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

Reviews
by Kevin Jagernauth
September 8, 2012 10:07 PM
53 Comments
  • |
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, "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 (we're not kidding), 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-]

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53 Comments

  • Mike | October 27, 2012 3:43 AMReply

    Douche! You obviously didn't bother to read the book. You repeatedly refer to "The Wachowskis" and"Twyker" as if they are the creators of this world. Do your research, hack.

  • eric | October 25, 2012 12:43 PMReply

    This movie looks atrocious but...
    Does Kevin Jagernauth understand that no critics were "literally" thrown off a roof? He gets it's a movie, right? And why the use of the royal "we"? Is he afraid to stand by his convictions?
    And someone needs to edit this guy's punctuation in a big way. I would call it pretentious but that would imply it was smart. What a fraud this review was.

  • bumboclot | September 20, 2012 4:57 PMReply

    Just take the opposite of what this review says: The film is brilliant, totally compelling, and hugely ambitious (obviously!). If anything, people might complain that it is too imaginative and beyond comprehension, since the book has been considered "unfilmable" for years. I guess critics just hate watching themselves get thrown off a roof!

  • Steve | September 20, 2012 1:33 PMReply

    "...it's clear that they aren't concerned in the slightest with how this ambitious effort will be received. "

    Actually they were concerned with including the critic-tossing because it's a crucial scene from the book. It might help to realize that the movie is an adaptation of a best-selling book, but if you had pulled your critic head out of your critic assessment you might have known that.

  • Mike | September 16, 2012 11:50 AMReply

    "This would make a good book," we had to keep from groaning out loud..

    It IS from a book, you twat. You truly have no clue at all... change job.

  • Muhammed Nabileo | September 14, 2012 3:08 PMReply

    someone should check this to know the real reaction of the film in TIFF: http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/09/09/toronto-film-festival-cloud-atlas-premiere-with-halle-berry-tom-hanks-wows-crowd-cast-directors-get-standing-ovation/

  • Graham | September 13, 2012 8:14 AMReply

    "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."

    Directly from the book. Please do some research next time.

  • bumboclot | September 20, 2012 4:46 PM

    Why should he research? So he doesn't sound like an idiot hack taking shots at the kind of art he could never even dream of creating. At least he would sound like an informed hack!

  • Rodion | September 15, 2012 12:01 AM

    @Makes_no_sense, because the writer of this "review" is suggesting that the scene in which a critic is thrown of the roof was deliberately included by the filmmakers to comment on how they feel about critics. When in actual fact is only an adapted moment from the book.
    I also got my back up at the comment that the casting of the same actors for multiple roles is a "stunt" when clearly it is meant to represent the theme of the entire movie - connectivity between generations and the evolution of evil to good.

  • makesnosense | September 13, 2012 11:45 AM

    Why? it's a film review. it's based on a review of the film, not the book.

  • star | September 10, 2012 11:20 AMReply

    Rob pattinson projects

    1_MISSION: BLACK LIST

    2_Queen of the Desert

    3_THE ROVER

    4_MAPS TO THE STARS

    5_HATE MAIL

    6_the band

    7_Unbound Captives

  • Steve | September 20, 2012 1:41 PM

    Why? Because if a critic is going to deconstruct a film based on its artistic merit, he or she needs to be well informed about the choices that went into making that piece of art. It's central to what a critic should do. Movies should enlighten, move, thrill, or entertain. Critics should be educated.

  • AE | September 10, 2012 10:43 AMReply

    Clearly no group of critics will agree, but lately they downright contradict, here's Roger Ebert's appraisal of CA, which I love. "I know I've seen something atonishing, and I know I'm not ready to review it. Cloud Atlas, by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, is a film of limitless imagination, breathtaking visuals and fearless scope. I have no idea what it is about." Once upon a time there was some kind of consensus on a film's merits, maybe there's just too many critical voices these days, or maybe it's the sound of change or originality, remember Bonnie and Clyde. What pisses me off is the detrimental, muddying of the waters, that can take a film from rapturous festival response to 'disaster' at the push of a few keypads. I think it's right for the public to question and scrutinize the critics at every junction, they still have far too much power.

  • John | September 10, 2012 10:09 AMReply

    I saw the film at TIFF yesterday and the screening had one of the most (positively) vocal and loudest end credits applauses (nearly as strong as Amour the day before). It's not a perfect film but i was able to keep track of all the different storylines and stay entertained throughout. And that to me is a major success with such difficult source material. It wasnt groundbreaking and my mind wasnt blown, but its definitely an epic piece of entertainment.

  • Pietro | September 9, 2012 7:22 PMReply

    Wow, so much harsh judgement and finger wagging from people who haven't seen the movie. You'd think that by this time more commentators would realize they should put their unwarranted hatred towards the critic away until they saw the obviously divisive film in question for themselves. Me thinks CA will end up being be just another case of many feet prematurely planted into many mouths.

  • Yeah, Hilarious | September 20, 2012 1:45 PM

    @Pietro. "Me thinks CA will end up being be just another case of many feet prematurely planted into many mouths."

    Starting with critics who aren't even aware that a CA novel exists.

  • To Be Expected | September 9, 2012 10:24 PM

    Seriously, kinda hilarious.

  • Orville | September 9, 2012 6:34 PMReply

    At the end of the day this critic Kevin Jagernauth's opinion means nothing ultimately the audience will decide with their wallets. I have little patience with critics because they have their own personal biases, agendas, and perspectives. Everyone has an opinion the difference is a film critics gets paid for their opinion. A lot of the times critics hate a movie and yet it is a box office success. I also find some film critics to be extremely pretentious and act like snobs as though they are more intelligent than the regular film viewer. I think people should make their own decisions to see a film and don't allow a critic to influence what they believe is true about a film.

  • AJ | September 10, 2012 8:16 PM

    Film critics provide an important service which prevents some of us from wasting our money to see boring or un-entertaining movies.

  • Knowles2 | September 9, 2012 11:31 AMReply

    When I first heard about the film, saw the trailers, read some spoilers, my first thought was that critics are going to hate this, they are just such predictable little creatures, that do not like anything that breaks the mould or is different, that mould is that small films require thought, why big budget films should be simple and dumb.

    The only real question left to answer is will the audience love the film, will it become a cult classic and will it be relies as a great film in the future or will it become a film that the audience and critics will forget in the years to come.

    I have not seen the film so far, but I am going to try and see this at the cinema, why, because it the biggest independent film ever and I think we need to see more large scale independent films aim at the mainstream audience. I am also going to try an see Judge Dredd because well I expected it get bad reviews an yet it seem to be getting good reviews.

  • knowles2 | September 9, 2012 12:30 PM

    I did not say critics were not important, I said they are predictable, they of cause think they are more important than they actually are, for most of the population I do not think they make much of a difference, most people will decide to go an see a film via trailers, word of mouth or even how good the posters are at the cinema, actors who are in the film

    I usually do not take much notice but in the case of Judge Dredd I thought the trailers look terrible, look more like a computer game, an none of the posters really attracted my attention, even my friends have mixed views on the film that why I am interested in it.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | September 9, 2012 11:37 AM

    I like how you start your comment by saying how unimportant critics are, and finish by saying you're going to see a movie because it's gotten good reviews.

  • Creamin My Jeans | September 9, 2012 10:16 AMReply

    WHILE I HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM, THIS REVIEW DOES NOT SEEM TO JIBE WITH MY ANTICIPATION FOR THIS FILM, THEREFORE THE REVIEW MUST BE INVALID - SINCERELY AUTOFAN

  • tristan eldritch | September 9, 2012 8:37 AMReply

    I dunno, everybody was creaming their shorts over the trailer for this, but I didn't the stench of it at all. Tom Hanks warbling in a a voice-over about THE CHOICES WE MAKE in life and stuff (always a bad sign), shades of The Fountain and Wong Kar-Wai's genre and time-span hopping folly 2046....looked like a stinker to me.

  • Priya | September 9, 2012 5:13 AMReply

    I'll take this reveiw with a pinch of salt. Kevin had nothing good to say about Cosmopolis and that turned out to be frigging revelatory.

    I'll still be watching CA and hoping to God this appraisal is way, way off.

  • Markus | September 10, 2012 4:10 PM

    ;) http://www.spill.com/Audio/AudioPost.aspx?audioId=1278

  • Rodion | September 9, 2012 3:28 AMReply

    I stopped reading two paragraphs in, not because i don't agree with your review (i am yet to see the film) but because you blundered twice.
    1. "With The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer literally throwing a critic off the roof of a building to his death in the open moments...it's clear that they aren't concerned in the slightest with how this ambitious effort will be received."
    Sorry but this is in the book so not relevant to how they are feeling, just an adapted moment.

    2. "...the stunt approach to casting actually works quite well."
    If you had bothered to read anything about the film or watch the introduction by the filmmakers that was online, then you would understand that the casting of actors for multiple roles reflects the ENTIRE theme of the movie - The connection between every character and time period and of reincarnation. Tom Hanks starting as a bad guy and evolving into a hero. Hang up your reviewing gloves, because you don't understand movies.

  • Bakunin | September 9, 2012 1:41 AMReply

    Meh, the Playlist is excellent for news but its reviews are laughable at best. Consider their Dark Knight Rises review, it was a good film but the official Playlist review swore it was almost the greatest American film since Gone With The Wind, proclaiming it a film that basically confirms the greatness of America blah blah blah. These guys can be a little long winded.

  • Mike | September 9, 2012 12:27 AMReply

    Kevin, you should hand in your resignation as a movie reviewer. This was one of the most incredibly creative films ever made. if you didn't like it, fine, but to say its not bold and disappointingly unimaginative shows you clearly are in the wrong profession.

  • Pietro | September 9, 2012 12:36 AM

    Well that's unfair, it's his opinion after all. Food for thought: John Carter was touted as being incredibly creative and awe inspiring by many critics but general movie goers found it unimaginative and boring.

  • Stevo the Magnificent | September 8, 2012 11:49 PMReply

    Having not seen this yet, obviously I can't agree or disagree with the review, but if it is an anywhere-near accurate assessment of the movie, this thing is going down like the Hindenburg at the box-office once it's released; with a highly complex narrative, same old Wachowski themes and motifs (power to the oppressed and up the revolution, yawn), and a (near) three hour running time, if it breaks even worldwide, I'll be surprised, but like 'Speed Racer' this looks like it's going to be a flop with a future cult following once it hits DVD and Blu-Ray... boy, the glory days of 'Bound' and 'The Matrix' seem so very long ago now, do they not!?

  • JED | September 8, 2012 11:46 PMReply

    I'd have to disagree completely with the review. I saw it tonight and absolutely loved it and judging by the audience response, I wasn't only the one. It is long and you need to be prepared for that, however, I found the time flew by.

  • eh | September 9, 2012 1:34 AM

    Don't forget Toronto audiences at TIFF are like trained seals. They'll flip for fucking anything (esp if the stars are there, it's shameless).

  • judith wine | September 8, 2012 11:43 PMReply

    So so disagree. Just saw its premiere at TIFF and it was AMAZING - and I wasn't the only one who thought so - the whole audience immediately got to its feet and wouldn't sit down.

  • DG | September 8, 2012 11:28 PMReply

    Oh well I wasn't planning on seeing this anyways. One thing though is that out of everything I've heard about this movie I still have no inkling of what it is exactly that is supposed to connect all these stories? Besides actors playing multiple roles is it anything? I guess I should just read the book...

  • Mich | September 8, 2012 11:23 PMReply

    This review is disappointing.

    I personally haven't read the book yet and in fact I think it's fine to review this as a stand alone film - the fact is everyone will experience the film differently and it will definitely be divisive.


    But I don't like this review - the critic seems crusty in general but most importantly h
    Thus reads like missed some key aspects of the plot, themes, etc... Oh well.

    I lived this film! It's epic, go see it

  • jimmiescoffee | September 8, 2012 11:04 PMReply

    not surprised at all. the wachowskis have 2 good films to speak of and none for over a decade.

  • Lol | September 8, 2012 10:54 PMReply

    OMG, HE MAY NOT HAVE READ THE BOOK. ALERT THE MEDIA!

  • ORLY | September 8, 2012 11:04 PM

    LOL ^

    The movie was fantastic though

  • Lee53 | September 8, 2012 10:54 PMReply

    Maybe it's time to bin the film critics and just go see the films, almost every 2012 release seems to have been wildly divisive, and it's come to the point that you've all started to cancel each other out. Regarding Cloud Atlas, I heard this received a 10 min ovation, and the best audience reaction of the Toronto festival so far. I wonder if there isn't an audience who've largely abandoned cinema, who may be tempted by the prospect of something bold and original.

  • timmaahhyy | October 9, 2012 10:45 AM

    I have not seen a film at the theater in over 5 years. The trailer for this one has me tempted to go and spend 50 quid to sit in an uncomfortable seat for 3 hours.

  • Cribbster | September 8, 2012 11:54 PM

    Critics can hurt a movie sometimes, but they do far more good than bad. There are an uncountable number of flicks that never would have seen the light of day had it not been for film critics championing them in the press.

  • d | September 8, 2012 10:58 PM

    You seem to be under the impression that critics are all supposed to agree. That's absurd.

  • KKANE | September 8, 2012 10:53 PMReply

    disagree with this entire review...
    the movie was brilliant, needs some time digesting though

  • Jayden | September 8, 2012 10:45 PMReply

    Wow, and this is a movie critic?
    Clearly missed the point of the movie and book entirely.

    I suggest everyone to go watch it, it's a masterpiece like none you've seen before.

  • Ad | September 8, 2012 10:38 PMReply

    I'm assuming you haven't read the book Kevin? No comment about accuracy to the original work, no comment about the actual accomplishment of tackling a novel on such a huge scale as Cloud Atlas.
    Now I haven't seen the film yet, but your negative commentary is based on actual quotes and occurrences from the book. So do you dislike the script (story) or do you dislike the concepts?
    I think you may need to dig a bit more deeply to start using critical language such as platitudes, and glib. Or perhaps some stories need to remain as novels and be left alone by film?

  • AD | September 8, 2012 10:50 PM

    I am a firm believer that if you are going to go on paper with criticism, that criticism should be well researched and sound, not 'glib' and 'perfunctory' itself.
    I agree it is a film review. So I will take to heart the film related criticism.

  • Christopher Bell | September 8, 2012 10:46 PM

    He shouldn't have to read the book, it's a review of the film. If he's read it, added bonus, but it shouldn't be held against him.

  • AS | September 8, 2012 10:28 PMReply

    I could see this turning into an Avatar. Some critics will love it and apologize for its flaws, others will trash it. Audiences will turn out in droves.

  • Oogle monster | September 8, 2012 10:18 PMReply

    The most divisive film of 2012? Probably.

  • nathalia | September 9, 2012 3:31 AM

    congratulation cloud atlas cast

  • vanessa | September 9, 2012 3:26 AM

    It is very hard to make a film like cloud atlas, the actors playing all the roles,it is very complicated in addition, the actors played multiple roles, it is very hard. I like cloud atlas

  • mb | September 8, 2012 11:10 PM

    That'll probably be Anna Karenina. I think this will just be panned.

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