Cloud Atlas

“Cloud Atlas” is multi-layered epic, telling no less than six separate narratives concurrently, each featuring the same characters in different temporal incarnations.

It’s strikingly original, sumptuous to look at, and incredibly ambitious.

It’s also extremely long, mildly incoherent, and not one half as profound as it would like to be.

Certainly it’s a commendable film, but “Cloud Atlas”‘ reach far exceeds its grasp. Respect needs to be paid for aiming so high, and due to its lofty aim, the end result is a high calibre movie. But this film illustrates why more points are awarded for routines with higher levels of difficulty… namely because they’re so much harder to pull off.

Describing the plot of “Cloud Atlas” is futile, mainly because there are six of them. Right from the opening moments of the film, “Atlas” tells six different narratives, all at the same time. It’s unfair to call any of them flashbacks or flash forwards, its more accurate to say that they run simultaneously, and the movie shifts gears rapidly in between each, imparting the sense that they’re all happening at the same moment. In order of how they would occur on a linear timeline, the six are:

  1. A story set aboard a mercantile ship during the era of slavery.
  2. A tale of a young, homosexual musician who finds work transcribing music for a renowned composer.
  3. The investigation a journalist undertakes, trying to uncover the secret at a local nuclear power plant.
  4. A portrait of a publisher who gets into financial trouble and winds up put in a nursing home.
  5. The story of a cloned waitress who supersedes her programming.
  6. The adventures of a post apocalyptic survivor who leads a futuristic woman to an ancient landmark.

None of these stories can be classified as the central tale. Some are given more screen time than others, but personally, I didn’t feel that the film favored any of them in terms of import. Some lend themselves more to action sequences than others, while others carry more emotional weight, but all are given relatively equal amounts of screen time. Given the vast differences in their makeup, it’s a safe bet that audiences will find themselves partial to certain stories above others, and/or disliking some of the stories and resenting when its their turn onscreen (mine was the gibberish laden post-apocalyptic tale, where the dialect is all… abbrevi’ rid’ andsome wanna talkem like Lang-talk be ‘vented new. LOL).

Each of these tales are as disparate as they sound. The common thread between them all is that the cast remains the same for all six stories. Through the magic of old age makeup, contact lenses, prosthetics, false teeth, contact lenses, hair dye, hair styles, skin color makeup and drag, the cast of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, David Gyasi, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw and Keith David play role after role in tale after tale. Occasionally their appearances in a given segment may be a brief cameo, while at other points, they’re the central figure. It’s amusing to spot them, and at times, it’s challenging.  I’ll readily confess that I struggled on a couple of identifications for a while. At other times, the effort to mask them is flat-out comical, resulting in bad noses or silly teeth.

The occasional makeup gaffe is the only area where the production values can really be questioned though. Otherwise, this is a top-notch big budget spectacle. How in the world they got it done for only $102 million is beyond me, perhaps all the overlapping story lines gives it a much bigger scope than it actually has. Regardless, it’s obvious that this is a film with a solid investment behind it. The effects in the effects laden stories are fantastic, and in the period piece stories, the costumes are exceptional.

The elephant in the room is the runtime. Clocking in at a massive 2 hrs, 43 minutes, “Cloud Atlas” may make audiences feel as though they’ve been through several lifetimes watching it.

I can handle enormous movies, certainly. But “Cloud Atlas” isn’t structurally, narratively, or philosophically accessible enough to justify its massive scope. I’ll concede that perhaps with multiple rewatches, or for people previously familiar with the material (It’s based on a 2004 novel by David Mitchell), the subtle connections between the tales will become evident. To me, fresh to the material, it appeared that there was no connection (or at best, in a couple of cases, the barest of connections) between story lines. Obviously, yes, these are the same souls involved in playing out scenes time after times through the course of their lives. Yet… there’s no karmic penalty to be seen. In one story, a character may be a villain, and in the next, a hero. The actual events of each story bear little impact on the events of the next. Lip service is paid to connecting one to the next, but it’s tenuous at best in at least half of the tales. Prior stories make their appearance in successive chapters, but rarely in a way that rises to the level of driving events. In fact, a good argument could be made that the film is insinuating that time is completely illusory and all these stories occur simultaneously… with the later stories impacting the earlier ones. It’s as if “Cloud Atlas” has given us a six piece puzzle where only a couple of pieces fit together. The movie, I believe, wants to illustrate how a singular strand can be traced back through generations, and how unknowingly, or smallest actions can have a butterfly effect on the future… but the thread is so faint at times that I’d have to classify the connection to be a “stretch”.

Finally, for me, the film doesn’t deliver a philosophical payload worthy of its grand, elaborate trappings. Aside from the fact that it espouses reincarnation, and karma to a degree (although the karmic aspects were poorly fleshed out, in my opinion, see above), it doesn’t seem to have much to say about that. Perhaps I was too busy keeping track of all the running narratives to read into themes, but it felt to me that the movie came right out and literally SAID the things it wanted to say, and beyond that, it was simply a multi-levelled action movie.

Which, frankly, is a rarity, and thus it still earns a recommendation from me. It’s long, it’s not as “Deep” as it portends to be, and with six running narratives, you’re bound to encounter a plot or two that doesn’t appeal to you. But it’s also lavish, original, and extremely ambitious… more than enough to earn a passing grade from me. Multiple viewings and subsequent analysis may reveal more than I give it credit for in my initial viewing, but I’m not that eager to undertake the effort at this point in time.


41 thoughts on “Cloud Atlas

  1. I had a feeling cerebral was going to be a downfall with this when all is said and done. I haven’t seen it but plan to, just to support a project that has THIS much audacity!

    • Yeah… I wouldnt call it confusing, I could follow everything well enough. But it made you work pretty hard to keep track of everything, and connecting the dots is a lot of work. Even as I tried to really break it down for this review, I still have gaps in how its all supposed to tie together.

      Audacious is right though, man. Definitely correct in the fact that its worth checking out for that reason alone. 😀

  2. Sounds like another Dune. Where they had to hand out a pamphlet to explain half of it and then cheat some of the story to allow the average person not familiar with Frank Herbert’s world the chance to understand stuff. The Weirding Module. I did want to see this, but 2:45 is a it long. I’d do that for the Hobbit and did for the LoTR but those are mostly linear stories.

    I’m familiar with the idea of the Multi-Verse. Anyone who has read Elric of Melnibone (Micheal Moorcock) and the Eternal Champions will know of the idea of the same person being a different person on a different plane of existence.

    Another good review, I may now wait for it to come out on Blu-Ray/DVD so I can give it multiple viewings and possibly grab the book.

    • Thanks Bruce, appreciate that.

      I LIKE the concept. The high concept of connected lives, and our actions “Echoing” through history is a fascinating one. But it is very much like you said. They should have been handing out booklets a la Dune. LOL. It might have helped. Home viewing is probably a good idea for this. Another benefit would be being able to rewind when you dont understand something in the awkward future dialect that Hanks and Berry speak in the post-apocalyptic segment. LOL

  3. You share many of the exact same thoughts that I posted in my review earlier. We are definitely on the same page although I was a little more critical than you I think. There were several things that I felt brought the picture down. And that’s a shame because it does several things right.

    • Its a movie thats going to really divide people I think. It takes a LOT of chances. I mean, right from the get go with the structure, thats a HUGE gamble. Plus, many of the stories are a bit dicey… I can see how people could easily tear this one apart.

      Strangely though, I can see someone really singing its praises. I’ve already run across a couple of reviewers that did that too.

    • Well, 61% on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t terrible per se. 6 out of 10 is a minor majority, technically.

      But I can see why. I understand the criticisms. I liked it and have a lot of respect for what it’s trying to do, but I don’t love it, either.

  4. I read in one review that to try to find a common thread to the 6 narratives is not important and can ruin the movie. The segment about the mercantile ship/slavery and the post apocalyptic era were my favorite. Looking forward to these 2 segments helped me get through some of the other slower moving ones. Good job reviewing a difficult movie to pull together!!

    • Thanks!

      I disagree with those critics though. I think it’s important to tie all the stories together… I think audiences are going to be trying to do it from the moment it begins, and not to be able to do it will be disappointing.

      I know I was let down they didn’t tie together more strongly. 😦

  5. I called it! I saw the division coming…this is the kind of film that splits the field. 😀 I can understand the issues and expected folks to find the loose strings, but for me, the scope captivated–I was completely immersed in the universe they created (and that is a rarity nowadays).

    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.

    I liked that you too, used the word ambitious–that is what this film is…ambitious and it gets extra points from me (and you) for even going there. In a world full of more-of-the same, remakes, sequels and low brow entertainment, I will gladly take Cloud Atlas.

    I am planning to watch it again soon to absorb even more little details because obviously the 3 hour length does not bother me. 😀 (I am a marathon movie watcher–so that could explain that…LOTR trilogy in one day? Yup. Done it.)

    Always love visiting with you! Until next time…

    • Til then. 😀

      Meanwhile, I would have enjoyed it more if you had been correct here: “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.” But I dont think thats right. After his doctor character, we next see Hanks in the Nuke plant… where he… bravely gives up the secret info to Berry. Shouldn’t that have “Broken the Cycle”? But it didnt… And why dont any of the other characters have arcs like that? I wanted that to be true, I would be a much bigger fan of the film if it did showcase various karmic journeys, but I dont think it did… and if it did, its done in ways that cant be immediately intuited on a single viewing… something I’m not a fan of.

      “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.” That is pretty cool. I think novels are in there twice, too. Once from the ship to the musician, once from the nuke story to the publisher in the old folks home. LOL 😀

      Its a neat movie, for sure.

      • I love when films promote discussions–it’s fun!

        Actually–I skimmed through his journey (did not want to note all 6 characters) but I think that the act of bravery was not enough to make up for the past grievances (which is why it “ended” badly)…

        Anyways, I will be interested to see what you think when you finally motivate yourself to watch it again…


    • Thanks Kim. I normally don’t advocate reading the books before seeing the movie (I’m definitely a movie guy) but this might be an exception. I’d imagine that it would make everything easier to follow, and that would free you to pick up on all the details and other things…

      Probably a good strategy 😀

      • I usually enjoy reading the book beforehand. It has its downside though because most times the movie doesn’t match the way I’ve pictured it in my mind. Really depends on the type of movie. This is definitely the type to read first. I was so confused with the trailer that I wasn’t really sure if I’d even like it. It does look like it has a very daring story/concept.

  6. You miss the 7th story though here Fogs. that of the individual soul/spirit that travels through each of the 6 time periods (represented by the singular actor who played those separate/connected parts) at least that’s how I saw it. 6 stories, yes, but all part of a 7th larger one which is the main “central tale.”

    I can def understand your qualms with it, and don’t argue them, but I am definitely looking forward to seeing it again and looking for more! 🙂

    solid review man

    • Thanks. Lets put it this way… I was actively looking for that connective thread. That “7th story” that was actually the one, large, connected story that takes all six of them and brings them together as one.

      I didnt see it.

      Granted, they “reincarnated” the same characters to play roles again and again, but their roles in subsequent tales rarely related to prior ones… it seemed very random. And there’s extremely little causality between all six. While I readily cede that story 1 makes an appearance in story 2 and story 2 makes an appearance in story 3, etc… I fail to see how a strong case could be made that story 1 caused story 2, or story 3 caused story 4. I can see that in a couple of instances, but without being able to connect all those dots… it falls apart when looked at from a Macro view.

      Gotta downgrade it for that.

      • fair enough. I can’t disagree. I can’t wait to watch it again soon and pay better attention to all that. trying to figure out which actors are which character throughout got a little distracting, so next time, I won’t have to worry about it so much.

        on another note, is all okay for you up there with “frankenstorm”?

      • Hurriedly editing this week’s (title pending) in hopes that I get it done before the power goes. LOL

        I have a house full of “no power required food”. I lost power for 10 days last year at this time. If we have to do something like that again this year, at least I have food. 😀

        Thanks for thinking of me though brother. I think CT will be alright. Sounds like NY/NJ is gonna get it the worst…

  7. Nice breakdown of the six stories, Fogs! “…six piece puzzle where only a couple of pieces fit together” I do feel the same way, at times I was left scratching my head asking ‘what’s the point of this scene??’

    The philosophical themes often get lost on me as I was trying to figure out the narratives, which makes me think perhaps this story is better served as a mini series??

    That said, I think there are still a lot to like here and I’d also recommend people to check it out and not be dissuaded by critics. Ahah, I also tried to analyze it more but I just don’t have the energy for it! I’m afraid it might hurt my head, ha..ha..

    Glad we agree on the rating, Fogs!

    • Yeah definitely, Ruth. You and I seem to be singing the same tune here, which is always nice. A lot of critics are raving and singing the praises….

      A mini series would have been a great idea. LOL… sometimes the answer on a long movie is to make it even longer. 😀

      It may yet wind up that I figure out how to connect 1 through 6 in a satisfactory way, but it will always suffer a penalty for not communicating that in a way I could pick up as I watched it in the theatre.

  8. Wow…just wow. I thought this review would help, but I’m still confused. I don’t think anyone, not even you Fogs, can completely explain this one to me! There aren’t too many 3 hr films out there though, so I might give this one a chance…

    • LOL. Sorry to let you down Livi.

      Its a VERY complicated movie. It runs six stories… and theyre all very different. But they all feature the same actors – the implications being that they “reincarnated” or some such. It defies easy explanation, you know?

      My big complaint was that I didnt think that the six separate stories combined well in order to give one “Whole”.

      But a lot of bloggers are loving on it. Theyre really digging it in some corners… and even I gave it a decent grade. So by all means, give it a shot. You stand a good chance of liking it a lot more than I did!

      • I don’t know…don’t they have a hard enough time screwing up one-story films nowadays? Why even bother to do SIX? And with Halle Berry, sheesh…

        I’ll try it for sure, but I have a feeling I’m in for a lot of head scratching and remote throwing… 😀

  9. I thought the stories were incredibly simplistic, but they were made complex by the way they were chopped up and presented. I hear the connection from one story to the next is more obvious in the book where the narrative unfolds in chronological order. This was such a frustrating experience. Loved the production design and makeup. The rest I’ll try and forget.

    • Oh really? The book proceeds chronologically? Wow. That would be a lot different. I wonder if that would be better or not though. Easier to follow, but I think like you say… without the stylistic element of them being intercut, they might come across as simplistic. LOL. Its a tough call.

      Cant say I blame you Mark. This isnt one that I need to bleach my memory of, per se. But I understand that perspective, certainly.

      Thanks for commenting up!

  10. I could tell this one was ambitious, but wasn’t sure if it would actually live up to those ambitions. Considering the pedigree, I guess I shouldn’t be a surprised that it doesn’t — the Wachowskis are definitely in love with symbolism and ideas that they aren’t quite skilled enough at developing.

    Still, it sounds like it’s an all right film, just not the great one it purports to be. I might check it out when it hits home video. Three hours seems a little long for in the theatre; I like the option of a pause button for a bathroom break when a film gets that long.

  11. As always, great review, Fogs! I wanted to see this one since the first time I watched the trailer but I want to check it out even more now since it’s very divisive and I’d like to find out where I’ll stand.

    • Yeah, totally. I can see that. This one – if nothing else – will get you talking. I know I was anxious to talk it out with people, and I’m not even like a huge fan of it or anything. So on that basis alone its a worthy watch!!

  12. See, I think whoever edited this deserves an Oscar, because I didn’t feel the three hours a single time. That takes talent. Length is there, but if we can sit through 3 hours of Lord of the Rings, I think we can sit through this, too– and this is way less single-minded.

    And we’ve been over this, but I disagree about the connections being tenuous. In fact, if the movie has a flaw, it’s that its tagline should really read “everything is TOO connected”. There are subtleties in the ways the Wachowskis and Tykwer tie everything together– sometimes it’s as simple as recurring images or motifs. Think of the manager of Papa Song in the Sonmi segment, lying passed out on the floor; then think of the cannibal Zachry finds lying passed out in his hut later on. Things like this echo throughout the film, visual ticks, which is to say nothing of the basic recurrences of themes such as the weak fighting the strong, a concept that pops up in every single story here.

    To quote Ebert, it’s not what a movie is about but how it’s about it. Cloud Atlas isn’t about reincarnation but shared, collective experiences of humanity, and its entire purpose is to showcase those shared experiences across its six narratives. To that end, it’s a successful film, but I understand that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea regardless.

    What I’m having a hard time reconciling are the criticisms of self-importance. If anything, Cloud Atlas runs on earnest if over-zealous emotion more than self-aggrandizement; it’s too focused on making its audience feel something to be really tied-up in how great it thinks itself to be.

    • Uhhhh. I dunno man. We’re in pretty diametrically opposed camps here.

      I DID feel the length of this, it was VERY long to me. LotR may be single minded, but its also much more interesting, and makes the passage of its runtime much more digestible.

      If you’d like to point to subtle, recurring motifs, thats fine. That IS a point for films when they can successfully incoporate such things. Mild kudos.

      But first and foremost needs to be a solid, understandable, plot that can be followed. If its non-linear, people need to be able to re-assemble it, or in this case arrange a structure that makes sense for them. With six separate segments, the viewer is going to be DYING to connect them. That will be goal number one for people that watch. How do these connect? And frankly, the answer there is completely unsatisfactory to me. They dont connect well enough. If they do, its far too subtle for people to pick up on the first pass. And that’s a flaw. You should be able to leave a movie with a solid understanding of “what just happened”, and if people cant (and I know I couldnt) connect point a to point b to point c, they’re going to leave dissatisfied. As I did.

      If people want to study it and come up with the road map, that’s fine, and Im sure the net will provide such a thing eventually… but I dont think they put out a movie worthy of such labor.

      Now, you and I can agree not to see eye to eye on that, but for real? You cant see how people are banging this movie for being self-aggrandizing? Cmon bro. LOL.

      • No, I really can’t. In fact I think it’s one of the most unfounded criticisms I’ve seen people make against the film. It’s far too liberated to be the kind of stuffy, pompous canvas of self-interest that generally gets made to win awards. I don’t think Cloud Atlas is that sort of movie; you don’t spend a hundred mil on a movie audiences are nearly guaranteed to hate and that’s so flat-out eccentric and weird and expect to win Best Anything. (Though FX/Make-Up isn’t outside the realm of possibility.)

        I think what makes a movie self-important is detachment. Not that all detached films are self-important, but all self-important films are detached. They’re not interested in story and plot and the consequences that the latter afflicts upon the former; they’re interested in presentation and image only, caring little and less for the real “stuff” of cinema. (As a recent example: I think J. Edgar was outrageously full of itself.) In other words, self-important movies are there for themselves, not for their themes or their characters or for their deeper meanings but for whatever rewards their creators think they can reap by cobbling them together. They’re all presentation, all surface, and little to no substance.

        What this means is that I think self-important films are very, very hard to make, but it also means that Cloud Atlas isn’t at all self-important. No matter how disconnected one might find the film– and I’d argue strongly that it isn’t just connected with nuance, and nuance takes a backseat to broader brushstrokes– it’s an earnest movie that really believes in and feels for its characters and has vested itself heavily in the dichotomies between weak and strong, good and evil, that it establishes. It cares. That, to me, is antithetical to notions of self-importance and pomposity. Cloud Atlas has confidence in its ideas and supports them fully, but I don’t think that’s the same thing as being pompous. It’s honest, and it means what it says.

        Plus it’s an absurdly risky movie. Too risky, I think, to be made with the kind of indulgence that phrases like “self-important” suggest to me.

        I want to save everything else for the Podcast we do (hopefully!) for this film (and I think we should!), but that’s what I got for now!

      • Yeah, I hope that comes together. We’ll have to see. It would be off the cuff, and thus kind of hard to figure out how to do it. but it can be done. 😀 I knew you’d want in if we do it. LOL

        I’ll give you risky, BTW. No doubt.

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