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Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski

Premise: An adaptation of the novel by David Mitchell. The film alternates between interweaving narratives about people in different times coping with issues like identity, greed, love, consciousness, and revolution.

What Works: Cloud Atlas is an ambitious attempt to capture a broad existential truth or, more simply, to grasp the meaning of life. Despite the loftiness of their goals, the filmmakers mostly succeed at what they are trying to do and manage to create a complex but coherent panorama. Cloud Atlas crosscuts between narratives that take place across a wide spectrum of time from the mid-1800s to the distant future and it is a very well edited film. Despite running just under three hours it moves along at a brisk pace and at no point does it lag or suffer from padding. The filmmakers demonstrate a lot of discipline in their filmmaking and the way they crosscut between the stories is very effective, often concluding a chapter of one story in a way that informs or transitions into the next story. Cloud Atlas is a bold film in part because of its scope and visual spectacle, but also because it is a movie that challenges its audience. This is a thoughtful film that confronts the audience with recurrent images of individuals struggling to assert their humanity against overwhelming systems of oppression and the way the film juxtaposes the historical oppression of slavery with exploitation in a fantastical future suggests a broad critique of how we live. The other way the filmmakers of Cloud Atlas challenge their audience is in ways the film makes viewers think about identity. Cloud Atlas repeats the same cast of core actors in different roles in each of the narratives, sometimes playing characters of different ethnicities or genders. This has provoked some angry critical reactions but it is done for the purpose of suggesting that identity is broader than skin tone or sex. It is these kinds of filmmaking choices that distinguish Cloud Atlas from the many science fiction and fantasy films crowding the marketplace and it manages to be epic not only as a visual spectacle but as a philosophical investigation and a social critique. 

What Doesn’t: Cloud Atlas was co-written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, who had previously written and directed The Matrix trilogy and written the screenplay for V for Vendetta. One of the popular detractions of the Wachowski’s is that their use of philosophical ideas is merely intellectual window dressing for what are otherwise mindless action pictures. That charge has been made disingenuously, often advanced by critics who were unable or too lazy to engage with the ideas of the films. However, the Wachowski’s do have a habit of letting intellectual pursuits and grand spectacle supersede the storytelling of their films (most notably in The Matrix Revolutions and the ending of V for Vendetta) and some of those same flaws are present in Cloud Atlas as well. This film is a narrative kaleidoscope—it has to be for the filmmakers to deal with the big issues that they address—but some of the stories suffer. Like a lot of films with interweaving storylines, the filmmakers struggle to keep all the narrative plates spinning and characters are often shallow. That is excusable because Cloud Atlas is bigger than the sum of its parts but the success of the film is dependent upon the viewer making the effort to engage with it. And that means the biggest determining factor in a viewer’s reception of Cloud Atlas is whether or not he or she is open to the ideas of it. Cloud Atlas is a cornucopia of different political, philosophical, and spiritual ideas and although they are coherent and make a fascinating tableau the film is underlined by an unshakably optimistic disposition. How a viewer receives the ideas of Cloud Atlas may ultimately rest on how cynical or hopeful he or she is.

Bottom Line: It is rare in contemporary filmmaking for a movie to be breathtaking. In the digital age, films of epic scope are commonplace but they are also frequently meaningless. The filmmakers of Cloud Atlas attempt and mostly succeed at combining epic filmmaking with intellectual inquiry and thereby restoring awe to the movie going experience. This film may not be perfect but like Inception or 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cloud Atlas is a masterful demonstration of the potentials of cinema.

Episode: #414 (November 11, 2012)