TIFF 2012 Review: Cloud Atlas

Where to begin with Cloud Atlas? The interminably long film is basically the Voltron of off-beat science fiction movies. This is what happens when you take five (or six) familiar genre-stories and juxtapose them (ok, put them in the blender and hit frappe!) in an effort say something profound about the human condition. That the end results is merely a structural confection, its ambition successful in making all the pieces fit more or less together into a grand puzzle but sacrificing the very reason why we like these tales. The sacrifice on the altar of science fiction grandiosity is empathy, character development and me ever giving a damn. The films basic ideas and premise agree with me: That social boundaries are made to be broken (as per director Larry Wachowski crossing genders to Lana); that we process the human condition through narrative; that we’ve not grown as much as we like to think as a species over the past few thousand years, and maybe, that we never will. These are all great things to tackle in your science fiction blockbuster, yet each and every one of them is treated here in the most facile (and banal) fashion. Remember all the flat, unnecessary shenanigans in The Matrix Reloaded around the Zion (The dreadlocked rave, Link’s domestic situation, et cetera)? So much of Cloud Atlas felt that way to me: Lifeless and tedious. In blockbuster adventure movie terms, it makes the handsome, turgid pile of good intentions that was John Carter seem as fresh and rollicking as The Empire Strikes Back.

In all of its 2 hour 45 minute run time, the only real surprises, you know, those big ‘Ooooh!’ moments in any film (either pop art or art house) are during the closing credit sequence when you discover how the make-up department slapped on goop and facial prosthetics to disguise each member of its ensemble. This is a fundamental problem, one of Python-wannabe-ism and Cloud Atlas ends up an act of accidental and unfunny sketch comedy. Even if it has little in the way of intentions to be funny, outside of the thread where Jim Broadbent is imprisoned in an old age home by his brother, too much of the generic story telling in each of the individual stories comes across as half-sketched ideas where gimmicks and not actual humanity, are the glue that binds. One can only take so many cringe-worthy Tom Hanks accents in a film. The most egregious of these is his Tru-Tru speak as a middle aged man running around in rags with Halle Berry in a Ridley-Walker-lite post-apocalyptic world (which is not even Earth, but who cares at this point, right?) I’ve always wanted to see an attempt a film of that iconic yet ‘unfilmable novel,’ and it pains me here to see the form used just as a mere building block. The filmmakers reach very much exceeds their grasp and they are so swallowed by the breadth of their ambitions that they lose sight of the very humanity they are trying to encompass. The film decides that one trip with Jar-Jar-Hanks is not enough and so revisits the character as a goofy old codger. A storyteller that Hanks ‘matures’ into after ‘winning’ Cloud Atlas’s karmic video-game (Spoiler Alert – A typecast Hugo Weaving and a surprisingly versatile yet often unrecognizable Hugh Grant come out as the big karmic losers.) Hanks’ is the Ur-narrator, the everyman, even though his thread is end-story chronologically, it is also the most primitive. Get it? Get it? Any time in human history, we have the same problems and we strive onward and that the striving may seem futile but it is not. I like the idea, but this is kindergarten Buddhism in the telling.

I think there is some self-awareness of the shallowness on display. In another thread, the contemporary one, Hanks plays a Cockney writer (that accent and pencil moustache, that mercifully only appear for a few minutes) who acts to challenge criticism of the Clod Atlas. It happens right in the text of the story (subtext be damned!) Offensive as this sort of knee-jerk reaction was in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 re-envisioning of Godzilla, it is so much worse here due to the likelihood that Cloud Atlas is aiming to be a slightly more high-brow work of science fiction compared American-Kaiju flop; especially since Godzilla writer Dean Devlin deigned to erase any science fiction thematic material from the Japanese original. But I digress. In an effort to scale Cloud Atlas to a universal truth, the film sacrifices every engaging manner of the specific of why we want these stories. Everyone in this film is a cipher and the filmakers seem powerless (or don’t give a damn) to cure this problem. Insights about transcending barriers are trite because it only goes after ones that we’ve already, more or less in the developed western world, transcended. This makes everyone involved late to the thematic party, or simply too cowardly. Remind me if there is a white character in black-face? Halle Barry as a 100 year old Asian surgeon, or Air-Doll’s Doona Bae as a ginger Victorian house-wife (curiously still with Japanese accent) will have to suffice, in spite of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess are less Korean in the future set Neo-Seoul story then they are bad Star-Trek aliens. The make-up works marginally better than the thematic significance.

A common statement that I overheard after my screening, particularly from those familiar with the source novel, is that, considering the size and scope of the book, things could have been worse. To wit: just because the adaptation could have been worse, does not make this adaptation better! If a film is judged on how it goes about itself rather than what it is about, then the film is an abject failure to any film-going audience other than the comic-con set. In fact, having not read the book (not a necessity for analyzing a film adaptation) my guess would have been (in absence of awareness of the book) that Cloud Atlas was originally a beloved graphic novel along the lines of Watchmen or Kingdom Come. The constant changes of story timeline from cut-to-cut seems more suited to panels on the page which can be considered longer by the reader than as a film medium where everything whizzes by. What might viscerally wash over some is sure to be tedious to others. The editor, Alexander Berner (who often edits Paul W.S. Anderson films) and filmmakers Wachowskis and Tykwer do a good job of assembling all the different-in-tone parts in a more-than-coherent manner. They even go so far as to sneak in a baton of sorts, a symbol or object where one story directly connects to the story that precedes it. The assembly, and more importantly the thematic connections made by the editing, for all its symphonic bravura, are nevertheless trivial and trite. Consider Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance or Peter Brooks Mahabharata – a universal Ur-Text if there ever was one! – as far superior in their execution of both storytelling and theme. Brooks even does the ‘multi-racial’ casting to denote the every-man/every-woman to far greater effect. Hell, even more superficial films like Mr. Nobody and Southland Tales have more compelling images, editing and characters (not to mention ideas) running around in a more feverish fashion than Cloud Atlas.

So what are we left with? With these eyes and ears, the only thing to come out of Cloud Atlas was an echo chamber built inside a hall of mirrors. Reminders of better individual films (yes, even Soylent Green) were the best the film could accomplish. I would love to hope on the bandwagon-of-love for this film, as this genre is so far up my alley, I pretty much sit with my back to the wall in an la-Z-boy chair and a cup of hot coffee. I would love for experimental big budget science fiction films that mingle action and thought to continue on in the tradition of Inception, Sunshine and Looper. None of these are remakes, sequels, reboots, sidequels (E-quels?) or prequels. But just because Cloud Atlas aims to be original, it certainly doesn’t make it good. Sadly, it’s Tru Tru.

Kurt Halfyard
Resident culture snob.


  1. From what I gather from your review ( I have read most the novel), Kurt, you classify Cloud Atlas as a science fiction story. After all, you mention the term “science fiction” 6 times in your review. Perhaps the film is completely different from the novel, but judging from the novel, Cloud Atlas is NOT a science fiction story in the macro/thematical level; the science fiction is just a small, structural component. In the novel, David Mitchel basically deconstructs six different genres. In some instances, he even has some characters make fun of the genres of the other stories.

    • It’s science fiction in how it asks really big questions at a societal and philosophical level and has at least 2, possibly three of the threads with a sci-fi bent. If you put in science fiction as one component, in part, things are sci-fi (unless it is a story within a story a la 2046). To clarify further, I consider THE ROAD and RIDLEY WALKER science fiction, even though neither of them have any fictional science in them. See this thread: http://www.rowthree.com/2010/05/10/brave-new-worldview-30-science-fiction-films-of-the-21st-century/

      In terms of Cloud Atlas (the film) as a genre deconstruction, if it is that, it is indeed very poor at doing that. In the same way that Watchmen (the film) failed to completely capture the satire and grit of Alan Moore’s book in favour of cool posing and glossy production (all that being said, I am a fan of Watchman the film for other reasons, it has grown to be one of my favourite comic-book-superhero films) Cloud Atlas doesn’t attempt to deconstruct genre, it wallows in the shallowest, worst part of genre filmmaking. The threads that suffer the worst are Halle Berry’s 1970s DAY OF THE CONDOR meets ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN thread. So terribly false and shallow. Even the most kooky plot where Jim Broadbent undergoes his own One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest (Complete with Weaving playing Nurse Ratched) while earning a cheer upon their escape, plays this incredibly stupid (and thoroughly unnecessary in a 2h45 minute film) Football Hooligan gag…a stupid and unnecessary extra scene, poisoning the only thread I liked. The Slave ship thread is so over-wraught and earnest it pains me to even recall it. The Neo-Seoul is so warmed over Soylent-Green-Meets-The-Matrix I want to punch it in its stupid Weaving-As-A-Romulan-Face. The less said about the worst thread, the Ridley-Walker meets Apocalypto meets Beastmaster thread with the Jar-Jar Binks dialect is beyond inane….

      Note I’m a fan of both Matrix: Reloaded AND Speedracer, but Cloud Atlas left me beyond cold, it left me kinda pissy. Every possible theme or meaning of the film is TOLD to the audience at some point in the most annoying way possible.

  2. When CLOUD ATLAS is released to theatres I am going to write my own review. When I do so, I will endeavour to use every single letter you have used in this review, in the same number of instances in which you have used them, but in the exact opposite spatial positions on the page, in order to further underscore that you and I are so far apart on this that this review is essentially antimatter to my opinion’s matter, Beelzebub to my opinion’s Jehovah, 19th century Tom Hanks to my 28th century Tom Hanks.


    • Hahaha. I’ve not doubt. I believe that both reactions are fair, and will delight in reading a positive take. I certainly don’t want to be a contrarian on a film that should most definitely be in my wheelhouse (As a defender of Mr. Nobody) and am absolutely happy that people find an emotional experience out of this movie.

      When the time comes, it will be for wine and roses. (And hopefully the conversation will be recorded for filmgoing posterity!)

  3. Good god, this review was boring. But not as boring as Here Comes The Devil.

    Seriously though, I do think Kurt’s is a totally understandable read of this, even if I like MB have a viewpoint completely opposite.

    As soon as someone figures out whatever alchemical process leads us to either accept or reject something this ambitious from the very start we will finally all get along great and also all art will be rendered pointless.

  4. (Puts on typing gloves)

    (Adjusts monacle)

    (Applies argument lotion)


    Kurt Halfyard is a poo-head.

    (Tilts chair, sips latte. Dialogue elevated.)

  5. we ca contrast this review with others to show their are appreciative critics:

    ‘I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to say about Cloud Atlas, about the ideas and emotions it inspired in me, about the best scenes, or even about how Korean actress Doona Bae runs rings around every Hollywood actor in the movie with her performance as the defiant clone Sonmi-451. It’s also very moving to think of this movie about transformation and revealing true selves in the context of Lana Wachowski’s transition into becoming a woman while making the film. With Cloud Atlas coming to theaters in October, I’ll have plenty of time to write about all that. For now, here in Toronto, Cloud Atlas and its ambition and its enormous heart are still jangling through my veins, almost too close to quite understand just yet. I can’t wait for you all to see it so we can talk about it some more. ‘

    • Not the first to grasp on the Larry-Lana as meta-text to the film, but I don’t believe the film has anything of substance to say, other than to echo, echo, echo without providing any further interesting questions, thoughts or ideas. It just lays there showing off its structure to hide its complete lack of heart or soul.

      It can play the notes, but it certainly cannot play the music (although it’s content to tell you it can, over and over again)

      • Speaking of echoing, here is something I put on Facebook a little while ago:

        As a piece of visceral filmmaking, to these eyes, it is a pure failure that had boredom completely set in at about the 45 minute mark, with an inevitable, totally surprise-less 2 hours to follow. It’s like watching your older brother put a 500 piece puzzle together of AMAZING STORIES MAGAZINE COVER ART collage in slow-motion for several hours, while occasionally giving didactic monologues.

        The movie is so TEDIOUS.

  6. “The constant changes of story timeline from cut-to-cut”

    I feared they would do this – attempt to tell all the stories at once, in one big jumble, rather than as more self-contained chapters, like in the novel. Which misses the point of it.

    In the book, the theme of inter-connectedness is only really a device used to link the separate stories – which are all [clever] pastiches anyway. It seems like the Wachowski’s have built the film entirely around the idea of eternal recurrence, and in the most hackneyed and gloopily sentimental way possible.

    • It’s funny that I saw another film at TIFF called SHIP OF THESEUS that decided to tell all three of it’s interconnected stories in back-to-back and I felt the film would be better if it sliced and diced and interspersed. I’m curious to see if the opposite approach would have worked with Cloud Atlas (apparently that is how it works in the novel), but really the issue in the film is not the editing (it does that remarkably well – arguably the one thing to recommend about the film – considering the large number of individual narratives). No the issue is the flat characters, emotions and depth to any of the individual stories seriously muting the bigger things the films bigger ideas and messages because everything is so dull and tedious and gosh-darn predictable….Not cool for a nearly 3 hour film.

  7. Cloud Altas is a divisive film to say the least. I do land it on the ‘love it’ side even though I can understand your criticism of it. It’s a giant mess, but it’s an ambitious, bold, beautiful, dazzling mess. I kind of love it for what it tries to do. I was never bored, my eyes were glued to the screen wondering what are going to do next.

    I will however disagree with you on The Fountain, if anything the movie isn’t ambitious enough. The tale of 3 love stories spanning 3 lifetimes need to be bolder. A 90 minute running time can’t possibly tell that story. But that’s another topic…

  8. I know at least on facebook Kurt you were bemoaning the fact that people were defending the film on the basis of how it was done, and that a film’s content should be defended for it to be good. How it occurs though is symphonic, and by that nature, gratifying on a level that transcends the analytic. It was cinematic music, and I got a kick out of this ride, even if I didn’t care how all the pieces fit, there was something to the sublime experience of it all. This is a case where I would say the meta does matter, this is the artist showing off, this is about making art more than the finished product framed in a gallery. Someone fucking made this thing?! They are willing to transgress the conventions of storytelling, of big budget formal familiarity, and go for something (Like Matt Price said) surprisingly intimate considering the scope and money involved. They made-up a crazy-ass language and had two Oscar winners speak it! It is a marvel because of what it is, because it shouldn’t exist, because like Randall McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when trying to lift the bolted down sink, “At least I tried, goddamnit, I least I tried”. That to me is what is awesome about this movie. They tried and they made something transcendentally watchable, something… new.

    • Except that it is Boring. That is rather unforgivable from my experience of the thing. (And this from someone who has watched Southland Tales four times.)

        • Bored by familiarity. I know all these notes, and I’m not sure that I like the tune that the siblings Watchowski and Tom Tykwer are playing.

          • So which is it guys? Something new and interesting (even if not likable), or something that’s been done over and over again?

            You both have seen zillions of movies, but each of you has a 180 degree take on its “originality” – what goes?

          • Some think the idea of editing 5 stories in parallel, flipping from one to the other on a scene-by-scene, to tell a ‘bigger story’ of the human condition (one that is repeating itself in a karmic forever-loop) is original or symphonic.

            Others think that doing this with 5 very lame-ass riffs on familiar historical and sci-fi templates do not add up to anything except for the challenge put to the filmmakers in the assembly, and everything is just tedious.

            That about sum it up?

          • it is not JUST the story, it is the endeavor of doing it at all as a movie on different planets, different time periods, different languages, different genres, intercut in such a way as to be more like music than conventional narrative, with actors playing multiple roles in silly make-up, being both funny and serious in a strange and admittedly uncomfortable mash-up… I have NEVER seen anything like this. Southland Tales is probably the closest, but where it is largely incomprehensible, Cloud Atlas makes some sense as it goes along.

            You are able to compartmentalize the thing and be analytic, see the notes as you say. I think you sabotage the experience by being so fixed. For me the gall of the film was my entry point, and then I just let it take me where the music goes, and it is a hell of a ride.

            Cloud Atlas and To the Wonder both feel like symphonic movies, you ride out the experience more than comprehend them. Unfortunately for me, Malick was playing a reductive version of his Best Of that cheapened them in this context, whereas the Wachowskis and Twyker were making something original.

  9. I wouldn’t normally try to stifle conversation back and forth, especially when the rare case of rot vs. Kurt pops up. And also because when it comes to Cloud Atlas, much as I love it, it’s not a movie I care to discuss very much…

    but, Kurt… you watched like 40-50 movies in a week. If I did that, even with my tendencies to rant and rave against stuff, I think I’d be more inclined to spend my time raving on the dozens of amazing stuff rather than put so much negative energy out there trying to persuade everyone about one thing.

    Just saying.

    • Believe me. I do far more lovin’ than hatin’ at TIFF. This one happened to be one of the last few films I saw at the festival.

      Go back into my reviews. I’ve got wonderful raves for the Malick, Looper, Amour, and Gangs of Wasseypur.

      Lots of lovin’ coming up on the Cinecast tonite.

  10. Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

    I’m actually in a camp that doesn’t see the whole endeavor as that ambitious/crazy. Kurt has pointed out some precedents like Intolerance, The Fountain and Southland Tales – and I’ll actually agree that those films are a far more esoteric and perhaps even more intellectually sophisticated. Though I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed them more then Cloud Atlas.

    Cloud Atlas is totally an exercise in generic pastiche to emphasize some fundamental truisms of humanity. I think it comes down to a matter of taste (in a non-evaluative sense) when asked to swallow it.

    The whole thing actually reminds me a lot of Japanese RPGs and in turn Japanese manga (particularly Tezuka’s Phoneix saga) – especially in its unwavering earnestness, which is kind of infectious. I think those that spent their youth plowing through Chrono Trigger are the demo perfectly attuned to react to this film.

    One thing that surprises me about the reaction is how little I’ve heard from the books readers about a few of the rather fundamental changes made to some of the plots, beyond the structural one. I’m not talking about how they’ve changed up the ages of characters (to accommodate actors), or thinned out the narratives to make them more economical, but rather the removal of some of Mitchell’s rather blunt moments of cynical reality. For instance (SPOILERS) Dr. Goose escapes in the book, Somni’s escape and revolution is always a government plot (and one she accepts), or how Zachary’s ancestors treat his stories with a degree of condescension. Interestingly, the W. Bros and Twyker have done away with just jaded moments, preferring to stick with sweeping romanticism.

    I still dig the film, but I really want to hear from the filmmakers as to the method behind some of the film’s adaptation. I get that most of them make it easier to further emphasize the film’s themes and even the connections between the stories (which come across as a lot more arbitrary in the book), but am hoping there’s something more to those decisions.

  11. Friday Morning, a longer version of this review, with some additional thoughts, and better structure will appear on Row Three, I’m wondering how long it will take for the comments to get upwards of 100 or more.

  12. ‘One can only take so many cringe-worthy Tom Hanks accents in a film. The most egregious of these is his Tru-Tru speak as a middle aged man running around in rags with Halle Berry in a Ridley-Walker-lite post-apocalyptic world (which is not even Earth, but who cares at this point, right?) ‘

    whoops” newsflash….it IS earth! its only when we see old Zachary by the camp fire that its not earth.

  13. ‘Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess are less Korean in the future set Neo-Seoul story then they are bad Star-Trek aliens. The make-up works marginally better than the thematic significance’

    in the book people are often genetically modified or facescaped….perhaps some decided to go for the old fashioned star trek look!


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