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The Most Polarizing Film Of The Year? What Did You Think Of 'Cloud Atlas?

by The Playlist Staff
October 29, 2012 10:00 AM
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It might have disappointed at the box office this weekend (although disappointment is a big word for a result that anyone with two eyes and a heart could have saw coming months ago), but in cine-circles, "Cloud Atlas" has been the center of conversation. The adaptation of the best-selling David Mitchell novel, directed by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski, and costing an independently-financed $100 million, it's a bold, genre-spanning film with an all-star cast, and greater ambitions than pretty much everything released in theaters in the last month.

Ever since premiering at TIFF in September, the film has been splitting critics. Some have called it the best film of the year, a boundary-pushing, medium-changing piece of cinema. Others have called it a laughable mess, and among the worst of the year. While we've not quite been going to the same extremes, those among The Playlist team who have seen it are just as divided.

Now that you've had a chance to catch up on it, we want to hear what you think, and for a little encouragement, 5 Playlist team members have written about their own varied reactions to the film, in addition to our official review from TIFF (read it here). Check them out below, and let us know your own response in the comments sections below.

Cloud Atlas” is an easy movie to marvel at, but a harder one to love. Still, like a soul being pulled through time and space, I do love it. A Russian nesting doll of a movie that seems conversely for everyone and no one, it attempts to represent the breadth of the human experience, in a spirit of universality, but is, at times, abrasively strange. There is something profound and earnest about “Cloud Atlas” (I think), underneath all the mumbo jumbo and there were moments, both individual and when the different stories bump up against each other, echoing and rippling through the cosmos, that genuinely choked me up. But at other times the decisions that the directorial trifecta made are confounding and seem downright wrong – why, for instance, didn’t they choose to replicate a different style for each section (black-and-white 4:3 for the pre-World War II section; a kind of seventies paranoid thriller vibe for the Luisa Rey section)? And why, for a movie that seems like it could be endlessly referential, does it not touch on any pop culture hallmarks? It stands alone, an archipelago with six islands. The biggest problem with “Cloud Atlas,” though, is that its dazzling narrative architecture, the toggling back and forth and braiding together of a half-dozen different storylines, also, at times, actively works against the movie. It’s hard to get a foothold in any of the different threads when you are constantly being jerked out of one and thrust into another. As someone who saw the movie with me said afterwards, “It’s like tourism as opposed to traveling.” The strongest veins in the book remain the strongest here (particularly the Sixsmith section and the Somni section), with some of the other sections taking a hit in their transition (I was expecting more from the Luisa Rey mystery, to be honest) and others flourishing in unexpected ways (the Cavendish section had a surprising kick, with Tykwer’s zany German sensibilities working overtime). All of that said, “Cloud Atlas” does an admirable job with a scale and scope that is both epic and intimate, and no matter how much you can intellectually dissect the film (as seen above), it still resonates as a singularly powerful experience. From womb to tomb. [A-] - Drew Taylor

"Cloud Atlas" is film of polarities, inconsistencies, pleasant surprises and an overwhelmingly hopeful, humanistic streak. For such a BIG movie, it’s far more intimate than expected. And while it doesn't always get the little things right (the Asian and whiteface makeup that's not racist, per se, but disconcerting, for sure), it absolutely knocks the big things out of the park. It's a decidedly liberal film, and after a summer of blockbusters like the nihilistic, conservative "The Dark Knight Rises" (a Randian wet dream if there ever was one), and the cheerfully apolitical (yet willing to muck about with 9/11 imagery!) "The Avengers," getting a grand, sweeping movie that is so unabashedly liberal like "Cloud Atlas" is a breath of fresh air. As the stories weave in and out of each other, discovering  the themes along the way is part of the process of taking in this wacky, weird and wonderful movie. Of course, some actors in some roles are going to be more successful than others, and special attention must be paid to the delightful Jim Broadbent as publisher Timothy Cavendish, trapped in an old-folks home (his every reaction shot is GIF-worthy), Doona Bae as a soulful fabricant in Neo-Seoul, and the unparalleled Ben Whishaw as a struggling composer in the 1930s. It's best to go into "Cloud Atlas" with as little preconceived notions, expectations or judgments in mind, and just enjoy the twisty cognitive journey on which you're about to embark. As it expounds upon themes of identity, individualism, destiny, compassion, and karma, you'll realize that this is only a movie that could be made by Lana Wachowski (and Andy and Tom Twyker). For an unfilmable book, I think they did a pretty damn impressive job, even if everything isn't perfect. [B+] - Katie Walsh

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More: Cloud Atlas, The Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer

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  • Bryan | October 31, 2012 11:34 PMReply

    The movie could have been done better. Instead of a nesting as the book has it, or the back and forth blender mode the movie had, it really should have just gone through each section in order and kept it linear. It also needed to put bigger emphasis on how each person influence things later. It was probably a bad move to have everyone play different characters, especially ones that were obviously tacky. Having Hank's very old version in the far off future start talking with the devolved English was really bad. Right off the bat you're trying to figure out what he's saying. It's bad enough it's wonky english to begin with. I wonder how they'll subtitle it for foreign audiences. Overall tho, the movie is good. It has a great message for humanity that will probably get lost in translation. In case you are one of those that hated it here's the deal. Our actions of kindness and crimes influence others and not only create our future, but that of future generations far off in the future. BAM! That's it. Why they needed a 2.5 hour movie to say that through 6 different stories I'm not sure, but I got it. Definitely daring. I do hope it is more successful when it goes global. It deserves merit for what it is trying to accomplish.

  • Terry Busch | November 3, 2012 2:44 PM

    I agree with you about the need to tell it in a linear fashion. I mean, it was about reincarnation (lifetime following lifetime). There needed to be more connections between them; a flow. I wanted to like this movie but got lost, confused and in the end, disappointed. It was daring. I remember this division of opinions over 2001 A Space Odyssey, which I liked.-TB

  • Terry Busch | October 31, 2012 7:09 PMReply

    On walking out of the theater, my wife said, "That's the worst movie I ever saw'" and my friend Bob said, "That's one of the best science fiction movies, ever," and I said, "It's right up there with The Postman," and he said, "Is that good or bad?" and I laughed.

  • hayley | October 31, 2012 1:52 AMReply

    By far one of the worst movies i have ever seen i would like too know wat people are smokin foreal i want sum!

  • Nikola G | October 30, 2012 1:38 PMReply

    I'm in the yay camp as well. I'm actually eager to write up my own little review for it, but in a nutshell: I loved it. Parallel lives and multiple intertwined storylines have always been a fascination for me and something that movies in particular can tackle much better than any other art. It's an understatement to say Cloud Atlas is an ambitious project, and the box office results are no surprise at all, but the density of the story I think is really scaring a lot of critics away from seeing the good stuff: terrific acting (Tom Hanks hasn't been this good since, well, a very long time), wonderfully realized characters (Hugo Weaving's Tom Waits-ian Old Georgie has become one of my favorite characters of 2012), visuals that speak for themselves; action, suspense and humor perfectly balanced on large and small scales. Best part is that the food for thought that's left behind can feed an entire army. It's one of the best of the year, really is, and it's destined for cult status. A tough watch no doubt because of how much attention you have to pay for almost 3 hours if you don't want to get completely lost, but Hugh Grant's bad make-up cant' stop me from absorbing a truly unique cinematic experience.

  • Arn | October 30, 2012 8:20 AMReply

    great movie...time flew by....had to stay with it for the first 30 minutes to get my bearings throughout time but it was well worth it....highly recommend it...big message love is eternal and knows no limits

  • George | October 29, 2012 10:19 PMReply

    I'm with the positive reviewers - and then some. I thought the film was fantastic. I may be ahead of the curve on understanding the plot, having read the book in advance, so the plot didn't frustrate or confuse me. I could see that being an issue. But one standard for a good movie is: after credits rolled, all I could think about was this film. I wanted to watch it again, have my friends watch it, discuss it with them, etc.
    The most powerful stories, the 1930's 'Cloud Atlas Sextet' composition, Sonmi 451's and Post-Apocalyptic Hawaii could have easily been stand-alone films, indeed, they were so short I wanted more. The other half were really good, particularly Cavendish's Ghastly Ordeal. The weakest, The Pacific Voyage of Adam Ewing and Luisa Rey were still effective and enjoyable. My only minor complaint was the directors' strict adherence to their usage of the same actors for every role - Doona Bae just wasn't believable as Jim Sturgiss' wife, nor was Keith David as an old Korean general. The movie was thus a little uneven, but the highs were so high, and the lows not particularly low, so as to make the whole a thrilling viewing experience. I would be a happy man if studios would start sacking-up and releasing more bold, visionary, movies like this every year.

  • Angela | October 29, 2012 9:00 PMReply

    I have to say I'm closest the most negative review here. It wasn't one of the worst movies I've ever seen, but it was certainly the worst movie I've seen this year (which, full disclosure, is about 10 films total, including this one, and I at least somewhat liked all the others I've seen so far). As someone who thought David Mitchell's book was pretty much as close to a masterpiece as you can possibly get, maybe it was impossible for any movie to fulfill the lofty expectations set by the source material. Still, I feel like it should've been possible for the movie to be at least a little better. The score was good, as were a couple of performances (Doona Bae as Sonmi and Ben Whishaw as Frobisher, probably most notably), but everything else was kind of awful. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry were especially cringe-worthy in all of their roles, and all the prosthetic/makeup use was distracting, made even more so by its fairly poor quality. Frankly, it was a bit of a corny mess that was ambitious in scope but arguably safe from a narrative perspective. For me, none of the subtleties and nuances that made the book so good, many of which were more related to the story's form/structure than anything else, translated onscreen.

  • Steven Flores | October 29, 2012 7:25 PMReply

    I thought it was really good. I just hope more people would see it. Here's my full reviews:

  • Zinjo | October 29, 2012 3:55 PMReply

    Inception it is NOT!... The difference between Nolan's Inception and Cloud Atlas, despite the obvious, is that I actually WANTED to see Inception again, not so much with Atlas. I didn't see the threads that linked the characters so I didn't really care much for them. If one is to make a film about Kharma, then the principles of Kharma need to be present and re-enforced. If existential connections are the theme, again those connecting threads need to be made clear, in addition to the visuals. The film was visually epic without a doubt and an actor's wet dream (which explains the cast), however there seemed to be, perhaps, too much shoe horned into the 3 hours which made our sympathies for the character suffer. We viewed this film as outsiders and I never felt like I was ever invited in to the story. Unfortunate, as I am a fan of the Wachowskis and when they innovate they rock the show, but this really didn't do that for me. I wanted it to, but alas, nothing...

  • Drew | October 29, 2012 1:49 PMReply

    John is correct in citing Roger Ebert, who loved the film: you really have to see it twice. This is not a movie where you see and it's done. It's too layered, too many things going on to rush to judgment. You have to hand to to the Wachowski's and Tyker to come up with something this ambitious outside of Hollywood.

    Although a film like this is far over the heads of the "Expendables" crowd, it really needs to be seen by as many people as possible. I think if you really liked the film, go see it again and bring somebody with you who has not seen it before. It may not make Skyfall-kind of money, but it deserves a much better fate. We all need to get word out on this film this week.

    My big problem is: why did they open this film in so many theaters? This is the kind of film that needs to open in small select theaters first to get word of mouth, then opened in more theaters. I think this would have served it better.

  • lane | October 29, 2012 12:06 PMReply

    it was brilliant

  • John | October 29, 2012 10:56 AMReply

    After seeing “Cloud Atlas” at TIFF I felt like Roger Ebert when he said in his initial review: “I know I’ve seen something astonishing, and I know I’m not ready to review it.” It’s a massively ambitious success. Made outside the Hollywood system there’s a feeling that the directors got to do everything they wanted on “Cloud Atlas” and the results are beautiful and sprawling. A big risk project it’s a film that manages to interweave six storylines (jumping in and out like different instruments in a orchestra) across continents, time periods, and genres. The multi-level structure could have easily become a complete mess, and for people who like to leave their brains off at the theater it will definitely overwhelm, but The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have pulled off an epic, complex, piece of filmmaking. The film isn’t without its flaws (some of the makeup renders the actors “odd” looking), but when you have such a winner overall it’s easy to overlook a couple issues. The cast playing many different characters (some of which I didn’t even realize until the end credits montage) isn’t a cute stunt, it’s very much motivated by the storyline. A subject that’s been done in different ways before, but never so grand as on display here. If you’re patient, open-minded, and don’t go in expecting Matrix-like action scenes you should not be disappointed in the least. We all knew “Cloud Atlas” would divide both audiences and critics and bomb with the masses, but for those who appreciate the skill (and balls) on display here, the rewards are numerous.

  • lookf4r | October 29, 2012 10:24 AMReply

    I'm generally with you in that its more ambitious and admirable than it is good, but it is surely hyperbole to compare to something like Battlefield Earth. I wish they had taken a less populist approach to the film. Intelligent audiences can piece together the cosmic relation between these people with the comet birth mark alone. The multi-role casting as well as the ultra broad "this is what the movie is about" dialogue towards the end could all have been jettisoned and the film would probably have been better for it.

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