Cloud Atlas

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
October 26, 2012 1:00 AM
2 Comments
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Photo by Jay Maidment - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Enthralling and frustrating…far-reaching and obtuse…grandiose and gimmicky. Cloud Atlas is all of these and more, and while I was less taken with the film at its conclusion than I was midway through, it offered me a unique moviegoing experience for which I am grateful. I applaud Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer not just for their ambition in adapting and directing David Mitchell’s sprawling novel, but for their realization, imperfect though it may be. 

A viewer must go through several stages in order to absorb this long, dense movie. Phase 1 involves getting the lay of the land—becoming familiar with the characters in six different settings and time periods, from the 19th to the 24th century, played by many of the same actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, Susan Sarandon). This takes some doing, but it’s a challenge worth meeting.

Once you’ve sorted most of this out, it is easier to become engaged in the stories, which have a relationship to one another—direct in some cases and tangential or metaphoric in others. The stories from the past involve a young man who is sent to carry out his father’s business in the South Seas, a frustrated composer who finds work as an apprentice to an older man, and an investigative journalist who uncovers dark secrets that put her life in danger. The two segments set in the future don’t paint a pretty picture: in one, young Korean women work as slaves in a kind of pleasure palace, and in the other, humans have regressed to the level of cavemen in a brutal tribal culture.

Along the way you may wonder if there is relevance in having Jim Broadbent play an aging Scottish composer who’s past his prime (in 1936) as well as a hedonistic publisher who’s run out of options just as he’s enjoying a bit of success (in the present day)… or casting Hanks as a garrulous, greedy doctor on an ocean voyage in 1849 and a primitive everyman of the future. I don’t have a ready answer to this. Are the filmmakers commenting on the continuum of life by having familiar faces recur in each time period, or is this merely a gimmick meant to command our attention? There’s no question that it’s Hanks under all that prosthetic makeup in the seagoing story, for instance, but I accept it as one of the movie’s more entertaining conceits.

Photo by Jay Maidment - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Phase 2 is the most exciting part of the film. As the viewer is on sure footing with the multiple stories, the pace of intercutting among them is accelerated, to great effect. There are passages here that are positively thrilling, perfect examples of how cinematic storytelling is different from that of a novel or play.

Alas, Phase 3 brings disappointment. The stories begin to feel protracted before they are finally resolved. What is worse, instead of offering insight into the human condition these diverse plotlines conclude in surprisingly ordinary ways. (One of them is foretold in a flippant reference to a 1970s science-fiction movie—but the denouement that follows is deadly serious. Not original or enlightening, but serious.)

Whether you walk away from this vast canvas with an optimistic or pessimistic view of mankind is your choice. On the one hand, the movie attempts to tell us that love conquers all. At the same time, we see that avarice and exploitation are a constant over the centuries, even though they take different forms.

Thus, the panorama of Cloud Atlas is—as I said—both exhilarating and disappointing. But I am unwilling to disparage the film as a whole because there is so much passion and invention in it. 

Images from Cloud Atlas

  • Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Cloud Atlas

  • Photo by Reiner Bajo - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy
  • Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Halle Berry, Tom Hanks
  • Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Doona Bae as Sonmi-451
  • Photo by Reiner Bajo - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Jim Broadbent as Vyvyan Ayrs, Ben Whishaw as Robert Frobisher
  • Photo by Jay Maidment - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    David Gyahi as Autua.
  • Photo by Jay Maidment - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Hugh Grant as Kona Chief.
  • Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Xun Zhou as Rose, Tom Hanks as Zachry
  • Photo by Jay Maidment - courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Hugo Weaving as old Georgie.
  • Photo by Reiner Bajo - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Halle Berry as Luisa Rey, Keith David as Napier.
  • Photo by Jay Maidment - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
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    Doona Bae (center) as Sonmi-451 and Zhu Zhu (right) as 12th Star Clone.

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2 Comments

  • Andrew Turner | November 1, 2012 11:59 AMReply

    Leonard - the amazing thing is that most critics have bashed this movie in every way I think is possible... and yet there is growing consensus among movie goers that this movie is indeed a sensation and ranks above previous greats like 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have your book and I buy a new one every year to keep track of movies that I see with my wife. I am wondering if perhaps there are commercial interests talking in your review - or in the review of other people who have seen this movie... Care to weigh in on that? A privately funded film may not be every critics favorite...

    Further, I found Phase 3 to be rather moving... We have closure on the different stories and the characters fall back to their state of nature - we see for example that Somni is indeed human has she is "retired" and we see that good triumphs and we witness the ingredients to the perseverance of humans as a whole...

    Food for thought.

  • Jeffrey | October 29, 2012 11:58 PMReply

    This film is worth seeing, for sure. You will find at least one memorable scene in this film. Maybe quite a few.

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