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Cloud Atlas (2012)

November 6, 2012

8/10 Life Cycles

A mighty tall order, mostly filled.

Cloud Atlas is the story of six individuals. One is an American lawyer from the mid-1800s whose health becomes jeopardized during a Pacific expedition. One is a struggling composer trying to make a name and a life for himself in England during the 1930s. One is an investigative journalist in 1970s who puts her life on the line to uncover the truth behind a potential nuclear catastrophe. One is an aging publisher who finds his good fortune turn sour and his life turn upside-down in modern-day England. One is a “fabricant” who gains sentiency beyond her programming in the Orwellian future of Neo-Seoul. And one is a “tribesman” struggling with his own demons in the post-apocalypse of Hawaii. Though their stories seem separate, their souls are intertwined, and from one era to the next, they to continually cross paths and realize themselves in both good ways and bad.

If there’s anything to be said of Cloud Atlas, it’s that it aims awfully high. I mean, why tell one story when you can jump back-and-forth among six? In your face, every other movie ever made! Yup, definitely not the storytelling we’re used to in any medium, but by the same token, that’s what’s so refreshing about movies like these: even if they end up crashing and burning in the long run, at least they went big and gave us something new. Points for trying, right? Not to say that aiming high and starting fresh has ever been a sure thing, but every once and again, the strengths outweigh the shortcomings and we get something that lives up to its ambitions of grandeur. Enter Cloud Atlas, the ambitious son of a bitch it is.

So, of all the books I read this year in preparation for their big-screen adaptations, not a one matched the many payoffs that came with giving Cloud Atlas a go. Before I get to the adaptation, allow me to set the mood. Cloud Atlas is unlike anything I’ve ever read. On top of that, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. As you can guess from the synopsis, it’s essentially six separate novels written into one with each story written in a different style and voice, and each stemming from a different genre. Yet, they’re all connected, and figuring how they’re all connected is one of the most extraordinary things about it. It’s one of those novels that book clubs probably go ape over (like I have any idea what goes on in a book club) as there is much to discuss and nothing all that straightforward about it. Cloud Atlas is a true feat of structure and storytelling, I couldn’t put it down, and even if you’ve already seen the movie, I’m gonna be That Guy and suggest that you still read the book anyway. And if you haven’t seen the movie yet, trust me, the book helps.

Although much as I adored the book, not once was there a time where I envisioned it as a movie. It worked as book because books are a more flexible medium to work with. For chrissakes, you can write a chapter in Powerpoint slides if you want to. As anyone who’s ever tried writing a script can attest, movies don’t have this luxury. There were stories that stopped short mid-sentence by page 56, only to start up and conclude 400 pages later where that mid-sentence left off. Not to mention that whole six characters across six stories thing. I mean, one writer/director has a hard enough time telling one story about one character without screwing the pooch and bankrupting a studio. I’m all for taking risks, but I had no effing idea how three writers/directors, even with $100 million at their disposal, could make something functional out of this. Man, if Naked Lunch taught us anything, it’s that some books just don’t need to be movies.

Then again, here we are, and needless to say, there is a lot to cover.

Unsurprisingly, not everything made it to the final cut, but considering what Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings were working with, it’s hard to be critical of what did make the cut and how inspired they were in bringing it to life. The individual story lines follow their inspirations quite closely, and the liberties that are taken are done with a clear respect for author David Mitchell’s vision. The best example of which is probably how they decided to cast this movie. It takes a little getting used to, but I really, really dug their recycling of actors to play different characters across different story arcs. See, Cloud Atlas is a story about history repeating itself, about the will of good overcoming the timelessness of evil, and about facing those evils head-on from one reincarnation to the next. With that being said, it makes absolute perfect sense to go the route that they did. Sure, you could just cast 30 more actors to fill all these roles and I don’t think it would detract from anything in the long run. But the fact that they went for the unconventional speaks volumes about the respect these film makers have for the unconventional brilliance of their source material. As a result, everything feels far more connected than it otherwise would have, and lest we forget, that is what this story’s all about.

And as challenging as it must have been to put this movie together from top to bottom, there is so much artistic potential that they take full advantage of. This is a gorgeous movie with makeup, costumes, and set pieces that will flat-out effing astound. Doesn’t always work when they start making people look like other races or genders, but there are a bunch of times where you’ll have to squint like a mofo just to recognize the actor you’re looking at. Hugh Grant especially. Something tells me that dude practically lived in the makeup trailer. Plus, the whirlwind structure works far more effectively than I could have imagined as it continually, beautifully transitions from one story to the next without skipping a beat or dropping the pace. It’s a lot to take in and it’s a lot to keep track of, but the way it’s put together, it’s somehow easy to play along. Given that this was far and away the biggest hurdle these guys had in front of them, it’s pretty amazing the way everything comes together.

And I totally forgot how good the Wachowskis are at filming action scenes. How in the hell did I forget that?

Alright, I should shift gears before I ramble any further about the film making here. In short, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything by any of these film makers, but damn, do they still got it and do they work well together. What can I say, it’s always great to find film makers who are fans of the source material. After all, it’s not like Hollywood was on phone ’cause Cloud Atlas was flying off the shelves at Barnes & Noble. These film makers wanted to do this project, and they made it their own while honoring what drew them to it in the first place. Instead of seeing difficulties, they saw the possibilities, and for all the liberties they take, the payoff makes it worth while.

And as for the cast, everyone’s pretty solid. No one really stands out more than anyone else, but that’s alright. They’re all good, and since this isn’t really their show to begin with, “good” goes a long way. If I had to pick one of ’em, I guess Jim Broadbent was the most memorable of the bunch. Doesn’t hurt that his was the only story that was better on film than it was on paper. Really wish I could say the same about Doona Bae’s story line, but that one kinda deserves a movie entirely unto itself.

As much as I’d like to recommend Cloud Atlas for everything that makes it the special story it is, it’s a hard one to recommend at all. Having read the novel beforehand gave me a much clearer picture of everything that was playing out before me, but it also made it hard to assess what it would have been like going in blind. The heart and soul of the novel are very much here in the film, and that makes all the difference. As for the finer details that highlight the importance of each character, event, and thing being said, those might be harder to pick up on and could in turn muddle the film as a whole. But that’s the thing about Cloud Atlas: it’s an incredibly subjective experience, one that’s difficult to break down objectively because everyone’s going to react to it differently. I can give it my stamp of approval and tell you to keep an open mind, but as much as there is for some to admire, I can imagine there’s just as much for others to be baffled by.

Whatever side of the fence you wind up on – and chances are you won’t end up in the middle – Cloud Atlas is an experience. For me, it was a very special experience, one that may not have resonated as much as its source material, but one that resonated all the same. As a true believer in karma and the afterlife, the themes and notions that tie everything together here are ones that rarely find their way into movies, and they’re ones that I try to live by. Might not hit the nail on the head with each swing it takes at wisdom, but to call this movie unique is to call a rainbow monotone. More movies should strive for this kind of ambition. Still, some may say its grasp was bigger than its reach, and in some respects, they’re probably right. Make no mistake, this is one lofty, epic, metaphysical bastard of a movie, but hey, that’s exactly what I loved about it. For that matter, a lot of things I liked about this movie were things I liked about the book, and at the end of the day, that’s an awfully satisfying feeling to leave with. Can’t remember the last time three hours went by this fast.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2012 8:49 am

    Great in depth review.

  2. Livi permalink
    November 6, 2012 10:12 am

    Wow, I surprised to hear this good of a review! I thought it would be a flop, but I think I underestimated the Wachowskis. It certainly LOOKS good, literally, from the trailer, the special effects seem stunning, but I’m afraid, like you said, people who haven’t read the book (ME) will get confused. Do you think that the recycling of actors makes the 6 plots easier to follow, or does it just muddy things up?

    • November 6, 2012 10:45 am

      Well it hasn’t done much damage at the box office, especially considering its budget, and ESPECIALLY considering that Skyfall’s gonna completely take over from next weekend on. All the same, really liked what it brought to the table. And interestingly enough, the recycling of actors didn’t make the plot lines any harder to follow. They really go all out on the costumes and makeup, so much so that everyone looks completely different from one plot to the next and you’d be awfully hard-pressed to confuse actors and characters with timelines as a result. I think the more confusing aspect has to do with being able to follow the subtleties and importances of each plot line since there’s so much jam-packed into one space. Might make it harder to fully appreciate what it’s trying to say in the long run. Man, what a jerk of a movie to break down. If you do end up seeing it, would love to know what you think!

      And it does look good. Really good.

  3. November 6, 2012 5:56 pm

    Awesome review, bud. I liked this film a lot and gave it the same score you did, mainly because it had me intrigued the whole way through, and really kept me involved. There was no real emotional-connection for me to the point of where I was flat-out tearing-up by the end, but I will say that it definitely did do a great job with a premise that seemed like it could have gone left-field, stayed there, went nowhere, and have everybody in the audience going, “Huh?” Not the best movie of the year, but a good way to spend 3 hours.

    • November 7, 2012 5:38 pm

      Thanks, man! Wasn’t much of an emotional connection for me either, but for a movie that easily could have crashed and burned, it sure pulled off some amazing stuff. A surprisingly good (and fast) way to spend 3 hours.

  4. November 8, 2012 4:46 pm

    I thought this was a very fair review. I haven’t read the book, but should because I felt the film needed more. Maybe that would be a nice supplement to the film. I feel like the film should have been a tv series or mini-series. I thought it needed more time to develop characters and draw me in. It was definitely a huge project, and one that was done probably as well as it could have in the 3 hour limit. I enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. I thought it was solid, but wanted something a little bit more. Great review!

    • November 16, 2012 10:09 am

      Thanks, man! And the book is a wonderful supplement to the film. Trust me, things will flow a lot smoother. And I actually thought the same thing about how this would have worked had it been adapted to a medium other than film. As much as it seems to lend itself to the structure of a mini-series, I still think film was the best way to go in terms of getting it all out there and tying everything together all at once. Knowwhatimean? There is certainly more that could have been done, but considering what was accomplished, it’s kind of hard for me to focus on the littler things.

      • November 20, 2012 12:24 pm

        I hear ya. For the extent of the material, and the amount of time given. I thought it was well done. But yes, I will have to read the book!

      • November 27, 2012 8:43 am

        Do it to it, man! And if you ever do, please stop back and let me know what you think. You can’t let me be the only nerd out there who read the book!

  5. November 9, 2012 11:34 am

    It was great reading such a passionate review of a film that hasn’t had a lot going for it right now. Well done, Aiden!

    • November 16, 2012 10:09 am

      Thanks, man! Yeah, it’s too bad this one fizzled out so quickly, ’cause it’s truly something original. Glad I gave it a go, and glad it lived up to the hype for me.

  6. November 12, 2012 4:57 pm

    Just more confirmation that I need to read the book. You are correct, without reading it, this movie was difficult to love. I’m actually one of those in the middle on this. I loved the idea and theme, and in some ways it was done beautifully, but in other ways it was botched. I didn’t really get how some of the story lines fit in, and the makeup was extremely distracting for me. That being said, I didn’t dislike it, and I thought it was an entertaining, thought-provoking film.
    Speaking of distracting makeup, I’m sure you’ve read all the craziness people have been throwing at Jim Sturgess and the filmmakers over “race-bending”? Which, while I think maybe they didn’t make the best choice, I hardly think it was driven by racism or maliciousness, but there is still a lot of drivel circulating.
    Also I keep being slightly creeped out by how we have the exact same taste in movies (other than some expected gender differences). Although it is pretty useful for me, since you write movie reviews, and I like to watch good movies. Carry on.

    • November 16, 2012 10:15 am

      Yup, you gotta read that book. Will probably be a whole lot easier to get into now that you’ve seen the movie, too. And can totally understand how everything felt so muddled having gone in blind. Was quite the undertaking to begin with.

      I haven’t heard of the craziness with the race-bending makeup jobs, and while I understand where it’s coming from and would usually be right there in the picket line, this time it’s ridiculous. It isn’t an issue of hiring a white actor to play a South Korean character or vice-versa, it’s just part of the story they’re trying to tell. Serenity now, man. Amazing the kind of stuff that people spend their time getting angry about.

      And hey, if you keep watching, I’ll keep writing. These kinds of comments are the best!

  7. November 23, 2012 8:49 pm

    Come on, the movie is utter crap. I don’t need a well worded review to know this.
    In fact, had the movie been even a little bit as coherent as this review I would have liked it. But no, it’s a mish mash, I don’t care if it’s original, if it hasn’t been done before or whatever… Cloud Atlas is a piece of shit I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to have to sit through.

    • November 27, 2012 8:48 am

      Hahaha. Sorry you didn’t like the movie, man, but thanks for sparing my review! Definitely an easy movie to recommend or come to a unanimous decision on, and something tells me you’re not alone. Thanks for stopping by though!

  8. Clayton Sullivan permalink
    July 3, 2013 1:34 am

    Cut it out! This movie is made for ignorant people with entirely too much time for over analyzing everything that happens. Find one person who paid money to see a film that didn’t stop this movie pissed off. Not only that, but piss poor audio….what a waste of money….from the producers to the consumer. Tom Hanks used to be one of my favorites! Vomit…

  9. Clayton Sullivan permalink
    July 3, 2013 1:49 am

    Human beings do the same thing throughout the history of civilization. Do I want to see it abundantly beat over my head six different ways, when I want to enjoy a movie? The answer is no. I just want to watch a movie. What a damn waste of my night.

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