‘Cloud Atlas’ Weaves a Complex Tapestry of Narratives

Cloud Atlas Poster
“Cloud Atlas” © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved

After hearing extremely divided criticism of “Cloud Atlas coming from the Toronto International Film Festival this year, I predicted that I too, would either celebrate its brilliance or hate it with a fiery burning passion. What surprised me however, was that I didn’t have such a vehement reaction once I finally saw it. Although I was very entertained by the movie, I didn’t appreciate it to the same degree as those bestowing “best movie of the year” status upon it.

“Cloud Atlas” is a truly remarkable writing and directing effort from the Wachowskis on par in scale and ambition with their “Matrix” trilogy. Plus, their joint collaboration with Tom Tykwer is a very effective one because even though I’ve never read the David Mitchell book their movie is based on, I wasn’t confused at all by its complex narrative. Not bad considering a co-worker originally had to start drawing on a whiteboard to explain to me how the novel worked.

The story examines how the experiences of individuals impact others in the past, present, and future through the continued reincarnation of specific souls. Everything is linked: the 1849 diary of a trans-Pacific voyage; letters from a composer to his lover; a cover up at a nuclear plant; a farce involving a publisher trapped in a nursing home; a rebellious clone in distant future; and the adventure of a tribe in a post-apocalyptic world.

Despite being almost three hours, the film flies by, impressively weaving a tapestry of these six narratives seamlessly together. At first, the frequent jumping between time periods is a bit jarring, but it quickly becomes second nature as you get invested in each one of the individual stories. What’s amazing is how all of them reach a satisfying resolution in a random succession, which is unexpectedly fitting.

Special effects in Cloud Atlas are phenomenal, effortlessly transporting you to the individual time periods where the tales take place. The most visually stunning era though, is the futuristic Korea, where sleek, vibrant technology meets dark dystopian undertones. The makeup in the film is even more extraordinary than the visuals, transforming distinguished actors like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, and James D’Arcy into unrecognizable characters of both the same and opposite sexes. As grand as this sprawling epic is, it does have flaws.

Perhaps the biggest ones are the low register of the dialogue and the bizarre dialect with which some characters speak. Given the gap in time periods it makes sense that linguistically people should sound different, but when you can’t comprehend them, it’s frustrating because their interactions don’t have as much meaning. It’s harder to get emotionally invested in everyone as a result. The other issue is that lines you do understand, tend be very heavy handed on the subjects of fate, life, death, and love. Whenever someone says something that the filmmakers consider “poignant” there’s an intense score that rises up and beats you over the head. That can be quite annoying.

Overall though, “Cloud Atlas” is another enjoyable high concept film from the Wachowskis. It’s definitely not for everyone, although if you appreciate twisty movies about intertwining characters then you’ll probably dig this one.

My Grade: B+

Evan Crean

Hello! My name is Evan Crean. By day I work for a marketing agency, but by night, I’m a film critic based in Boston, MA who has been at it since 2009. I have written hundreds of movie reviews and celebrity interviews for Starpulse.com. I have also contributed pieces to NewEnglandFilm.com. In addition to publishing short form work, I am a co-author of the book Your ’80s Movie Guide to Better Living, which is available on CreateSpace and Amazon. On top of writing, I co-host and edit the weekly film podcast Spoilerpiece Theatre with two other Boston film critics. I’m a founding member and the current treasurer for the Boston Online Film Critics Association as well. Lastly, I’m the marketing director and a contributor to Boston Reel, a site dedicated to Boston’s independent film culture. Have any questions or comments about my work? Please feel free to email me (Evan Crean) at: ecrean AT reelrecon DOT COM .

6 thoughts on “‘Cloud Atlas’ Weaves a Complex Tapestry of Narratives

  • November 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Good review Evan. It’s a nice way to spend 3 hours at the movies, but it’s also something that may not change your life, even though that’s obviously what the directors are going for here. Still, a great movie none the less.

  • November 2, 2012 at 4:32 am

    I wish the narrative HAD been more complex. Oh they tried to make it seem deep by sending the stories through a blender so we time shifted every 5 minutes, but they couldn’t fool me. These were just overly simplified versions of Amistad, Amadeus, The China Syndrome, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Blade Runner and Mad Max.

    At least it looked pretty.

    • November 2, 2012 at 9:14 am

      I did notice the stylistic similarities of the various stories to established films, but I couldn’t tell if that was intentional or not. Since I haven’t read the book, I also wasn’t sure if those similarities were there already in the story, or if they were something added on by the Wachowskis.

  • November 2, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Interesting concept regarding reincarnation and the impact of individuals over several generations. Three hours that flew by it must be a very intersting movie.

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