I have found there to be two types of film critics in all of my years reading and watching how film criticism has evolved for the past 13 years or so. There are those who prefer to remain always the objective observer, studying whether the film “works” or not. Occasionally, a film will break through that objectivity and move them greatly, much to their surprise. But another kind of critic, perhaps the modern day blogger, affords themselves the opportunity to simply let go, even if it means going against the status quo, because they are more fan than critic. Roger Ebert is neither of these, though he is closer to the former than the latter. He isn’t someone who allows him emotions to get in the way of his analysis, and yet, he doesn’t dismiss a film that has that ability.
On the other side of the spectrum are many a good bad review of Cloud Atlas. There are plenty of those. I am not sure of what use they are to you other than to tell you not to buy a ticket to the movie. At any rate, there are three reviews you should definitely read before you see it. One is by Roger Ebert, one by Owen Gleiberman at EW and the other, AO Scott from the NY Times. It is also worth reading the debate between Lisa Schwarzbaum and B. Ruby Rich who toss the ball back and forth.
Ebert’s review describes the movie I saw. If you go in looking for it to make sense you will have a hard time with it. If you trust the storytellers are taking you somewhere worthwhile it will work its magic on you. But you have to wait about 45 minutes on your first viewing. My second viewing was a deeper, richer experience. I got more what it was about. But I cried both times. I feel like this film and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master are two opposing declarations of the human experience as I’ve come to know it. You could probably add in Life of Pi, I suppose, though it is less difficult to understand. The Master is uniquely grounded on the planet earth. It is a story about a specific culture. Cloud Atlas is more cosmic, less grounded. Both drill through our collective core. Gobbledygook? Perhaps. I like Ebert’s review which says, don’t even bother trying to understand it.
Surely this is one of the most ambitious films ever made. The little world of film criticism has been alive with interpretations of it, which propose to explain something that lies outside explanation. Any explanation of a work of art must be found in it, not taken to it. As a film teacher, I was always being told by students that a film by David Lynch, say, or Warner Herzog, was “a retelling of the life of Christ, say, or ‘Moby Dick.’ ” My standard reply was: Maybe it’s simply the telling of itself.
Yet “Cloud Atlas” cries out for an explanation, and surely you’ve noticed that I’ve been tap-dancing around one. I could tell you that it relates six stories taking place between the years 1849 and 2346. I could tell you that the same actors appear in different roles, playing characters of different races, genders and ages. Some are not even human, but fabricants. I could tell you that the acting and makeup are so effective that often I had no idea if I was looking at Tom Hanks, Halle Berry or Jim Broadbent. I could tell you that, and what help is it?
I was never, ever bored by “Cloud Atlas.” On my second viewing, I gave up any attempt to work out the logical connections between the segments, stories and characters. What was important was that I set my mind free to play. Clouds do not really look like camels or sailing ships or castles in the sky. They are simply a natural process at work. So too, perhaps, are our lives. Because we have minds and clouds do not, we desire freedom. That is the shape the characters in “Cloud Atlas” take, and how they attempt to direct our thoughts. Any concrete, factual attempt to nail the film down to cold fact, to tell you what it “means,” is as pointless as trying to build a clockwork orange.
But, oh, what a film this is! And what a demonstration of the magical, dreamlike qualities of the cinema. And what an opportunity for the actors. And what a leap by the directors, who free themselves from the chains of narrative continuity. And then the wisdom of the old man staring into the flames makes perfect sense.
And AO Scott is more mixed, though somewhat inexplicably, when he writes:
Maybe the achievement of “Cloud Atlas” should be quantified rather than judged in more conventional, qualitative ways. This is by no means the best movie of the year, but it may be the most movie you can get for the price of a single ticket. It blends farce, suspense, science fiction, melodrama and quite a bit more, not into an approximation of Mr. Mitchell’s graceful and virtuosic pastiche, but rather into an unruly grab bag of styles, effects and emotions held together, just barely, by a combination of outlandish daring and humble sincerity. Together, the filmmakers try so hard to give you everything — the secrets of the universe and the human heart; action, laughs and romance; tragedy and mystery — that you may wind up feeling both grateful and disappointed.
I think he’s right about that, but read his entire review. I think it’s probably the most fair assessment I’ve seen, even though it’s probably a mixed to negative review. He doesn’t write it off entirely, which shows both the depth of his intelligence and his willingness to present his opinion without fear of looking stupid – yes, we’ve all been hard on AO Scott and all of the critics at one time or another. Why, I don’t know. I guess you always want people to agree with you and when they don’t it’s disappointing. Nonetheless, and in the final analysis, and after ten years of reading his reviews, I trust his opinion is an unfettered one.
Finally EW’s Owen Gleiberman is likewise perplexed by his reaction to the movie, gives it a B+ and writes:
The way the tales link up isn’t labored or obvious. It’s more like a stone skipping with surprising precision across the water, or a player moving from one videogame level to the next. The heroine of the Seoul segment is a wage-slave “fabricant” (played by the stoic but inwardly fiery Korean actress Doona Bae) who is spurred to revolt after watching a fragment of an old movie that features Hanks in the role of a beleaguered book editor. That same book editor gets a segment of his own, where he’s played by Broadbent as a frazzled literary twit who gets locked up in an old-age home. A political tale set in 1973 is where Tykwer and the Wachowskis come closest to rooting the film in a topical — and far from conventionally liberal — idea: that the possibilities for nuclear power and an energy-independent America were killed off by the oil companies. This story, too, teams Berry (as an investigative reporter) and Hanks (as a nerdy nuclear scientist) in a romantic connection that reverberates throughout.
The movie’s Big Idea is to wake us up to the ways that we’re all linked through time: The dream of one person passes to the next, finally erupting in revolution. What I liked about Cloud Atlas is that it brings this rather banal revelation to life through an inspired fusion of form and content. The stories bounce off one another in devious and intricate ways. And the multiple-role casting, and bravura makeup that renders it possible (not just flipped genders but switched races as well), is more than a gimmick — it’s like a burlesque of identity. Having Hugh Grant play a U.S. energy stooge in a wide Me Decade tie is fun…but Grant as a bloodthirsty primitive in savage skeletal war paint? Now, that’s casting against type. Hugo Weaving shows up as assorted villains (including a ghost-devil who slavers like a rotting leprechaun), and Hanks lends the film a glint of moral complexity by devotedly playing both noble (that goatherd) and evil (a shipboard doctor in the 1800s who tries to poison a fellow for his money; a squinty-eyed Cockney mobster who tosses a book critic off a balcony).
Cloud Atlas is like a gonzo miniseries that, at times, seems to be cramming the entire history of Hollywood genre films into one multi-tentacled parable of freedom and authoritarian control. You’ll catch echoes of a hundred other pop touchstones, from Roots to Guy Ritchie films to Soylent Green. I would never call Cloud Atlas profound — it’s more like a pulpy middlebrow head trip — but the hook of the movie is that Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer so clearly meant everything that they put in it.
I disagree with him on the note of whether it’s profound or not. I think it absolutely has that ability but it depends on your own personal belief system. I think what it says about ethnic and sexual identity is quite profound. But ultimately, like The Master and Life of Pi, your experience with it will depend on what you bring to it. Who you are when you walk in the door. What you think changes over time. Life becomes something different once you pass 40 years old. It’s important to remember that, always, when judging works of art. They are most often, simply, our own reflection.
Like Ebert, I want to see the film a third time. In fact, I’m desperate to see it a third time. Every major organ in my body is pleading with me to see it a third time. My brain is hungry to solve the mysteries. My heart wants to swoon again. My body, well, that goes without saying, what with Ben Wishaw, Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy all cast in the film. I know, ew, gross.
As far as Oscars go, right now I see an original score frontrunner. Other than that, I don’t know.