Film Review — Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas, directed by the Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy), is a movie that defies conventional filmmaking on almost every level, and is as grand thematically is it is in cinematic scope. There are virtually no films that come to mind to which Cloud Atlas can be compared, making an analysis of such a project a formidable task.

Disclaimers

In terms of potentially offensive material, Cloud Atlas has it all—coarse language, nudity, sexuality, and (perhaps most vividly), graphic violence. As one with a typically strong stomach for the aforementioned materials, even I had a difficult time with what was offered at moments throughout the film. If you're prone to feeling uncomfortable with any or all of the above, this may not be the film for you, based on that alone.

General synopsis and technical notes

Given my limited word count, it's difficult to provide a plot summary without having it become the entire review. Cloud Atlas takes place over several narratives, each in a different time and place (from 1840s South Pacific to post-Apocalyptic Hawaiian Islands), and each featuring different characters played by the same core cast of actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant, among others).

Every story follows the same broad storytelling formula and uses similar character types in doing so. Throughout the film's presentation, the stories are interwoven with one another, jumping back and forth between timelines, almost the same way a soap opera would focus on several different things happening at once. Though some may find this technique frustratingly hard to follow, for the most part the filmmakers are able to maintain the interest of the audience with each of the different stories being told.

It's difficult to know what "type" of movie Cloud Atlas is, as at different points it becomes an action film, a romance, a comedy, a drama, science-fiction, an even a suspenseful mystery. It's all genres at once, essentially. For those who want to know what they're getting before they walk into theatres, Cloud Atlas may not be right for you.

Thematic elements

Given the disclaimers about objectionable content, as well as the overwhelmingly grand scope of the film, some of you may have already decided that Cloud Atlas is something you won't venture out to see. Which is fine—there's plenty of other movies in theatres, and you may genuinely enjoy those a lot more than this one.

The film's tagline reads, "Everything is connected." It's a fitting expression, given how the events in one timeline eventually resurface and have an influence in how events in another timeline play out. The kind or malicious acts in one particular point in history influence what happens next. It's interesting to see how one actor will play the role of a slave in the 1840s, but be a prominent social figure in later years, something that speaks greatly into how our actions, good or bad, will play a role in how the future plays out for our children, grandchildren, and beyond.

Essentially, the film tells us that the present-day matters and more importantly that our story is not the story. We are not the first society that has faced challenges and certainly won't be the last—and as such, we're really not all any more important in the grand scheme of things. It's something that we all know, but fail to see as plainly as Cloud Atlas presents.

Still, for some, the scope of Cloud Atlas will simply be too enormous to appreciate fully. The movie has drawn criticism by some reviewers as being too messy or grandiose to take in upon just one viewing, and as such fails as a film.

I find it interesting that our inability to grasp everything the first time around immediately translates into a failure on part of the filmmakers. It's as though the concept of things progressively becoming clearer through repeat viewings is simply unacceptable for modern filmgoers. Nope, if we can't get it all the first time, there clearly wasn't anything there to begin with—it's a mentality that strikes me as pig-headed, narcissistic and impatiently selfish, as though films are made only for those just looking to "take" whatever goods the film is serving up and run with them. (Basically, those of us who have press deadlines and can't afford to see a movie more than once)

If nothing else, Cloud Atlas serves as a reminder that some things require us to take a step back and look at something more broadly, both cinematically and thematically. No one observes the Mona Lisa from three inches away—we back up, so that we can see the whole picture, sometimes looking twice in order to do so. Likewise, we sometimes need to take a serious look at our place in history, and remind ourselves that what we're experiencing is because of something that happened before, and that what we do for ourselves will make the world a (hopefully) better place for future generations to live in. It's a truth as plain as day, but we're often too busy staring into the sun to see it for ourselves.

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.