Cloud Atlas Review: Shapes in Vapor

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Cloud Atlas Review: Shapes in Vapor

By Daniel Carlson | Film Reviews | October 26, 2012 | Comments ()


In movies, as in life, so often it's not what you say but how you say it. Consider: If I tell you my favorite movie is about a young man struggling to come to grips with his troubling family legacy in the wake of his father's death, all while undertaking a difficult journey to discover what kind of businessman, leader, and person he wants to be; am I describing The Godfather, or Tommy Boy? The thematic reductions can look the same when you cartoonishly flatten them, but no one would ever argue that the films have the same effect on the viewer or are made with the same skill. One is a sweeping, haunted look at society and power in post-war America, while the other is a buddy comedy with the dark edges sanded off by the treacly big-screen wing of mid-1990s "Saturday Night Live." At the broadest level, the two movies can be said to be about the same things, but it's the way those things are presented that makes all the difference.

Cloud Atlas is, nominally, about the human condition, the fragility of relationships, and the unseen nature of causality, but it's so bluntly constructed and clumsily delivered that the lasting impression isn't of connection or revelation but simply exhaustion. Its topics, on that broadest level, are interesting and relevant and even a little noble. But it's in the telling that the tale comes apart. In fact, it becomes clear pretty early on that there's no real tale to be told here, just six century-spanning narratives edited together at a blistering pace to give the illusion of resonance. Similar plot moments from different threads are welded together to make absolutely sure viewers remember that "we are all connected," even though that oft-repeated phrase becomes meaningless when it's given voice by characters so empty there's no use pretending they're anything other than ciphers meant to deliver a message and then evaporate.

Based on David Mitchell's novel, the film has been adapted and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. The Wachowskis handled directing duties on three of the film's stories: a young businessman (Jim Sturgess) dealing with the moral repercussions of slavery in the mid-1800s; a clone-like fabricant (Doona Bae) wrestling with sentience and her duties as a would-be revolutionary in 2144; and a goat-herder (Tom Hanks) living on the Hawaiian islands in a far-off time after a global apocalypse. Tykwer, meanwhile, helmed the other three: an aging composer (Jim Broadbent) in 1930s Europe working with an assistant (Ben Whishaw) to create one last great piece; a tabloid reporter (Halle Berry) uncovering a business scandal in the 1970s, and an aging book publisher (Broadbent) involuntarily placed in a retirement home in 2012. Each of these stories is ostensibly intended to have a different tone: the 19th-century tale is one of seafaring drama, the near-future story is sci-fi action, the 1970s thread is generic conspiracy thriller, and so on. Yet the film is so hyperactively edited that we're never in one location long enough to form an attachment to the characters or the action, nor to feel any real shift in execution from one era to the next. The goal becomes, simply, to watch the filmmakers cut back and forth between them, turning a sweeping narrative into a bland trick. It's not that there are jarring tonal shifts: it's that we're never in one place long enough to get any sense of tonality, period. Additionally, the whole thing is cut like a trailer for itself, a breathlessly self-reflexive ad for its own existence. The film exists in a constant state of worked-up nervousness, marveling at its own design.

Each of the different stories deals with similar conflicts of repression and rebellion, and each is acted out by the same group of people in varying degrees of makeup and costume. Sometimes this works: Broadbent is particularly well-suited to his two main roles, waffling between greed and charity whether he's dealing with a gifted musical assistant or a territorial nursing home staff. Sometimes, though, it serves no purpose other than to call awkward attention to itself, as when Sturgess, Hugh Grant, and James D'Arcy wear prosthetics that attempt to give them Korean features but wind up making them look deformed in some unspecified way. At first, I thought that their characters in those scenes were intended to be a futuristic evolution of mankind, but it soon became clear that they were meant to look like real people. It's a clumsy set-up that breaks the illusion of the narrative.

That's probably the best way to put it: Cloud Atlas keeps getting in its own way. In the story set in the distant future, with Hanks as the goat-herder Zachry, the characters speak in a howlingly uncomfortable pidgin dialect whose intent (convey that the world has changed drastically) is constantly overshadowed by its execution (cringe-inducing grunts about the "true-true" and "da devil"). Like the stunt casting, the clunky dialogue becomes a distraction, something that reminds you you're watching a movie instead of letting you experience it. Of course, the dialogue in the other segments is just as bad, often falling back onto the pseudo-philosophical mish-mash that the Wachowskis crammed into the ill-advised second and third chapters of the Matrix films. At one point, a character says, "My uncle was a scientist, but he believed that love was real." Are we supposed to think that scientists don't believe in love at all, and that this man was the exception? Or are we supposed to commend him for coming to the same basic conclusion about the mysteries of human connection that untold billions of people have already reached? Cloud Atlas is full of these moments where characters excitedly declaim to each other that actions have consequences, and the future is kind of an unknown, and so on. These statements are presented as a hard-won "truth," so much so that when the film ended I kept replaying the final moments and wondering if the preceding three hours had actually happened.

It's easy -- tempting, anyway -- to want to reconsider things, to want to give the film some kind of pass for its scope and ambition, as if aim and accuracy were the same thing. And there's no doubt that the film's ambitious. But it would be wrong to praise the film for what I want it to be instead of talking about what it actually is: a heavy-handed, simplistic, graceless tone poem that feigns depth while wading in the shallows. The film's blistering editing and hopscotch approach to momentum and catharsis leave the viewer cold, more admiring of the vessel than aboard for the voyage. It's almost as if the film's goal is to keep you disoriented in the hopes that you'll confuse banality for revelation. But diagnosis isn't cure, and it's not enough for the filmmakers to mumble vague things about connectedness and patterns and hope it's the same as making an insight into human nature. I can't help but wonder what would've happened if they'd focused on just one or two of the stories, or better yet, something altogether new. It's only in illuminating specific characters that we can learn something about all of us. Breadth comes all at once, but depth is an individual pursuit. Ironically, by trying to say something big, the film says nothing at all.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Shy

    I loved the movie. It was long. But never felt long. I was never bored with it. Cast was amazing. I like to read Pajiba’s reviews. Because I agree with most of them,But I disagree with this one. Was surprised to read such negative review. They should get an Oscar for make-up. They changed actors so much that often I didn’ty recognize them in different time-lines. Except Tom Hanks.

    I didn’t recognize Jim Sturgess as young businessman and then future korean super hot guy. Only in last scene. And Hanks was superb, convincing and different in his every character. I’m surprised he is not in the Oscar race.

  • Strand

    So it's not just me who thought Jim Sturgess looked like a really weird Mickey-Rooney-grade Asian prosthetics? Oh well, I'll probably wind up seeing it either way.

  • Dan, I disagree. Cloud Atlas really moved me. A favorite this year.

    Casting was STUNNING. Added greatly to film's themes: we birth our future. In the universe, good can be found in all things, and that good moves on. Wachowskis love this: Matrix and Speed Racer shared it. They're such optimists.

    I have to concede/that you 'get' it or you don't. Embrace the conceit!

  • Mel

    If you want a coherent review by an intelligent person of this film, read Roger Ebert's. As usual, the Pajiba crowd is trying to impress you all with their so called writing talents while completely missing the point. I fell asleep half way through this over thought, self aggrandizing review.

  • special snowflake

    I profess total ignorance regarding this film and the background to it that everyone else here is rationally discussing. But, stating that, I have to add that such lack of knowledge really isn't necessary to appreciate a review that contains this kind of sentence:
    "At first, I thought that their characters... were intended to be a futuristic evolution of mankind, but it soon became clear that they were meant to look like real people."
    The naked honesty of that admission strikes me as so f****ing hilarious and justifiably perplexed that it's both informative, like a good review should be, yet unavoidably awkward in having to accurately describe the impression.
    ('I know, right?!!?? [insert group here] were meant to look like REAL PEOPLE!! WTF???')

  • That was a great review, Dan. I think I'm going to end up disagreeing with you after I see it (I usually do) but that was still a great write up.

  • yocean

    So glad I am not missin anything good as I have determined to boycott this one. I do not care whatever excuses made. Yellowface is never ok. I hear in the book, they had same birthmarks to indicate the reincarnation to different race. And come on these people are called actors. If they can't act like they are the reincarnated same people then they do not deserve any money. Or do you think Asian can't act as well as Caucasians?

  • TheAggroCraig

    Sounds not so good. Now I'm going to think of happier things: Chris Farley as Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Yes, that's much better.

  • QueeferSutherland

    Dammit. Just.... dammit. Reading this is like hearing your kid lost the spelling bee in the first round on the word "fail." I had such high hopes for this film. Rarely is ambition on this scale realized. I had hoped the Wachowskis had cracked the code. Guess not.

  • FriendlyFace

    "the film’s goal is to keep you disoriented in the hopes that you’ll confuse banality for revelation." Yup, sounds like a Wachowski movie.

  • psemophile

    I went with a friend of mine who hadn't touched the novel (I've read half of it) and he hated it. I loved it.
    I can see why it can get frustrating for some people. There's the weird dialect, ofcourse, plus the haphazard way the film jumps in and out of stories. But there's a lot to be loved too.

  • Yossarian

    Your multiple references to frenetic editing is disheartening. Does this mean that the filmmakers elected not to follow the structure of the novel and instead jump back and forth between stories haphazardly? So the whole film is going to be like the trailer was?

    Of course I'm still going to see it. I'll just need to lower my already dampened expectations.

  • JoannaRobinson

    Yeah they eschewed the nesting doll format. Which, really, is the source of a lot of the "problems."

  • Archie Leach

    Wasn't this movie titled "Intolerance" in 1916?

  • Ozioma

    I swore off this movie as soon as I learned about the yellowface. Fuck that.

  • psemophile

    A Korean actress plays a white woman in two different stories.
    Take your yellowface accusations and shove it up someone's ass.

  • JoannaRobinson

    You know, I can't and won't write this film off based on the "yellowface." But you have to concede that Halle Berry and Doona Bae's "whiteface" just isn't the same. There's cultural history/baggage associated with "yellowface" that simply isn't there with "whiteface."

  • psemophile

    I think the filmmakers did that just because it went with the themes of the film. It might have been easy to just cast asian actors, but then they would have lost out on the reincarnation shtick that they were playing. I don't think their intentions were racist in the least bit.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    I was so hoping you would like it Dan because then it's probably I would like it too. I loved the book and have been giddily awaiting this film and thought that Tom Tykwer being involved was a good omen (because he could add depth the Wachowski's pretty). Good cast also made me optimistic. But now, I'm just so... bummed.

  • Stephen Nein

    So in other words - the Wachowskis have made their usual under-baked film.

    It’s almost as if the film’s goal is to keep you disoriented in the hopes that you’ll confuse banality for revelation. But diagnosis isn’t cure, and it’s not enough for the filmmakers to mumble vague things about connectedness and patterns and hope it’s the same as making an insight into human nature."

  • FriendlyFace

    I shoulda scrolled down and seen that you posted exactly the same thing as me.

  • space_oddity

    Yep, sounds like every other Wachowski movie to me. You either think they're profound auteurs or hacks who mistake a mishmash of Eastern and Western philosophy for deep thought.

  • Guest

    ^ This this this I've been saying since The Matrix this thank you this.

  • I love your thoughtful reviews and the way you write. The only way I'm likely to see this is if my sons want to go. Because hours spent with my kids are good hours, and even bad movies give us things to talk about.

  • Guest


  • Purplejebus

    I'm going to see it. Am on the second read of the novel. From this review, I assume it'll be visually stunning. But, in terms of dialogue and the handling of streams and flows of time, perhaps Tarantino should've tackled this one.

  • Abbey Road

    Maybe this is one of those where the film gives great visuals to the novel and the novel gives depth where the movie doesn't have room...? I'm thinking I need to read it THEN see it and both experiences will improve the other. Or is it a just-read?

  • DenG

    Agree. I'm wary--this film sounds a bit heavy-handed, and I don't tolerate "declaiming" very well.

  • Robert

    Reviews for this have been split right down the middle. It's either brilliant or terrible and the arguments for and against it are the same. It's not even a matter of people more or less willing to pull disparate pieces together for once. It's a you'll like it or you won't film.

  • junierizzle

    This is the kind of movie that you have to see for yourself even though reviews are bad. Good review but I'm still taking the plunge. And if Malick can get praise for "being ambitious", why can't anyone else?

  • junierizzle

    Okay, I've seen it. It was okay. Unfortunately it is nothing special, at least not for me. I give it credit for not feeling long. It is Damn near three hours but it was never boring. It is not confusing either. Its actually pretty simple despite all the different storylines and time jumps. It just didn't move me at all.

  • hapl0

    I'd add in Darren Aronofsky know, The Fountain? Hellooo?... No one? Still just me then.

  • junierizzle

    Ha. Now that you mention it, The Fountain>Cloud Atlas

  • hapl0

    Thank you!

    The way people are talking about Atlas it's as if The Fountain never existed.

    And I'm still trying hard to get my kinda bi female friend to finish watching it. I'm getting chloroform and ropes if she comes back to me all glowing about Atlas.

  • RudeMorgue

    Pix or it didn't happen.

  • TrinSpin

    I had a hard enough time reading the book. I have no desire to revisit these characters on film - great cast or no.

  • BWeaves

    So, why is the movie called "Cloud Atlas?"

    Is one of the characters writing a novel or a symphony called "Cloud Atlas," ala Colin Farrell's character in "Seven Psychopaths?"

    If so, why did they call their novel or symphony "Cloud Atlas?"

    Or is this all too meta for me to grasp?

  • JoannaRobinson

    There is a Cloud Atlas sextet but there is also an important moment when a character looks up and refers to the cloud atlas of the sky.

  • Slash

    Sounds exhausting. And not in a good way. It's bad enough when we get flashbacks or flash forwards in a movie or TV show. But 6 different time periods in the same movie? Pass.

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