Review: Cloud Atlas – A Bet On Artistic Ambition That Pays Off

October 28, 2012


“What is the ocean,” a character toward the end of Cloud Atlas replies to the charge that he is about to waste his life on a cause that can’t make a difference, “but millions of drops of water?”  It is this idea more than anything else – the interconnectivity that makes life greater than the sum of our parts – that enables Cloud Atlas to make such a bold, successful transition from novel to screen.

The 3-hour epic by the writing/directing team of Lana & Andrew Wachowski (The Matrix, Bound) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) is a stunning accomplishment of incredible ambition.  It is a flawed film, and there are certainly moments and elements in which the film’s ambition exceeds its grasp, but its flaws are understandable – because this is a film that swings for the fences in every capacity.

Based on the novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas interweaves 6 stories spanning centuries, beginning with a Pacific sailing vessel in the mid-1800’s and reaching to the far future, “106 Winters After The Fall,” when humanity is only the barest, primitive remnant of itself.

The novel itself would seem unfilmmable for its complexity, but where the filmmakers succeed is by drawing certain thematic elements of the novel to the surface – such as outsiders disrupting the system and the slow, often failed, search for redemption – and letting that guide what becomes a meta-narrative about the idea that each life is greater than its personal, mortal existence.

Like the 6 stories themselves, the film feels choppy and hard to connect at first, but gradually as the film progresses, the editing becomes smoother and more elegant, until the stories seem to almost melt in to one another.  It is masterfully constructed and edited.

Unlike the novel, which gives each story 2 chapters except the 6th (a structure which would not translate to film) Cloud Atlas continually interweaves the stories, at times spending several minutes on a single narrative, at others dwelling only for a line or two.

Certain storylines take to this, such as the one in the furthest future and – in particular – the early-1900’s tale of Robert Frobisher, a young man who moves in with an aging composer in the hopes of finding artistic and commercial success.  Others, while still entertaining, suffer for it; in particular, the story of Luisa Rey, a journalist in 1973 San Francisco who stumbles upon a terrible conspiracy within the energy industry – a storyline which ends up feeling rushed and incomplete.

The story of Sonmi – a clone in servitude who gradually becomes the face of attempted revolution in Corprocratic 2144 Seoul – is the most exciting and visually arresting thread.  It could easily be its own film, and would probably be a tremendous commercial success. But this is not a film that strives to be merely “successful.”

Each of the principle actors plays several roles throughout each narrative storyline, and for the most part, they succeed.  The casting of actors in multiple roles can be, of course, a most hackneyed gimmick.  In this case, however, by doing so – and doing so across age, racial, and gender lines – the story becomes one of transmigration of souls and the Kantian idea that redemption and growth can take more than a single lifetime – centuries, even.  And this is where the film’s ambition really comes together.  The filmmakers take their time with this central notion, letting it evolve and manifest naturally rather than throwing it at us through awkward exposition. This is a film that trusts the intelligence of its audience; that wants you to be an active participant.

And again, this is a flawed film, but its flaws lie within the details of its attempts at greatness.  There is nothing safe or mediocre in the film.  This notion of our lives being drops that make up an ocean may not be in and of itself revolutionary, but the execution of it is.  It is, in many ways, a singular achievement.  It is exciting, it is funny, it is fun, it is thought-provoking.  It is a film that I cannot imagine leaving and not having something to say about.

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About The Byronic Man

Recently voted "The Best Humor Site in America That I, Personally, Write," The Byronic Man is sometimes fiction, but sometimes autobiography. And sometimes cultural criticism. Oh, and occasionally reviews. Okay, it's all those different things, but always humorous. Except on the occasions that it's not. Ah, geez. Look, it's a lot of things, okay? You might like it, is the point.

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35 Comments on “Review: Cloud Atlas – A Bet On Artistic Ambition That Pays Off”

  1. WSW Says:

    Just one question: How did you manage to take in a movie with a newborn at home? Impressive.


  2. Luddy's Lens Says:

    Ooo, yay! Hopefully I’ll convince the hubby to see this one with me. It sounds as expansive and complicated as “Vanilla Sky” and “Beloved” — two other “flawed” films that we really loved.

    Thanks for the review. Really looking forward to seeing it.


  3. Michelle Gillies Says:

    I’m with WSW. I was trying to figure out how you got free for a 3 hour movie? I have been trying to carve out the time all weekend to see this movie and I have no children at all never mind a newborn. Byronic Woman is a saint I tell you , a saint!


    • The Byronic Man Says:

      Oh, no – she was there too. What? You think 2 weeks is to soon to leave a child to look after themselves? I don’t know, you can’t coddle them forever. It’s a tough world.

      Actually, it was our anniversary, so we got some parental babysitting so we could go to dinner and a movie, then collapse in to bed, muttering ‘H’ppy ‘Nversry.”


  4. musingsoftheamusingmuse Says:

    Thank you for the review! I saw the previews the other week when I wasn’t fast-forwarding through commercials on the DVR and it looked interesting. DH saw the previews as well and now we’re in the “see it at the theatre or wait for it to come out on disc” mode.


  5. angrymiddleagewoman Says:

    Good for you and Byronic Mama! My brother-in-law and his wife’s oldest daughter was born ON their anniversary so that has made for very interesting celebrations. I’m so glad you reviewed this movie! I have seen the trailer but would not have wasted my time had I not read your review. Hmm, and I thought I only read your blog for entertainment.

    PS I’m also impressed that both of you stayed awake during the movie!


    • angrymiddleagewoman Says:

      That sounded a little weird – I meant that before I read your review, I thought this movie would have been a waste of my time. LOL – sorry, I’ve been reviewing budgets for 2 weeks straight and now can only communicate through numbers…..


  6. Go Jules Go Says:

    Very nice review! And I see from the comments I owe you a belated Happy Anniversary!

    I’m completely intrigued by the idea of actors playing multiple roles. I also have to give credit to anyone who takes on the weaving together of story lines like this; that is not easy. Most days I can barely string together 6 sentences.


  7. angeliquejamail Says:

    This reminds me of the film Being Human, which was not well executed, but thematically similar (if I remember correctly — it’s been a LONG time).

    Great review, regardless. I’m going to share it. 🙂

    Happy anniversary! Ours is today.


    • The Byronic Man Says:

      It is thematically similar – wow, I haven’t thought about that movie in a long time. It was a good idea but, you’re right, not well executed.

      And Happy Anniversary to you, too!


  8. benzeknees Says:

    Lots of October anniversaries here in our corner of the blog world – ours was Oct. 6. Congrats on yours! And especially congrats on getting out & about just 2 weeks after your new addition! Very tough for some people to do. And it’s great you have the support of grandparents to allow you to get away!


  9. 1pointperspective Says:

    While I know it’s sacrilege, I’m going to have to wait till it comes out on DVD. 3 hours in a dark theater will have me sleeping in no time, regardless of how incredible the movie might be.


  10. August McLaughlin Says:

    Thanks for this helpful review! Not sure if I’ll catch the film in theaters, but it’s on my ‘maybe’ list.


  11. susielindau Says:

    It sounds like one I would have to think about while watching. Will I need to take notes too? 🙂 I haven’t read the book.


  12. She's a Maineiac Says:

    Even if it may be a bit flawed, I still want to see it. I’ll probably wait for it on DVD, though. Maybe I can read the book first in the meantime.


  13. pegoleg Says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking review. I may actually get up off of my Barcalounger and go to the theater for this.


    • The Byronic Man Says:

      How come your posts never show up in my “Reader”? (It’s rhetorical – I assume you don’t know). I’ve un-followed and re-followed a couple times, then you’re there for a while, and then vanish.


      • pegoleg Says:

        I’ve asked the WordPress gods several times about this, and they can’t find anything wrong. Meanwhile, my stats continue to circle down the drain. Of course I haven’t posted in over a week so… yeah, my fault there.

        Hope you are getting some sleep with your adorable, brilliant (War and Peace? Really?) bebe.


  14. interstitial_squirrel Says:

    Dad and I really enjoyed Cloud Atlas when we went to see it yesterday. I’m curious: what are your thoughts on the use of makeup to portray a character of a certain race though the actor is of a different race, particularly in Neo Seoul?


    • The Byronic Man Says:

      Well, as a general rule I’d say “Oh God, NO,” since it’s almost impossible to do A) convincingly and B) without looking like a racist caricature.

      In this case, however, because the film is about migration of souls and our lives extending beyond our selves, I liked it. I almost would have preferred they skip the make-up and basically “tell” us that Hugo Weaving is a Korean man, or whatever – but I get that that would require more explanation than it’d be worth.


  15. Blogdramedy Says:

    So this is a film for an educated audience. And here I was looking forward to the next Star Trek.


  16. travellingmo Says:

    Wow! When I first heard of this film, I was not too sure. Now that I’ve read your review though, I’m totally on board! This sounds most intriguing.


  17. Sandy Sue Says:

    Just saw this today and will go back again and again. So much there to glean. So much visual lusciousness.


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