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Cloud Atlas – film review

March 2, 2013


‘Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.’

Reviewed on Thursday 28th February 2013

cloud atlas - doona bae

Screenplay and directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski. Based on the novel by David Mitchell. Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturges, Doona Bae, Ben Wishaw, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gysai, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. Running     time: 172 mins.

Collective unconscious, the immortal soul, karma, reincarnation, genetic memory: these are the concerns of Cloud Atlas – a portmanteau of six interconnecting story threads of varying tones, woven tightly together into an intricate tapestry – a tapestry as entertaining and action-packed – as it is rich in big ideas.

Co-directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume: A Love Story) and with an estimated budget of $102 million, Cloud Atlas is perhaps the most expensive indie film of all time and it also heralds a return to directing by Matrix helmers Lana and Andy Wachowski, after their kaleidoscopic candy-colored assault on the senses, Speed Racer. Four years later, I am pleased to report, their latest offering is very much a return to form – although lovers of ‘bullet time’ may well be disappointed –     as this overused and tired effect which the Wachowskis essentially pioneered is conspicuously (and thankfully) absent.

Being unfamiliar with David Mitchell’s deemed unfilmable 2004 novel, I really cannot comment on the similarities and differences between the original source and this adaptation, although I do believe the big difference is this interconnected structure. From what I understand, the six interwoven story threads of the movie are treated     as separate chapters in the book. The six story threads are as follows …

Aboard a sailing ship in the South Pacific, 1849, a sick young man (Jim Sturgess)     is treated by a nefarious doctor (Tom Hanks) who may or may not have his best interests at heart. In Edinburgh, 1936, a budding composer (Ben Wishaw) whose symphony ‘The Cloud Atlas Sextet’ is appropriated by a more famous composer, takes matters into his own hands – insuring his creative immortality. In San Francisco, 1973, a pot-smoking gossip collumnist (Halle Berry) stumbles upon a diabolical conspiracy perpetrated by Big Oil to discredit the nuclear power industry – potentially killing thousands of people in the process. In the United Kingdom, 2012,     a elderly publisher (Jim Broadbent) is wrongly incarcerated in a nursing home lorded over by a tyrannical nurse (Hugo Weaving) and mounts an audacious escape. In Neo Seoul, 2144, a cloned waitress (Doona Bae) learns the truth behind her creation and ultimate fate and becomes a catalyst for revolution. And finally, on a remote island paradise, a century after the apocalypse, a simple tribesman (Hanks) agrees to help   a more advanced foreigner (Berry) in scaling a treacherous mountain peak which may hold the key to humanity’s survival.

cloud atlas - tom hanks

As I was watching this, it suddenly struck me – the way these story strands intertwine and compliment one another is very reminiscent of the TV dramas of Dennis Potter – particularly his magnum opus from 1986, The Singing Detective.       I have no idea whether Tykwer and the Wachowskis are even familiar with Potter’s work – but having seen Cloud Atlas, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they are. The intercutting between the six threads is seamless and not at all jarring as one might expect. In fact the ebb and flow of action and pacing within the story strands are perfectly intergrated with the other threads – creating a larger rhythmic story arc which unfolds in an entirely natural and organic way. And this is despite the film having a running time of nearly three hours. The film’s fast-paced momentum, however, carries it along at a breath-taking rate of knots.

Technical specs are outstanding, the cinematography achingly beautiful. And considering there were two distinct crews shooting simultaneously, with ‘Team Wachowski’ responsible for the 19th century and future threads (Neo Seoul is nothing less than the siblings’ beloved anime come to life) and ‘Team Tykwer’ handling the 20th century strands – it is remarkable just how seamlessly the film hangs together. Actually, it’s the Golden Globe-nominated score (co-composed by Tykwer himself) which goes a long way to making the whole thing hang together as well as it does.

The film has been criticised for its use of well-known actors playing multiple roles under heavy prosthetics to change their age, race and even gender. Some have questioned the validity of such a move – in terms of adding anything meaningful       to the story. To which I say – absolutely – it means everything to the story. This       is a film, after all, which deals with concepts of reincarnation and the immortal soul. Although some makeups are more successful than others, it wasn’t nearly a big enough issue to take me out of the experience. If anything, I had more of a problem understanding some of the vernacular created for the post-apocalypse story thread. To the film’s credit, the filmmakers have remained true to the various dialects and vernacular of the differing time periods depicted. However, much of the future-speak pigeon English used by Hanks and Berry in this particular thread is somewhat difficult to follow.

Cloud Atlas

As Cloud Atlas is very much an ensemble piece and no single performance stands out from the rest, I would like to make special mention of Keith David who features with Halle Berry in the 1973 San Francisco thread. Best remembered for his role as Childs in John Carpenter’s The Thing and for playing opposite Roddy Piper in They Live, it’s always a pleasant surprise to see this genre fave back on the big screen.

The Matrix is often used as a metaphor by the anti-globalist movement in describing humanity’s enslavement by the one percent elite and our need to wake up and take control of our lives. Well, if The Matrix is indeed a metaphor for our enslavement, then Cloud Atlas is the road map to our spiritual liberation.

A hugely entertaining, audacious and profoundly moving big screen experience.

4.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Event Cinemas Megaplex Marion, Adelaide, February 28th 2013.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.


From → film reviews

  1. Great review Greg. Saw this the other night and I’m still thinking about it. I thought it was an incredibly intricate piece of work and although maybe slightly too big for screen, it is nonetheless mesmerising. I think some of the reviews of this have been very harsh indeed.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Cheers man. Definitely one to polarize the masses. I have a feeling this film will outlast us all. 🙂

  2. You need a follow button out here dude (unless Ive missed it!) as I’m always late to your posts!! Haven’t seen many positive reviews of this, so its nice to read yours. Always liked Hanks, will check this out one day 🙂

  3. Great review. Recent events have nixed seeing this for now, but I am really looking forward to it, on blu-ray at least.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Thanks Ian! Yeah, no doubt it should look and sound amazing on blu-ray and I’m really looking forward to buying the soundtrack as well – fantastic music! Cheers. 🙂

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