Review: Cloud Atlas

Remember watching Memento and realising the story was being told backwards but the character arc was moving forwards?

Realising that the narrator in Fight Club suddenly became very unreliable?

When Neo lifted his hand and said “No”?

Watching Cloud Atlas made me feel as if I was back at the turn of the millennium. Films that challenged the way you view the medium, films that strived for more than a way to pass the time. 1999 in particular was one of the best years of cinema. In addition to The Matrix and Fight Club, we were also blessed with: The Insider, Being John Malkovich, Eyes Wide Shut, Three Kings, the South Park movie, The Sixth Sense, Audition, Magnolia, Galaxy Quest, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, Kikujiro, The Limey, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2.

Adapted from David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas charts the tumultuous lives of numerous characters as they collide with forces greater than them, fighting for their survival and for greater meaning despite all the odds. A 19th century American lawyer, a musician in 1936, a journalist in 1973, a publisher in modern day England, a genetically-engineered human in 2144 Korea, and a tribesman in a post-apocalyptic tropical island. Starring a brilliant cast who play multiple roles, genders and races: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, and Ben Whishaw.

Giving fearless performances with the help of tons of prophetic makeup, to the point that you’ll miss spotting some of them in the various timelines (stay for the end credits!), Tom Hanks in particular impresses with a performance that I haven’t seen from him in a long while. Weaving, as always, is a highlight too, the man is captivating in everything. All of the cast give their all, emboldened by the rare acting opportunities given to them by the directors.

In this comedic scene Doona is arrested for loitering in a bad pink dress.

In this comedic scene Doona is arrested for loitering in a bad pink dress.

This is a rare production credited with three directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, all who wrote the screenplay. Complimented by beautiful cinematography by Frank Griebe, and the legendary John Toll, heart-squeezing music by Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil (and Tykwer himself), and masterfully edited by Alexander Berner who along with the writers above deserves praise for making six different stories intersect constantly without ever being incoherent.

Cloud Atlas reinvents cinema and makes you ponder the possibilities still left to explore with the medium which is not even 200 years old.  A baby compared to other art forms such as plays, music, painting, dance. In a recent interview with the Wachowskis they were preoccupied with the aspect of editing. The power of the editor is often overshadowed by the director and writer, but this film reminds us that the editor also has control over how the viewer perceives a story or a character. It’s not often you see six stories play out simultaneously.

The film is about two major themes, repeated as dialogue throughout the story: “the strong eat the weak” and “your lives are not your own”.

Some people will see it being literally about reincarnation, that the same soul will be reborn over and over, based on its accumulated karma. Each of the six main characters also share the same birthmark to signify this.

Whereas others will say it’s not about reincarnation. When you die, you die. But your actions will live on and impact future generations. If you were a decent human being, your decisions will make the lives of others a blessing, but if you’re not then the opposite will occur. Which is why the far future depicted in the film is post-apocalyptic, because the majority of human beings are not nice people, and their decisions left the planet a wreck.

It’s hard to argue with that reasoning, when you look at the ever-polluted planet right now. People in power think relatively short-term, and leave the clean up of their actions and inactions to future generations. I personally believe in the latter theory; the usage of the same actors in various roles is just a visual signifier for how good or evil acts continue forwards in future generations.

"Halle, you run and appear in a good film for a change, I'll cover you."

“Halle, you run and appear in a good film for a change, I’ll cover you.”

Cloud Atlas plays with the concept of time being a linear construct imagined and maintained by the human mind. It’s masterful editing continually switching between each story is a stark difference from David Mitchell’s book where we see the first half of each story before jumping to the next, then after the midway point of the book coming back round again to the last half of each story, ending with the climax of the first story.

I was initially doubtful, but the Wachowskis/Tykwer made the right call in their rapid-fire exploration of each story, otherwise we’d have met the first character of Adam Ewing and then not seen him again until two hours later, making it harder to latch onto his character and story. The editing gives the impression that time is relative, as the saying goes, everything is potentially happening all at once.

Cloud Atlas was pitched to studios but they all turned it down. An industry saturated with comic book adaptations, remakes and sequels is too afraid of risky new ideas. Eventually the directors got investment from various sources, pitched in themselves, and Warner Bros manned up and agreed to distribute the film.

So with this rocky road to release, to drum up interest for this film, the Wachowskis have walked brazenly into the harsh media limelight, though they would rather be behind the camera. Prior to Cloud Atlas they’d only conducted one press conference before The Matrix, and hated the experience. Since then, and until this release, they have conducted no interviews at all, remaining shrouded in mystery.

They had to fight to get Cloud Atlas made. What does that say about the industry? To witless producers I say: yes, it’s a business and money needs to be made. But it’s not a catering business. It’s a business about making movies. If you want to make money, make a superior product. Make superior movies.

Hanks chilling out at a retreat for Jedi masters.

Hanks chilling out at a retreat for Jedi masters.

In a recent interview the Wachowskis said they don’t want to make films where you turn your brain off. Even Speed Racer, their adaptation of an anime aimed at kids, had more depth than most other films aimed at the same demographic. It showed young viewers that even after they grow up to do what they dream about, they will still experience hardship and the menace of corruption.

Cloud Atlas features such amazing moments, its story continually assaulting the senses with climax after climax, like waves washing over you, and with such genius editing highlighting duality in peoples lives. The most effective moment occurs at the end when the directors choose to connect two storylines that you’d never have imagined when reading the book. This is the definition of how to adapt a novel, creating a new variation fit for the cinematic medium, yet retaining the source material’s spirit.

Cloud Atlas is now my litmus test. Anyone who dismisses it, or even worse, belittles it as some critics have, I cannot take seriously. Here is a film that aims ridiculously high, utterly fearless and with a unique vision. Do you ever complain about the state of modern cinema? Too many remakes, sequels, crude attempts at comedy, and comic book sequels? Watch this film. Your doing so will impact future generations.

9 thoughts on “Review: Cloud Atlas

    • Wachowski films do have their heart on sleeve, but Cloud Atlas can be pretty bleak as well as hopeful. They avoid nihilism but always remind you that there will always be horrible selfish people populating this world.

      I think what audiences find most distracting about the film is the idea of actors playing different races and genders, but I think its brave and thematically works.

      • Sounds like a good balance to me. And the actors playing different genres/races doesn’t concern me so much, especially since the make up and constumes are supposedly fantastic. Plus, as you said, it’s a bold move.
        Thanks man!

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  2. Agree with everything you said cihan… I really loved it, and I thought that watching it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a cinema. What I don’t get is how overlooked it was by many people and critics, and how misunderstood it is. Its like people don’t even want to understand a movie when they watch it, the intent behind it, or what its trying to say. And it didn’t get a single Academy Award nomination, not a single one (correct me if I’m wrong)….meh, well at least Roger Ebert loved it..

  3. It is amazing how it wasn’t even nominated for adapted screenplay or editing, but I guess the Oscars are political, i.e – who you know and how you act have a great impact on whether you’re nominated for anything. The Wachowskis are notoriously low-key.

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  5. Pingback: NSFCCDP Movie Review: Cloud Atlas (2012) – Webs of Self-Realization and their Consequences | Fino's Weblog

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