loss on the directors and they chose to highlight how influential it can be.

    The word ambitious has been used by all–lovers and detractors–and it is the best adjective to use. Nothing like this has been done before and I hope that this opens the door for creativity and originality in the films produced in the future–for that alone I hope it can find an audience and success.

    Fingers crossed. 😀

    Always nice to share thoughts with you…later!

    • Wonderful defense of the movie. You really laid out your thoughts well and I can definitely see where you’re coming from. It is destined to be one of those movies that you really love or or don’t care much for. I am honestly in the middle. I absolutely recognize what the movie does well. And I really appreciate that the filmmakers were willing to break from the formulaic approach to movies that we get most of the time.

      On the flipside, I just didn’t get the sense that this was as big as it presents itself to be. I do understand its statements on the connection between individuals and the long-lasting consequences of choices. But I do think the movie stumbles on some of the more simple things. I simply wasn’t interested in all of the storylines and I also felt some of their endings were a little conventional and unsatisfying. Plus there were the other little issues I had that I won’t rehash.

      Anyway I’m glad the movie did work for you. That’s what cinema is all about. And I always love it when someone has a good experience with a movie. And who knows, maybe when I do check it out again I will appreciate it more. 🙂

  5. “do we really need to see Hugo Weaving dressed up as a husky female nurse?” Hahah! LOLYeah, that’s something you cant unsee, huh? 😀

    Like you, I didnt completely feel the connections between all of these stories, and I think thats a huge issue for the movie. People are going to try to play connect the dots from the moment it starts, and when they cant at the end, its going to frustrate the hell out of them.

    • Exactly! And then there will be a lot of connecting the dots through fairly simplistic means – Means that may not have been intended by the filmmakers. In other words this is one of those movies that some people will jump into feet first. Now there’s nothing wrong with that. But I didn’t have near the experience that they did and I certainly don’t have a desire to go back and rewatch it anytime soon. Too many issues.

  6. Hi Keith, great review man! I obviously like this more than you, but I’m glad you still find things to appreciate in the film. I think your rating is fair given your quibbles, and you’re right it was tough to keep up with the stories jumping from one to the next, but I’m willing to give it another go as my hubby hasn’t seen it yet. The more I mull it over, the more I actually like this one, go figure!

    Btw, I actually LOVE the idea of the actors playing multiple roles across races/genders, I think it’s brilliant! I think it adds to the idea of the intertwining themes, though at times it does distract me from the story a bit.

    • Thanks a lot Ruth. One of my favorite things about this movie is the conversation that it started. I love it when a movie brings out so many different feelings and reactions. It always makes for good conversation.

      The actors playing multiple roles wasn’t really a big issue for me. I just thought at times it was a little distracting. My bigger issues were with how heavy-handed some of the social commentary was and how a couple of the stories just didn’t interest me as much as the others. In a movie that’s so dependent on connecting the dots, you really need all of the stories to be interesting.

      But as I’ve said, I was really impressed with how well the fractured storytelling work! To be able to join together bits of six separate stories and do it so effectively is extremely impressive. I really didn’t have an issue with following the broader narrative. And of course the visuals and make up design was fantastic.

    • Oh by the way I finished my directors quotes relay post. It should be up soon.

      Also, I know you don’t like horror, but check out today’s Phenomenal 5. It has a pretty funny little twist to it. 😉

  7. Pingback: THE 5 BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS OF 2012 |

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