Written Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

by Jason Pyles
Movie Podcast Weekly.com

A few questions about “Cloud Atlas”: How are there two movies currently playing in theaters with the word “Atlas” in the titles, namely, “Cloud Atlas” and “Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike”? How did this adaptation ever get past its initial pitch meeting? And more to the point, how would one pitch something like “Cloud Atlas” to studio execs? And how does one cut a trailer for such an execution-dependent film? And how long did it take to edit this film?

Premise: Adapted from a 2004 novel by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” is essentially an anthology film with six story lines, set in various time periods, that are loosely interrelated and interwoven within one another:

One story involves a tribesman who is enlightened by a visitor who redefines his perception of the truth. Another story involves a seafaring traveler who is being treated by a doctor for a mysterious, deathly illness. Another story involves a female journalist pursuing a dangerous story pertaining to the energy industry. Another story involves a composer’s assistant who becomes perilously entangled with his employer. Another story involves an older man who has been tricked into admitting himself into an elderly care facility and tries to escape. And the sixth story involves a heroic man who rescues an enslaved woman in hopes that she can initiate the beginning of a great social revolution.

Review: Now, the first thing you’ll notice when comparing the broad overview of each of those plotlines is that they all vary greatly in their significance and their scope. They move in importance from a nursing home break-out to altogether freeing a being with hardly any human rights to a paradigm shift in a person’s perception of truth. Most of these stories are depicted in a certain time period, and they all have a different tone. Impressive.

And if that’s not ambitious enough, despite how drastically different the stories seem, there are parallel actions and parallel story beats between the segments, and as the story lines dove-tail into one another, the film overlaps them by sharing elements of the soundtrack, such as when a scene ends with us suspecting a knock at the door. We hear the knock, but it actually belongs to the beginning of the next story segment. Or perhaps both timelines share the same sound effect. At another point, we have a “jail break” from a retirement home in one story, and a similar, high-stakes escape in the adjoining story. At any rate, it’s quite remarkable how “Cloud Atlas” manages to give these vastly different tales cohesion through tying them together with such cinematic elements.

I will break here from my admiration of the film to admit that I can completely understand why this movie is so divisive. It’s easy to see why so many people would hate it. In The /Filmcast’s David Chen’s Twitter feed this morning, he wrote that “’Cloud Atlas’ made less than $10 million this weekend. It’s not one of my favorite films of the year, but it deserved better.” I couldn’t agree more. Speaking of tweets, my Twitter verdict after seeing the film was, “’Cloud Atlas’: Attempts to be profound but obtains pretentiousness. Wonderful. Ambitious. Unlike anything you’ve seen.” And it truly is unlike anything you’ve seen before, which is a big reason why you should go experience it in theaters. There are a handful of films that “Cloud Atlas” is reminiscent of, and perhaps the foremost would be Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales” from 2006, except I despised that movie. You can at least make sense of many elements of “Cloud Atlas.”

As for other online indicators, the Internet Movie Database rating for “Cloud Atlas” (as of Sunday morning) is 8.4 out of 10, which is quite high. So, obviously, the people who have actually given the film a chance and have seen it are rating it fairly well. But the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes is currently a 62 (which is still “Fresh”), while the audience users gave it a 78 (which seems about right to me). On Metacritic, “Cloud Atlas” has thus far garnered a 55 out of 100. Looking at specific critics, Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com rated it 100 on Metacritic, while Anthony Lane of The New Yorker only gave it a 60. And Roger Ebert gave it four stars, his highest possible rating.

What’s interesting about this is the writer-directors Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings seemed to anticipate mixed responses from the critics and the everyday film-going community. In the very beginning of the film, as each of these six stories is flashing before our eyes in short scenes that are probably under a minute long, one of the characters is reading a book, I believe, where the novel is encouraging the reader to have patience with the story and to stick with it. Obviously, this was meant to encourage the film’s audience, in hopes of preventing walk-outs, I’m guessing. (This is definitely the kind of film that I suspect people will walk out of and demand their money back.) Yes, I should note here, that the entire film jumps in and out of these stories, typically showing us only two minutes or fewer of each story, before cutting into the next one. I usually dislike this kind of storytelling, but I admit that I got used to it. I had no choice.

And as for the critics, there’s a “Ratatouille” (2007), Anton Ego-like moment where a harsh book critic incurs awful repercussions and another character describes a critic as “one who reads quickly and arrogantly but never wisely.” This clash of the critiqued verses the critic reminded me of a real-life situation where the infamously condemned filmmaker Uwe Boll challenged his five harshest critics to a “put up or shut up,” 10-round boxing match. (There is a 2010 documentary that covers this called “Raging Boll.”)

I have not read the “Cloud Atlas” novel, but I can’t imagine ever reading a novel like this and keeping characters and settings straight, that is, if it’s written the same way the movie unfolds. The saving grace of watching a cinematic version of “Cloud Atlas” is that I was able to visually see the differences in characters and settings, which helped me to keep them straight, despite the all-star cast playing multiple roles. I had to piecemeal this written review together to try to organize all my thoughts about this movie, which is indicative of how unwieldy this film is (in a good way). You might notice that I’m several paragraphs into this review, and I have merely described what the film is like, and not what it’s about.

I guess that’s because it’s about a lot of things, and not necessarily one main topic in particular. However, if I had to select the primary theme of “Cloud Atlas,” I would say it’s, “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present.” Other prominent themes that “Cloud Atlas” at least touches on are: What makes us choose our lives of good or evil? Is the difference between being a hero or becoming a murderer merely being able to ignore our “shoulder demons”? Anti-slavery. The phenomenon of déjà vu. Reincarnation and whether our next world will be a better one. The dead do not stay dead for long. Reputation precedes (and even supersedes) our works. How quickly the nature of one’s life can change, and how each encounter and intersection with a person suggests a new possible direction. Karma. The nature of freedom: what it is (and what it isn’t). Is the Universe against us? Refusing to be subjected to abuse. Does one life send a ripple throughout eternity? Death is only a door that leads to other doors. Survival of the fittest: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.” Why does humanity keep repeating the same mistakes? The nature of Truth, and if one person’s reality is truth to him or her. If God created the world, how do we know what we can change and what we can’t?

In his book “Narrative Comprehension and Film,” Edward Branigan says that organizing the events of our lives into narratives is “a strategy for making our world of experiences and desires intelligible. It is a fundamental way of organizing data.” And Branigan also cites C.G. Prado who argued that “narrative may be found at the very threshold of perception where consciousness itself begins.” In “Cloud Atlas” we have the events and desires of many lives depicted onscreen, and Tykwer and the Wachowskis do a surprisingly good job at delivering these narrative strains in an understandable way, despite their overlapping entanglements.

So, even though we might not be able to describe “Cloud Atlas” to someone with a simple, high-concept premise, the film tries to at least touch on several concepts, exploring them within their corresponding stories. And while this might not appeal to the average movie-goer who’s hoping for some escapist entertainment, “Cloud Atlas” will reward the thoughtful and analytical viewer. To a typical audience, this film might look like there was a surplus of unused costumes and sets, and they just needed to be thrown together into some backlot gumbo. But I can understand how this amalgam of premises and time periods was needed to convey so many concepts. Perhaps my favorite aspect of “Cloud Atlas” is it allows us to see what it might be like to have God’s omniscient perspective, which again, could only be achieved with such expansive coverage of time and place.

Before I wrap up this review, I might make a few obvious predictions where this film pertains to the upcoming Academy Awards. Since multiple actors play multiple roles and wear many drastically different appearances (even going so far as to have actors of a certain race or ethnicity portray characters of a race or ethnicity that look completely different), I’d submit that “Cloud Atlas” will at least be nominated for Makeup, if not win, though not every makeup instance was successful. And since “Cloud Atlas” spans so many time periods, I could see it winning an Academy Award for Costume Design, as well as for Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Art Direction, Film Editing, Music (Original Score), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects.

Summary: Finally, I’m going to close this lengthy review by quoting from someone on Twitter. Luke Mullen writes, “Hollywood is a system built on numbers, simple dollars and sense. If Cloud Atlas fails, it will inevitably be brought up in the room when the next daring filmmaker is trying to get money or distribution for a film that goes against the grain That’s all, whether you love it or hate it, I think it’s important that you plunk down your $10 and see Cloud Atlas in theaters. … If we want them to say yes to more difficult, smart and challenging films, we have to show up when they release one.”

So, I’m not here to say that “Cloud Atlas” is a perfect film, or even an incredible film. But it’s incredibly daring and ambitious. That’s why I’m rating it a 7 out of 10, and I’m saying I think you should still go see it while it’s still in theaters, because I think it has significance in the grand scheme of film history, which is to say, I believe that “Cloud Atlas” will be cited and referenced (for better and for worse) for years to come. And I also predict that many critical naysayers will, in time, change their tune and gravitate more toward this film’s favor, as the proverbial test of time finds it celebrated.

If you’re reading this review after “Cloud Atlas” has left the theaters, you should definitely rent it.

Verdict: 7 out of 10 ( Theater / Rental )

Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving
Genre: Drama / Fantasy / Sci-Fi
Country: USA
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language, sexuality / nudity and some drug use)
Runtime: 172 minutes.

Trailer: Watch
DVD: N/A
Blu-ray: N/A
U.S. Release Date: October 26, 2012
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