Share

Andrew O’Hehir on the “dazzling tapestry” of Cloud Atlas

One of the few critics who seems willing to give himself over to its fearless exuberant head-tripping labyrinth, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir says “Cloud Atlas is a flawed and potentially ridiculous work and I loved it, and can’t wait to see it a second time (and then a third). Indeed, all of that is connected…”

I can appreciate a well-crafted work of Hollywood formula that gives the audience what it already knows it wants, at least up to a point, but I often come away feeling restless and unsatisfied. I’d almost always rather see the rare kind of pop spectacle that takes enormous risks, that reaches for grand themes, big ideas and operatic emotions, even if it makes indefensible mistakes along the way. That’s what “Cloud Atlas” is, the kind of oversize, overpriced movie that critic Stuart Klawans described in his book “Film Follies.” (The classic example would be D.W. Griffith’s silent epic “Intolerance,” which serves as a major model and influence here.) “Cloud Atlas” is arguably way too much of a good thing, with too many characters, too many stories, too many directors – Tom Tykwer of “Run Lola Run” and “Perfume,” and Andy and Lana Wachowski (né Larry) of the “Matrix” trilogy — and too much running time. But its too-muchness is also the source of its power; I was absolutely never bored, and felt surprised when the movie ended. It’s an amazing, baffling, thrilling and (for many, it would appear) irritating experience, and for my money the most beautiful and distinctive big-screen vision of the year.

…Purely at a cinematic level, “Cloud Atlas” is full of eye-popping delights, a puzzle movie and an anthology movie that incorporates numerous different genres and styles. The directing duties were actually divided, with Tykwer tackling the romantic saga of a suicidal gay composer in 1936, a thrilling tale of “China Syndrome”-style nuclear intrigue in 1973 (arguably my favorite) and the present-day comic melodrama of a bankrupt London publisher imprisoned in a mental hospital, while the Wachowskis handled both the distant past and even more distant future. (Tykwer uses his customary cinematographer, Frank Griebe, while the Wachowski segments are shot by Hollywood vet John Toll.) But I never thought about any stylistic differences while watching, and indeed the transitions between stories – often staged as the literal or figurative opening of doors – are so witty and imaginative I frequently laughed out loud. (Hollywood will be thoroughly confused by this film in general, but I imagine it will be up for numerous technical Oscars, including editing, production design and costume design.)

I don’t want to get too deep into geeky exegesis in an early review, but “Cloud Atlas” isn’t about reincarnation, at least not in the most familiar sense. (Although it may, in some metaphorical way, be about evolution.) Berry and Hanks and the others don’t play the same characters by any means – in fact, only one of Hanks’s characters is unambiguously heroic – and it’s much more than your basic romantic parables about lovers who can’t be separated by death. One possible interpretation, however, would be that the same characters or archetypes (the rebel prophet, the enforcer for the powerful, the killer devoured by greed, the courier or messenger) reappear in each story, and throughout human history, in various guises.

I can understand why some people will back away from “Cloud Atlas” because it seems overloaded and pretentious and sentimental and infused with a spiritual vision that resembles the wise sayings found on the walls of organic-food cooperatives. It is all those things, but so (even more so) is Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” and I’m way more likely to want to watch this one again. It’s funny, violent and prodigiously romantic; it has immense heart and more gorgeous cinematic moments than I can describe. If this movie is overgrown and chaotic where Donne’s sonnet is tiny and controlled, that’s the nature of our age; what they aim to accomplish is the same.

27 Comments on this Post

  1. Fantastic!

  2. Yawn. Stop trying to sell it, okay?

  3. moviewatcher

    Dean treadway: if you were saying this about almost any other movie I would agree. But Cloud Atlas needs selling and it needs it bad. Its going to be a massive flop commercially and extremely polarizing critically. It will never make up to 150 million dollars in the US. That is, unless Tom Hank’s brilliant appearences on ferguson, colbert, fallon and letterman pay off. I mean, the guy’s been working his ass off to sell it, but it probably won’t be enough.

  4. Whatever the critical consensus or box office take is for Cloud Atlas, I think it will have staying power in the decades to come.

    Just a reminder, here are a few critical and/or box office “bombs” that grew legs and have lasted – forever:

    The Wizard of Oz
    Fight Club
    Donny Darko
    Rocky Horror Picture Show
    The Stunt Man (yay)
    Duck Soup
    It’s a Wonderful Life
    Raging Bull
    Blade Runner
    Shawshank Redemption
    Mulholland Drive
    The Gods Must Be Crazy
    The Big Lebowski
    (need I remind anybody?) Citizen Kane

    They were all oddballs when compared to standard fare, but each became an inspiration for their unique visions, and it appears that Cloud Atlas could indeed fall into that category.

  5. I LOVE THE MOVIE. SO EPIC! best original score is a shoe in

  6. Steve:

    I was scrolling down your list of box office bombs throughout history and hoping you would list one of my favorite movies of all time.

    Et voila! There it was.

    “Blade Runner” was a bomb when it was first released. I remember being in the theater with only five or six other people during a matinee one afternoon. And the movie just blew me away. It still does.

    Reverse psychology working here, because I had not even wanted to see this movie until reading how the public has shunned it. Usually, that peaks my interest because the masses can embrace some pretty godawful material at times (e.g., Hot Tub Time Machine, and all of those teenager slicer movies).

  7. Can’t wait to see it tonight on a big screen!

  8. The Gods Must Be Crazy! does not stand the test of time maybe. I saw a bit of The Gods Must Be Crazy 2 at the laundromat a few months ago- now that might have some lasting power.

  9. I’m proud to say that I saw the first screening of Blade Runner the Friday it opened (a year or two later I was helping out the Phil Dick literary estate) and was blown away.

    Cloud Atlas is going to match it as a film most critics didn’t get that will end up as a classic. And I find it rewarding to have decided a year ago, after reading maybe a thousand reviews of hundreds of movies, that O’Hehir and Ebert were the only two critics whose judgments were reliable. Ebert loved it, too. So I know all three of us are right. :)

    Vertigo got mostly negative reviews, I understand.

  10. I have a thing for movies in where different storylines are somehow connected to each other in the end.
    So that sounds Cloud Atlas could be a right movie for me.

    Can’t wait to see it. 8)

  11. I agree with your reading of the movie as not being about reincarnation, Ryan. The movie is more about how our ancestors’ exploits inform our own; how history repeats itself and how stories become myths that shape the future. My reaction to the movie ran the gamut, but I left feeling generally pleased with what I saw, if not exactly blown away. I worry that some of the advance praise built the movie up in my head too much for it to ever live up to that. But I respect the hell out of the filmmakers for having the nerve to indulge all their creative impulses, no matter how corny or messy, and leave it all up on the screen.

  12. I saw it earlier today and loved it. It’s my new favorite of the year. I’ve only read Sasha’s review. I’m scared of the rest.

    I actually did think it was perfect. The nod to Carlos Castaneda threw me for a loop. You know I normally don’t read books but I read those and they’re probably responsible for a lot of my weirdness. :) I tried to write my comments on my lj but it ate it, so I’ll do it again later. But suffice it to say it replaces TDKR at the top of my list and I was strongly emotionally connected to that trilogy. I felt pretty bad about having to replace it honestly. :( But it’s the true true.

    But I disagree with you on one thing, I think it IS about reincarnation. Although my own views about life and the afterlife are closer to what you said. I don’t want to do spoilers either. But when it’s time. Let me know.

  13. I completely agree with this review. Flawed but brilliant. I’ll be back for seconds and thirds.

    As an aside though, do people realize how offensive it is to bring up a trans* individual’s “birth” name? Always makes me cringe.

  14. Wow, I just got back from seeing it, what a mind f***! My friends and I were pretty speechless after it was over. I need more time to think about it, but I think I liked it. What a movie…

  15. Ryan, I have a suggestion. I think it is better if you like make a link or discussion board or article where we can talk about a particular film like CLOUD ATLAS without worrying about spoilers. ^_^ SPOILER DISCUSSION something like that lol so that we can express our opinions freely. Seen Cloud Atlas twice now…STILL SPECTACULAR, MARVELOUS, EPIC!

  16. Dean Treadway is wrong

    Dean Treadway / October 27, 2012

    Yawn. Stop trying to sell it, okay?

    Wrong

  17. saw ‘cloud atlas’ tonight and i barely know what to say. only the passing years will tell if this becomes a cinematic classic … it certainly has that potential. today, i might have liked it but i’m not sure yet. a few days ago, i was full of anticipation and felt deeply drawn to it, yet i sensed a premonition of intrigued bewilderment. someday, i may love this film. a few hundred years from now, i might even have the capacity to fully understand what i saw. for now, maybe the experience was enough. can’t wait to see it again tomorrow … 

  18. Well, I saw it tonight…and I apologize. I was wrong. CLOUD ATLAS is utterly captivating–one of my very favorites of the year. And you’re right—it needs talking up. It’s a movie I feel a lot of people are afraid of, and it’s been terribly misunderstood by most critics, who somehow have something against its warmth, humor, ambition, exquisite technical craft, far-reaching philosophy, daring acting, and simply dazzling…well, EVERYTHING. I just adored it. So I just wanted to say I was, indeed, wrong. By the way, if there were any justice, they’d be nominating this for Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Broadbent), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects and Makeup.

  19. Like your honesty, Dean.

    Some of the best movie experiences happen when you enter the theatre with low expectations and exit blown away. I don’t get to see it until later this coming week, but I was a bit worried the opposite would occur – expectations are so high that I was preparing to be disappointed (that is, until I saw the remarks from several bellwether posters above).

  20. You are right Dean. Jim Broadbent’s performance was awesome and funny.

  21. Marion Magura

    Feel very sorry for Tom Tykwer, the Wachowski’s, and most of all for X-FILME, a German production company. They took most of the risk, financially and creatively. Maybe more time would have been necessary to write that script, of a novel, that as been doomed as unfilmable by many, beforehand. The directors bragged about it even, that they wrote the scipt together on a family holiday in a couple of weeks. What a waste of money and talent, if it does not pay off in the end. “Development Hell” is terrible of course, but had they taken a little more time and concentration, and “let’s talk this over again”-mentality” to develop this gem, it would have been less hurting. Now it’s OUT THERE, nothing can be changed anymore. And when it bombs, it bombs. And you cannot revert time. Sorry about it.
    Best, marion

  22. Jim Broadbent was hilarious! But I have loved him in many movies, he is so talented!

  23. Antoinette

    What a waste of money and talent, if it does not pay off in the end.

    Why don’t you go read the Wall Street Journal or go watch the Bloomberg channel? If all that matters to you is money, you shouldn’t be wasting your time on a blog that’s about art. Art is always worth it. This film is a work of art. You probably haven’t even seen it.

    Worst, Antoinette :P

  24. Ray Butlers

    I was expecting something fascinating/cerebral but a little silly (like The Matrix), but I was stunned by how rich and haunting this film was. All of the Wachowiski’s flaws are absent (dodgy casting, overcooked action, inconsistent tone, talkiness) and it’s wonderful to see these filmmakers grow to full maturity while maintaining their integrity and sense of wonder. All of the performances are fresh and haunting (Keith David makes a strong impact in a small role; Hugh Grant has never been this edgy; Tom Hanks shows his great strengths as a dramatic actor, Sarandon underplays agreeably, Broadbent can make me laugh by simply opening his eyes). This seems to be simultaneously the most innocent and the most wise film ever made, rich with allusions and association that work beautifully. Bravo.

  25. Ray, and what can you say about the amazing performances by Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Halle Berry,and Donna Bae? ^_^

  26. rufussondheim

    A note about the tone, but I wish it were more disjointed, but then the way they chose to edit the stories together rather than keep them mostly separated prevented that decision. If the tone had been more varying between the stories, it might have made it a more difficult viewing experience, but I think the effort the viewer would have had to put into it would have paid off in the end.

    Glad to see so many people loving the film. Now read the book!

  27. (rufus – I expected more!!)
    Sorry to be so late coming to this discussion, but I just saw Cloud Atlas this past weekend. I was a fan of the book when it was first published, re-read it when I saw that the film was on the way, and have since started it for a third time. I’ve also read most of the posts here and several others elsewhere online, including Mitchell’s reaction to the film, as well as many reviews, both prior to and after viewing the film. To go Dickensian for a second, they are all right and they are all wrong.

    Moving, clunky in bits, inspired, and original, each in perfect proportion to the other, make Cloud Atlas one of the best times I’ve had at the movies in a long time. I cannot recall another film that entices one back for more viewings as congenially as this one does.

    First, the structure: The structure of the book is unfilmable. That was my biggest fear going in. The detail required in each of the individual six segments would be taxing in the theater in short form and the risk too great that the work would bog down and ultimate connections would be missed. It was a huge relief to see an editing coup. Mitchell himself described the film structure best in the Wall Street Journal article, “… I believed that “Cloud Atlas” would never be made into a movie. I was half right. It has now been adapted for the screen, but as a sort of pointillist mosaic: We stay in each of the six worlds just long enough for the hook to be sunk in, and from then on the film darts from world to world at the speed of a plate-spinner, revisiting each narrative for long enough to propel it forward.”

    Plate-spinning is the perfect metaphor because that is exactly what it is. And it works like a charm. Definitely a form of manipulation, but one that doesn’t manipulate simply to get a sentimental response. The maneuver is to put forward an idea that invokes its own emotional response when the viewer realizes it. Big difference, and instead of resenting the move, I find myself appreciating the finesse. Big, big kudos to the editing and music in Cloud Atlas – I’ve never gotten misty-eyed over broken dishes before.

    The metaphysical side: OK, even though Mitchell himself has used the word “reincarnation” to describe his work, I fall firmly in the “parallel lives” camp. I see reincarnation as linear and, without going into closed spin networks to deeply (where time is not linear but basically irrelevant), the structure of both the book and the film suggests that these stories are happening almost simultaneously. Ryan’s comparison to the overlapping petals of a rose is bang on. Recognition of other characters, events and even music suggests previous encounters perhaps during a dream state where time as defined by the conscious state is irrelevant. Maybe it’s not too much to suggest that the next time you have insomnia, one of your other selves has experienced an “untimely” end and is waiting for a reboot. It’s a stretch, but entertaining.

    Some of the individual stories work better than others, but that has to be put down to individual taste. I initially found The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish to be the weakest in it’s slapstick execution, but remembering it later when the movie version is so revered by Somni 451, I’m now guessing that Tykwer intended it imitate that style of the movie farce. Like Chaplin, comic style fades over the decades while the underlying social commentary rises to the top, inspiring someone like Somni 451 with its “escape” theme.

    The most engaging story, by far, was “Letters from Zedelghem” and I wanted more. I’ve only seen Ben Whishaw in a few things, but he was the standout in the cast for me. This, imo, was his Brad Pitt/Thelma & Louise role – big things coming for him.

    Close behind were Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess in the Somni-451 segment. Hanks, Berry, Broadbent and Weaving did what they do best – no complaints whatsoever. Hugh Grant, I think, invigorated his career by bravely reaching from cad to cannibal. More D’Arcy would have been nice, even if, in drag, he looks like the reincarnation of Rachel Roberts (could it be?) :
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-f7_7-bwY-UA/TWBmtrfZ5SI/AAAAAAAACBU/Ji1jYokf8r4/s1600/Rachel+Roberts+-+Murder+on+the+Orient+Express.gif
    (apologies if the link doesn’t work)

    I’ve already run on beyond anybody’s attention span, especially today. Maybe Cloud Atlas isn’t the best film of the year, but it’s the first step in an exciting new way to present stories onscreen.

Leave a Comment

Warning: Do not abuse your right to comment here. You will be deleted.