Cloud Atlas review – another fine Wachowski mess

Cloud Atlas is compelling and confusing experience

There’s no middle ground with a film like Cloud Atlas. You’ll either greatly admire the ambitious undertaking to bring David Mitchell’s revered 2004 novel to the big screen. Just as likely Cloud Atlas will turn off by the scene-shifting and confusing script within the first 20-minutes. I’m definitely in the latter of this endlessly frustrating effort from filmmakers trying too hard to make you see their vision as a masterpiece instead of simply making one.  

Reiner Bajo/Warner Bros. Pictures
Vyvyan Ayers (JIM BROADBENT) and Robert Frobisher (BEN WHISHAW) work on a masterpiece.

Tom Tykwer joins forces with Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) on this massive century-spanning tale exploring reincarnation and how actions affect past, present and future. It’s a weighty subject and the directing/screenwriting trio offer a wealth of material for anyone willing to invest in multiple viewings to get all of its complexities.

Warner Bros. Pictures
[Front left] Yoona-939 (XUN ZHOU), 12th Star Clone (ZHU ZHU) and Sonmi-451 (DOONA BAE) prepare for another day’s shift.

The common thread is the girls (and boys) with the comet tattoo birthmark.  In one lifetime, they may be a wealthy musician while the next, they’re bumming money from everyone they encounter.

For others, we’re shown how their core nature is consistent as in the fascinating case of a slave owner (Hugh Grant) whose journey takes him through lives as a shady businessman, a slovenly restaurant owner to a murderous, cannibalistic warrior who is the physical representation of his predecessors.

Jay Maidment/Warner Bros. Pictures
HUGH GRANT as Kona Chief.

In one time frame, Halle Berry (Catwoman) may be an expose chasing journalist, a trophy wife in another or a male surgeon. Gender-switching is a common theme throughout to show there’s no telling how a person will be reincarnated in their next life, but lousy makeup ruins the impact and becomes an unintended running joke. The constant switching from different time periods also helps make the film hard to follow.

Reiner Bajo/Warner Bros. Pictures
(From left) Highlander (JIM STURGESS) prepares to lay out Nurse Noakes (HUGO WEAVING).

With a three-hour epic, it’s not all bad. The futuristic 2144 NeoSoul segment featuring a skilled freedom fighter Ha-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess, 21) saving a clone, Sonmi-451 (Doom Bae), is the Wachowkis at their Matrix-y best and would have made for a thrilling standalone film. They handle comedy surprisingly well in Timothy Cavendish’s (Jim Broadbent) funny subplot about the wacky ordeal of a literary agent, but in other segments they fail at truly providing a connection to the characters.

Of the performers, Tom Hanks (The Terminal) is most easily able to overcome the shoddy makeup to get you invested in his six, very different characters. Even in the 2321 post apocalyptic segment where Hanks’ Zachry is part of a tribe that looks like refugees from Battlefield Earth. Broadbent will be an audience favorite and Sturgess is a true standout.

From a visual standpoint, the film is gorgeous. Frank Griebe and John Toll’s cinematography provides an easy guide for the story’s current location with bright, booming colors for the 1849 South Pacific tale, shifting to an over saturated faded 1973 San Francisco to the glitzy Neo Soul.

For all its grandeur, the filmmakers stumble getting to the level to make the film a true epic. The characters are unremarkable and I wanted some significance to them worthy of the time spent with them.

The film’s crushing length of 172 minutes suggests the filmmakers were so in love with the material they couldn’t determine what was essential for the story and what could be spared for the special edition. There’s a sense that you should be enjoying it, but the film is too much of a chore to appreciate. Cloud Atlas is an overwhelming experience, but for all the wrong reasons.

Rating: 4 out of 10

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  • Pierre Mooney

    I want to see this movie, although it is apopletic movie which there have just been so many in recent years. It is a theme that people never seem to tire of. Your review makes it sound like a movie with many aspects that one might find entertaining although the makers did not achieve their goal of a masterpiece. I have learned not expect that masterpiece with these big movies. It only happens om rare occasions I believe.

  • It’s interesting at points, but others it fails miserably for me. I think it’s one that people are going to be really split on like “Prometheus.”

  • This is a good review. I found the film painfully hard to follow and was completely irritated by the post-apocalyptic dialogue between Hanks and Berry; it made no sense on any level. If they were speaking a mish-mash of languages or a new language, then they should have used sub-titles. The purpose of the film is to communicate a message, but if you can’t understand what an actor is saying, what’s the point? The Jar Jar Binks comparison is totally apropos.

    The many characters playing different roles was added confusion because you didn’t necessarily know if it was just an actor playing a new character or if this was the same character through time. This must have been a nightmare to edit because it just seemed randomly cut and you are literally jumping everywhere, not knowing why.

    I agree that the futuristic scenes were, by far, the most intriguing and could have been a movie on its own. However, I found some of the messaging from Somni-451 a little much and too new agey after awhile and just wanted to get back to the action. With a theme of connectedness, the movie sure seemed disconnected, jumbled, and fragmeted to me.

    Also, at the credit scroll, they showed the actors in their various roles and thought that was interesting because they did such heavy makeup on some characters, like the Hugh Grant one, you didn’t even know that was him, so the whole theme of reincarnation was lost because you didn’t know that was him in the first place.

  • Thanks Kevin
    Yeah, I really felt like this had potential as it started, but then it just more and more silly.

    I’d long since felt worn down by the film and missed the credit scroll and it sounds like that was pretty interesting.

    Thanks for reading!

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  • Anonymous

    Absolutely beautiful film. I am stunned that so many people say the can’t follow it.

  • I could definitely see why people would enjoy it. I just just didn’t like it.

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