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Review: 'Cloud Atlas' Is Bold, Messy & Disappointingly Unimaginative

Reviews
by Kevin Jagernauth
October 25, 2012 6:32 PM
24 Comments
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Cloud Atlas, Hanks, Berry

With The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer literally throwing a critic off the roof of a building to his death in the opening moments of the nearly three-hour "Cloud Atlas," it's clear that they aren't concerned in the slightest with how this ambitious effort will be received. And you certainly have to give the trio of directors some respect for their approach, which tag teams an all-star cast, gives them multiple roles and spreads the story across nearly a half dozen time periods. But for all their boldness in narrative approach, the adaptation of David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" is also a mess, with an attempt to mix its various genres under a universal thematic banner that never quite coheres.

The first thing that should be noted however, is that of all the elements that were likely to upend the picture, the stunt approach to casting actually works quite well. The thespians all seamlessly blend into their roles, and none of the choices are particularly jarring or take away from the drama on screen. And when the parts do draw laughs, it's usually intentional (Tom Hanks as a bruising Ray Winstone-ish author is particularly funny) and Hugh Grant acquits himself well in a handful of atypical, villain-esque parts. But it's just too bad these players are given nothing better to do than feature in a handful of rather undercooked genre excursions that feel like they're from five or six different movies.

Halle Berry Keith David Cloud Atlas

From a rather bland "All The President's Men"-style, '70s-set thriller to futuristic sci-fi to an 1800s sea-faring adventure to – most out of place – a British comedic caper (seriously), the actual stories themselves aren't all that compelling on their own. Hell, there's even a movie within the movie. And while the transitions between them are mostly seamless, the fates of the characters are difficult to get invested in, mostly because we don't spend much time with them. But perhaps this isn't so important when the Wachowskis and Tykwer have bigger thematic fish to fry.

There are a number of throughlines to "Cloud Atlas" that reach for profundity, but land with all the insight of a discounted New Age self help book. "Our lives are not our own, we are bound to each other past and present," Bae Doona's prophetess Sonmi-451 says with great importance. "Love could outlive death" and "Death is only a door" are more of the sagacious platitudes she shares in a film that beats these ideas into the ground, rather than letting them arise on their own. But worse, they never for a moment feel organically drawn or sincere. And coupled with a score that makes the audience know when it's supposed to be moved and/or learning something, the directness of "Cloud Atlas" often renders its various messages inert or eye-rollingly glib (and that's not counting a consumerism theme that's introduced and swiftly forgotten about).

Jim Broadbent Jim Sturgess Cloud Atlas

And then there's the Wachowskis now strained up-with-people revolutionary politics that after "The Matrix" and "V For Vendetta" feels like they have nothing new to add to the conversation. With a common distinction in each of the stories being the struggle of the oppressed agasinst the oppressor, and the general unfairness of separation by class, gender or race, "Cloud Atlas" can only muster up a rather tepid obversation that "the gulf is an illusion" without really and truly doing the hard work of addressing the power structures in place that maintain these divisions, except in the most superficial manner.

But perhaps most disappointing of all with "Cloud Atlas" is how dully unimaginative the film really is. Produced independently and outside the studio system (with Warner Bros. picking up the rights for distribution), you would think it would allow the opportunity for both the Wachowskis and Tykwer to really push this audacious premise to the limit. But at least for The Wachowskis, this may be their most mainstream and blandly drawn effort to date. The film's futuristic Neo Seoul is mostly a cityscape culled from any number of sci-fi movies in the last decade, with a lot of flatscreen walls and motion sensor movments (and the resulting action setpieces within are shockingly conventional particularly from the duo that brought bullet-time to cinemas). And in the last third of the film, when the plotlines begin to resolve themselves, we're treated to no less than three different chase sequences, none of them memorable or inventive. The people who you expect to step in and save a life or fall in love come through, and when one character says in the film's rare moments of self-awareness "This would make a good book," we had to keep from groaning out loud.

Cloud Atlas, Tom Hanks

On a technical level, we suppose the film is an accomplishment, with costumes and period details mostly coming through, but in most other ways, this $100 million effort offers fortune cookie social commentary put in a blender with a handful of thinly interlocking stories, in a failed attempt to say something meaningful about the human condition, and how modes of good and evil perpetuate themselves across centuries. Too long by at least a half hour, and both dull and repetitive as it goes on, "Cloud Atlas" reaches for envelope-pushing storytelling but never delivers on its promise. [C-]

This is a rerun of our review from TIFF.

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24 Comments

  • Kaiser | June 5, 2014 1:04 PMReply

    I didn't find phrases like "Love can outlive death" and "Death is only a door" to be platitudes. I have suffered a lot in this life and found that truly, love is all there is after the sound and fury pass away. Perhaps this is such a simple and obvious statement that it gets missed by people looking for something more complex. But to each their own. I did find the film could have lost about half an hour somewhere in the middle - maybe the entire 1973 storyline - and the attempt to make some actors look like different races was sometimes a failure. But I was deeply moved and have seen few films so effective at capturing the epic sweep of human experience.

  • Bill bee | December 16, 2013 5:52 PMReply

    Utter crap the lousiest movie I have ever seen

  • Cerone | June 28, 2013 4:02 AMReply

    HOW THE FUCK WAS THIS UNIMAGINATIVE? It's based off Buddhism, Reincarnation, and Karma.

  • Cerone | June 28, 2013 4:02 AMReply

    HOW THE FUCK WAS THIS UNIMAGINATIVE? It's based off Buddhism, Reincarnation, and Karma.

  • Londoner | May 26, 2013 9:37 AMReply

    Highly violent, relentless brutal violence including shot in mouth scenes, garotting, endless scenes and scenes of mindless shooting. The garotting scene wasn't censored despite the current alleged terrorist attack in Woolwich, London and Paris. It would have been a lot better without the mindlesss and constant violent scenes. Walked out it was so violent. A disgraceful film.

  • Robert Hiengler | March 30, 2013 9:37 AMReply

    I think the major problem with the film is that it doesn't quite reach the heights it promised. Also the birthmark in the book Mitchell specifically says its represent the same soul through time. Now in the film it makes more sense as the mark in which that soul has to make a critical choice. As the filmakers had made a big thing about Tom Hanks "soul" changing over time? Or perhaps that was a marketing thing to make it more palatable. Either way this isn't very clear in the film and in a way that lack of continuity or ambiguity detracts from the message. That's my two bits.

  • Kyle | March 4, 2013 2:29 AMReply

    No, there were not "nearly a half dozen time periods." There were indeed half a dozen time periods. Seven if you include when Zachry is an old man. This seems like a hard thing to miss. If you didn't even know how many plots were going on at once then you surely couldn't have been paying much attention to the movie. So why should anyone pay attention to your review? The idea of six stories at once was even spelled out because of an integral plot point being the Cloud Atlas Sextet. You being so ignorant of the movie invalidates your entire review.

  • Neil Fiertel | December 23, 2012 10:52 PMReply

    So for certain people, Cloud Atlas was the worst film of the year...well, what can I say? One month after seeing it, I still think about it each day. I have ordered it on BluRay. I rarely do such a purchase but 30 bucks for the best film I have seen in years and one that contrary to the parasites that pass judgment on art and artists but have never so much as created anything outside of their Creative Writing Course 101, I know quality when I am in the presence of it. Cloud Atlas requires a good intellect, an open mind and one that can permit a complexity of plot and idea to permeate. It is, if anything, an amazing cinema breakthrough by joyously creative directors who have taken an interesting book and re-considered it for the big screen. I understand the author was happy with the film as well. To end my rant...critics have historically destroyed the careers and dreams of artists in many genres and eras. Why in the world people listen to the words of non-creative parasites is truly beyond me. I do not! I use my own mind and my own eyes and my opinion is that the audiences did not come because they want pap and not art. It is the same in all the areas of fine art and I suspect the directors were hoping against hope that they would be disproven and that intellect and brilliance would win out. In the end this film will have a long audience appreciation as it will live on as many great films have in the audiences of the world if not in the middlebrow world of certain critics. I am so glad that film recordings of high quality now exist so that any who love works of art such as this will be able to watch it again and again as I shall.

  • Neil Fiertel | December 23, 2012 10:51 PMReply

    So for certain people, Cloud Atlas was the worst film of the year...well, what can I say? One month after seeing it, I still think about it each day. I have ordered it on BluRay. I rarely do such a purchase but 30 bucks for the best film I have seen in years and one that contrary to the parasites that pass judgment on art and artists but have never so much as created anything outside of their Creative Writing Course 101, I know quality when I am in the presence of it. Cloud Atlas requires a good intellect, an open mind and one that can permit a complexity of plot and idea to permeate. It is, if anything, an amazing cinema breakthrough by joyously creative directors who have taken an interesting book and re-considered it for the big screen. I understand the author was happy with the film as well. To end my rant...critics have historically destroyed the careers and dreams of artists in many genres and eras. Why in the world people listen to the words of non-creative parasites is truly beyond me. I do not! I use my own mind and my own eyes and my opinion is that the audiences did not come because they want pap and not art. It is the same in all the areas of fine art and I suspect the directors were hoping against hope that they would be disproven and that intellect and brilliance would win out. In the end this film will have a long audience appreciation as it will live on as many great films have in the audiences of the world if not in the middlebrow world of certain critics. I am so glad that film recordings of high quality now exist so that any who love works of art such as this will be able to watch it again and again as I shall.

  • Neil Fiertel | December 23, 2012 10:50 PMReply

    So for certain people, Cloud Atlas was the worst film of the year...well, what can I say? One month after seeing it, I still think about it each day. I have ordered it on BluRay. I rarely do such a purchase but 30 bucks for the best film I have seen in years and one that contrary to the parasites that pass judgment on art and artists but have never so much as created anything outside of their Creative Writing Course 101, I know quality when I am in the presence of it. Cloud Atlas requires a good intellect, an open mind and one that can permit a complexity of plot and idea to permeate. It is, if anything, an amazing cinema breakthrough by joyously creative directors who have taken an interesting book and re-considered it for the big screen. I understand the author was happy with the film as well. To end my rant...critics have historically destroyed the careers and dreams of artists in many genres and eras. Why in the world people listen to the words of non-creative parasites is truly beyond me. I do not! I use my own mind and my own eyes and my opinion is that the audiences did not come because they want pap and not art. It is the same in all the areas of fine art and I suspect the directors were hoping against hope that they would be disproven and that intellect and brilliance would win out. In the end this film will have a long audience appreciation as it will live on as many great films have in the audiences of the world if not in the middlebrow world of certain critics. I am so glad that film recordings of high quality now exist so that any who love works of art such as this will be able to watch it again and again as I shall.

  • Kyle | March 4, 2013 2:22 AM

    Roark, I am not a new ager moron, and neither is Roger Ebert. I imagine very few of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes are. And we all gave Cloud Atlas ringing endorsements.

    It is a shame it wasn't nominated for any Oscars. A nomination might help silence the trolls like you.

  • Roark | January 17, 2013 2:27 AM

    This movie was laughably bad, crap only new ager morons would like.

  • Sookie | December 16, 2012 2:15 PMReply

    This movie was laughably bad...should be up for a razzie. The old scenes between Tom Hanks and Halle Berry were horrible. Just awful. And yes, I like deep movies about time/space and cool crap. But this stunk.

  • Kyle | March 4, 2013 2:23 AM

    You didn't like it. That does not mean it stunk. A great many respected critics say otherwise. But I'm sure you know better than Pulitzer prize winner Roger Ebert.

  • SCARLET | December 9, 2012 3:31 PMReply

    How did you get this job? You should stick to watching you simplistic lifetime movies.

  • Mohamjip | November 11, 2012 5:09 PMReply

    Couldn't disagree with this critique more. The writer has missed the point of the story; the interrelationship between everybody, not only in the present, but throughout time and space; and how we tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Everything would have made complete sense to the writer, had he gotten it.

  • Vincent James | October 27, 2012 7:30 AMReply

    Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.

  • dudeabides | October 26, 2012 7:03 AMReply

    and your imagination as a critic is so vast :/

  • kitcon | October 26, 2012 12:22 AMReply

    I don't disagree w/anything you said but I would give it a passing grade just because it still kept me engaged enough to care how it all ends despite being frequently exasperating through 3 hrs.

  • Rodion | October 25, 2012 7:52 PMReply

    Um..why has this review just been copy and pasted? Is it because the original copy has ripped apart by being written badly and being plain wrong, and you didn't want all those comments anymore? Well i'm here to let you know. This is badly written. Plainly wrong. And completely misses the point of the entire movie.
    " the stunt approach to casting actually works quite well." Guess what NOT A STUNT. Multiple actors playing multiple roles reflects beautifully the ENTIRE theme of the movie. Connectivity of the soul across generations.
    Just Argh to you.

  • AE | October 26, 2012 9:59 AM

    In reply to RP. No I don't think those ideas are presented simplistically at all, quite the opposite, I just don't think it's a premise many warm towards these days. Go Kill The 'Bad Guys' is surely the cinematic mantra most appreciate.

  • RP | October 25, 2012 8:07 PM

    "Connectivity of the soul across generations" is perfectly apt in describing what the film is aiming at, but it's hardly soulful. It's a lot more entertaining and compelling than it should be for an almost three hour movie and you should give the director's that, but the "love is all you need/"we're all connected/the truth will set you free no matter the oppressor" platitudes are a presented a little bit simplistically don't you think?

  • yer | October 25, 2012 7:23 PMReply

    I went to see Argo this weekend and I saw three trailers in a row beforehand: Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi and Les Miserables. All of those films looked exactly the same. Bright colors, lots of people/animals in synchronized numbers, obtrusive levels of choreography. Just utterly overwrought filmmaking. What's up with that?

  • Pedro Canhenha | October 25, 2012 6:54 PMReply

    Great review as usual. I do point out one thing though. Mentioning that the several stories are undercooked, kind of hails back to the origin of the book itself, and ultimately feels like an easy way to criticize an adaptation (of any kind really). This film in particular was always going to be a complicated undertaking to be had, adapting a book that comprises such disparate storylines and yet are connected.

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