Cloud Atlas on cloud nine

By on November 6, 2012

Once I had a girlfriend that would read several books at once, saying that she got into different moods and would switch books depending on her frame of mind. I asked her how she could possibly keep all of the plotlines and characters straight in her head and she said that she’d always done it that way, so she was used to it. Boy, have I got a movie for her.

"Cloud Atlas" has been declared on of the most "ambitious" movies this year by Yahoo's "Movie Talk." Warner Brothers

“Cloud Atlas” is the movie equivalent of that approach, and that’s putting it mildly. I honestly can’t think of a movie I knew less about going in, despite having seen the trailer and various interviews with two of the film’s stars, Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. All I knew was that many of the leading actors play multiple roles and that it apparently had something to do with past lives…or something. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the 2004 multi-award-winning novel by David Mitchell, but I may just have to, because I’m just as confused now as I was when I sat down to watch it.)
“Cloud Atlas” is one of those movies that people say things about like: “It’s not a movie you explain, it’s a movie you experience.” Now, as a longtime critic, this is not a foreign notion to me by any means. Still, I couldn’t make heads or tails of this movie, and I suspect that this is one of those films you enjoy but have to read the book to fully understand. The good news is that it was indeed interesting and intriguing.

In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to review it on these admittedly shaky foundations. First of all, the good news. After the disastrous “Speed Racer,” the Wachowskis have fully redeemed themselves with this one; that film was all surface spectacle and empty-brained everywhere else, and “Cloud Atlas” manages to wow both as eye candy and food for thought.

I would say that perhaps the presence of additional director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) helped to temper them somewhat from their worst tendencies as directors, but it seems that each directed different sections of the film independently of one another. What is true is that the more sci-fi related elements are directed by the Wachowskis. Though one is decidedly better than the other–I preferred the tale about the Asian rebels over the one about villager Tom Hanks and alien Halle Berry– it’s definitely a step up from “Speed Racer,” if not quite up to the standards of their “Matrix” trilogy.

The rebel one is like “Galaxina”meets“Soylent Green” and I do mean that as a compliment. Or, if you prefer, it’s also kind of like “Cherry 2000” meets “Blade Runner.” Think sexy robots rebelling against their evil overlords and you’re on the right track…I think.

The other one is like “Apocalypto”-meets-“Grapes of Wrath” or… something. What was up with that wacky dialect? I almost laughed out loud every time! It was like this weird mix of the past and future, but with little explanation why. I’d have to say the latter was my least favorite of the intertwining tales, if only because it confused me needlessly. I understood what was going on, but why it was told the way it was confused me endlessly.

Meanwhile, Tykwer tackles a touching tale of a gay composer, an old-school 70s-style whistleblower thriller- think “All the President’s Men”- as well as a slight, if still amusing, tale about a wily old publisher that gets into some hot water when he runs afoul of a thug, as well as his own brother. His stuff is the most engaging and crowd-pleasing of the bunch, without the weirdness that permeates the aforementioned Wachowski stuff.

Last but not least is another Wachowski-helmed tale about a forward-thinking young man and his misadventures on a ship involving a runaway slave and a dubious doctor. If all of the above sounds oddly familiar, it should. It’s as if the film were a combination of many of this year’s releases spliced into one sprawling film: a little “Argo” here, a little “Django Unchained” there, a bit of “The Master”-style esotery… and how about a pinch of “Prometheus” for good measure?

This is not to say the film is simply ripping those movies off- after all, the book’s been out for some time, and the film was probably shot around the same time as those other films- but damned if it doesn’t play like a greatest hits of the year compilation. I almost wish I’d seen it at the end of the year- it would have made for a nice summation on all the films I liked!
Okay, so the bottom line is this: I don’t even know how to begin to describe a film that shifts through time willy-nilly and often cuts between seemingly unrelated story lines and characters right in the middle of the action, just when things are getting exciting. It also does so for nearly three hours, so there’s that as well, which I have no doubt will scare off some potential viewers, at least in theaters.

No, visual splendor notwithstanding, this is the type of film you’re going to want to watch at home, where you can take breaks as needed and rewind and fast forward and maybe even watch each story chronologically to make sense of it all.

If you manage to do so, by all means let me know what the hell it all means!

In the meantime, I will give this a moderate recommendation for the more adventurous filmgoers out there. It’s overlong, it drags in places, and things do not fully come together in the end quite the way you hope they will, but “Cloud Atlas” is never less than fascinating and beautiful to look at, so there’s that.

It’s also a step in the right direction for the Wachowskis as well. I’m sure they had lots of fun shooting that scene where a critic gets thrown off a building to his death. Hopefully, they’ll let me slide this time, as I did like the film…I just didn’t entirely understand it.

But hey, there are worse things you could say about a movie than it made the viewer think. In fact, that’s a pretty good thing, when you think about it. After all, isn’t the overall goal for all filmmakers to both entertain and make a film that sticks with the viewer long afterward? Done and done.

Grade: A

Mark Trammell
Staff Writer

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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