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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 0%
Average: 13.79%
Pretty Bad: 20.69%
Total Crap: 10.34%

3 reviews, 11 user ratings

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Cloud Atlas
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by Peter Sobczynski

"W For WTF???"
2 stars

By the time most movies that I see come to an end, and usually much earlier than that, I like to think that I have a pretty good grasp on both what it is that they are trying to convey to viewers and whether or not the filmmakers have succeeded in achieving those particular goals. After watching "Cloud Atlas," I knew that I had certainly seen something but you had asked me exactly what it was that I had seen or what I made of it, I don't think that I could have given you any satisfactory answers. On the one hand, it is a sprawling and wildly ambitious epic that swings for the fences in virtually every scene and, in terms of size, scope and narrative, is utterly unlike anything that has been attempted in the name of commercial filmmaking in quite some time. On the other hand, even for a film clocking in at nearly three hours, this is the rare movie that contains too many ideas instead of too few and for every one that pays off, there are two or three that simply do not work at all. The end result is a film that is sometimes brilliant, oftentimes embarrassing and either a masterpiece of modern cinema, a folly of mind-numbing proportions or some bizarre combination of the two. That said, it may take you a while to decide for yourself which one it is--it has been more than a week since I have seen it as I write these words and I still haven't quite made up my own mind for certain


Based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, "Cloud Atlas" offers viewers no less than six intertwining stories taking space over the span of roughly a thousand years or so. In 1849, a young American man conducting business in the South Pacific on behalf of his father-in-law befriends a slave who has stowed away on the ship taking him home and takes ill, attracting the attentions of a doctor who may not have his best interests at heart. In 1936, a young man with ambitions of being a composer becomes the assistant to a legend in the field who hasn't produced anything in years, a relationship that sours when the old man hears the novice's brilliant personal work and hopes to claim it for his own. In 1973, an intrepid journalist stumbles upon a diabolical plot involving the energy industry in California and finds her life in danger. In 2012, a low-rent British publisher, for reasons that shall not be dwelt upon here, finds himself committed against his will in a hideous senior citizens home and bands with a couple of other "guests" to defeat the tyrannical head nurse and escape. In 2144, a clone working as a waitress in New Seoul eventually gains some form of humanity and leads a revolution against corporate-led society after discovering a secret that is particularly hard to swallow. Finally, on a Pacific island set "106 Years After The Fall," a loner agrees to help a visitor from another world who may hold the secret to saving what remains of humanity even as he is tortured by an inner demon urging him to kill her and let things go back to normal.

As complicated as all this may sound as is, it is nothing compared to how the film goes about telling them. Although the stories do share certain thematic concerns--each one deals with those who struggle to break free of the constraints of what society expects from them and make the world a better place for themselves and others and feature characters sporting oddball birthmarks that symbolize a higher degree of enlightenment that others attempt to either live up to or stamp down before it can spread--they do not flow chronologically into one another. Instead, Lana & Andy Wachowski & Tom Tykwer, who co-wrote and co-directed the film, hop back and forth from one narrative to the next in a manner whose patterns only eventually become clear; until that time of viewer enlightenment, it suggests the cinematic equivalent of a half-dozen Russian nesting dolls that have been mixed up and reassembled seemingly at random. As for the characters, most of them have no literal relation to them but it seems that we are to recognize them as variations of souls that find themselves making the same mistakes throughout the centuries until they finally evolve enough to move on. To underscore this, the filmmakers have made the bold decision to have their actors--including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant--playing multiple characters, sometimes even of a different race or gender, throughout the course of the film. For example, at various points, Hanks plays the treacherous doctor, a hotel clerk, a scientist who sense a cover-up, a Cockney author with a violent streak, an actor in a movie based on a book inspired by one of the stories we are witnessing and the post-apocalyptic guy who literally holds the fate of mankind in his hands. Some of these appearances are obvious while others are hidden a little better--all of them are eventually acknowledged in the end credits as each actor's name is accompanied by photos of each character that he or she portrayed.

Although a popular novel in its own right, "Cloud Atlas" is the kind of work that would seem to be utterly unsuited for translation to the big screen. Even if you set aside the convoluted narrative, you are left with a tale requiring an epic-sized budget to properly produce it even though it contains few of the elements (sex, creative violence, over-the-top action beats) that would normally be required to justify such an expenditure. To even attempt to wrestle such a beast into a feature film requires a filmmaker possessing the audacity of a newcomer who doesn't quite understand the immensity of the task at hand and the technique of a veteran who possess the immense dramatic and technical skills needed to even have a chance at pulling it off. In that regard, "Cloud Atlas" is ahead of the game with its filmmaking trio of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. In past films such as the "Matrix" trilogy, "V for Vendetta," "Run Lola Run" and "Perfume," they have taken material that might have seemed impossible to handle in other hands and transformed them into stunning spectacles that dazzled the eye and the mind alike and proved that audiences would sit still for films that contained big ideas and radical stylistic elements as long as they were presented in ways that stimulated viewers intellectually, viscerally and emotionally. These are people who are almost constitutionally incapable of making something mundane (even the unmitigated disaster that was the Wachowskis' adaptation of "Speed Racer" was at least terrible in its own flamboyantly peculiar manner) and I cannot immediately think of anyone else better suited to the challenges of executing this particular project.

In the broad strokes, "Cloud Atlas" is pretty much a stunner from start to finish. Although the notion of seeing six intertwined stories featuring the same actors in different roles in the service of three directors may sound like an exercise in mass confusion, the execution is far smoother and more coherent than one might reasonably expect. Obviously, things are a bit chaotic at first but after a while, the film settles down and the stories begin to flow into each other with enough ease to make it seem as though there is only one pair of hands behind it. (For the record, the Wachowskis directed the 1849 section and the two futuristic segments while Tykwer handled the other three.) Regardless of who is handing which section, each part fires on all cylinders on a technical level. Visually, there is one eye-popping bit after another--even the more contemporary segments contain unexpectedly inviting flourishes courtesy of cinematographers John Toll and Frank Griebe--and the proceedings are further united by an impressive musical leitmotif (featuring Tykwer as one of its composers) that winds up being replicated to a certain extent by the story itself. This is go-for-broke filmmaking on a size and scale that few have even dared to attempt--in terms of sheer ambition, it belongs right up there with the likes of "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Fountain" and "Inception" as one-of-a-kind spectacles of the kind that will almost certainly never be seen again.

The trouble with "Cloud Atlas" is that it has been produced with impeccable skill and technical expertise, all of that effort has been made in the service of a film that is oftentimes nonsense at best and borderline laughable nonsense at worst. When judged on their own merits, the six individual stories are basically gibberish and I daresay that none of them would be able to stand on their own if they were expanded and spun off into separate stories. (To be fair, there is the possibility that the tales had more detail and nuance that needed to be dropped in order to get it down to even its current expansive running time but having not read the book, I couldn't say if that is the case.) The South Pacific tale is a silly O Henry-type story that goes nowhere. The one involving the would-be composer, his tyrannical employer and a couple of loves that dare not speak their name is essentially a miniature version of what might have been a lesser Merchant-Ivory costume drama. The Seventies story with the hip muck-raking journalist is merely a "Friday Foster" retread. The 2012 tale in the nursing home is so silly that it boggles the mind that anyone involved with the project as either a book or a film could have possibly thought it to be a good idea. The Neo-Seoul segment looks stunning but is otherwise a painfully familiar tale of a future dystopian age with a final twist that will come as a surprise only to people who have never before seen a tale of a future dystopian age that come equipped with a final twist. As for the story set in the far-off future, it just serves as proof that if one is to tell a tale set in a post-apocalyptic future and featuring actors running about in oddball costumes and speaking a weirdo dialect, casting familiar faces in the roles is a giant mistake in the sense that their familiar faces only serve to take viewers out of the story and accentuate how ridiculous their surroundings truly are.

Speaking of those familiar faces, the conceit of having the same actors playing different parts in the various stories makes some degree of sense from a thematic standpoint, especially if we are to assume that we are watching the progression of the same souls throughout the ages on their individual paths to enlightenment, and no doubt also helped from a production perspective in that one cast deployed six ways is more cost-effective than having six different groups cluttering things up and wreaking havoc on the budget. However, while it makes sense in theory, the notion does not quite work in practice because after the concept reveals itself, it becomes a distraction, either because viewers will spend too much time who is under the elaborate makeups or because the makeups themselves are not as effective as one might have hoped. (Put it this way, Hugo Weaving's appearance in drag as the nasty nurse in the senior home segment makes one long for the comparatively convincing look that Michael Caine sported in the finale of "Dressed to Kill.")The actors are game enough but the performances are all over the map--Hanks' blustery turn as the bad guy in the South Pacific segment suggests that he was dropped from the cast of "The Adventures of TinTin" at the last second and was determined to deliver the performance he dropped somewhere and Berry continually comes across as the most boring woman in the history of the universe based on her appearances here. In the end, the multiple-role gimmick may have seemed like a good idea in the abstract, all it does in the end is transform the film into a modern-day (and beyond) homage to "The List of Adrian Messenger."

"Cloud Atlas" is a film that not only challenges the conventions of contemporary cinema but the conventions of analyzing contemporary cinema as well. To put it charitably, it is pretty much a mess throughout--a work that is both visionary from a technical standpoint and startlingly myopic in terms of narrative and emotional impact--and not only did I have no coherent idea of what to make of it when it was all over, I doubt that Tykwer or the Wachowskis had any as well. At the same time, however, its massive ambitions and its willingness and audacity to attempt something this unusual on this kind of scale does, I suppose, earn it a certain special consideration that one might not necessarily apply to the likes of "Fun-Size." Even though I couldn't wait for it to end while watching it, I am still glad that I saw it and if it sounds as though it might be your cup of tea, I wouldn't necessarily dissuade you from going to see it (especially if you can see it on the biggest screen in your area and at a midnight show, when its hallucinatory rhythms and dream-like structure might play better). In fact, I have the sneaking suspicion that I will one day revisit it in order to see if it clicks with me in a way that it didn't the first time around--maybe not necessarily in this lifetime but at some point down the road.

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originally posted: 10/26/12 04:09:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
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User Comments

12/26/13 DJ 2 long, 2 boreing, jumps around--1 star 1 stars
12/24/13 JASON 3 HOURS OF SHIT-- 1 stars
10/17/13 Bob Dog Best film of the year - - far ahead of it's time! 5 stars
7/21/13 Ronin Terminator 2 is much more moving. Seriously. 3 stars
5/22/13 mr.mike At least it wasn't awful. 3 stars
5/16/13 otHREE confusing even for a phile horrid makeup long to eh point 3 stars
3/08/13 Daniel High Very slow start, and some accents are hard to understand. 3 stars
1/13/13 RestlessRoger I must go back, and back, and back 5 stars
11/21/12 radium56 I still can not describe what I have just seen, but hell yeah! 6 stars! 5 stars
10/30/12 Danny Awful left after half over 1 stars
10/30/12 Chris. Amazing. Can't believe this is in theaters. I will watch multiple times 5 stars
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  26-Oct-2012 (R)
  DVD: 14-May-2013


  DVD: 14-May-2013

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