Cloud Atlas


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Cloud Atlas
"This is a film that will be enjoyed most by people who haven't seen many other films."

One of the most eagerly anticipated films of its year, adapted from one of the most popular recent novels, Cloud Atlas is not just a film but a cultural phenomenon. As such, it is almost its duty to be overbearing and in that aspect, at least, it doesn't disappoint. Elsewhere, most of its flaws are in keeping with those of the book, so it is probable that fans thereof will find much to love in it, at least if they can be patient with the running time. As it interweaves multiple plot strands following different versions of the same characters in different places and times, it can't really help but be lengthy. It's an intellectual conceit that has been used elsewhere and rarely with success. Here, the blame for its failure must be shared between author and filmmakers, though it's almost refreshing, in this day and age, to have to decry anyone in the latter camp for a lack of ironic awareness.

Awareness of any kind is what is most palpably missing from this smug exercise in the indulgence of white liberal guilt. Heavily tinged with borrowed mysticism, it is achingly po-faced in its delivery, endlessly sure of itself even whilst presenting the most unlikely scenarios. Where these fall down is in the details. They come across as pastiches of better works, and here the Wachowski penchant for pilfering suits the source material to a tee. There's the gangster story, in which it never occurs to a blackmailed publisher, despite the dodgy dealings in his industry, that it would be cheaper to pay for a hit; the South Sea Island adventure story in which the ship's officers keep no track of rations; the science fiction story whose slavery theme makes no economic sense. These might be dismissed as minor plot holes but cumulatively they speak of carelessness, and all the more painfully so because they're ripping off better films that got the details right. When things go wrong at the base of the story structure, the whole edifice threatens to crumble.

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Threading their way through this in a variety of guises, the actors deliver a mixed bag of performances. Jim Broadbent plays the same character he always does in every setting, which is somewhat endearing despite often jarring with his surroundings. Halle Berry and Tom Hanks are both terribly earnest; the former just about gets away with it whilst the latter is often painful to watch. Only Hugh Grant really comes out of it well, as he clearly realises he's acting in a B-movie and he hams it up with glee.

Before the film opened, it faced protests about the fact it dresses up white actors in bad 'yellowface' to play Asian roles. Although the make-up really is awful, this might be excused to some extent given the pretext of the story, which is that individuals are beyond race. Actors also move between genders, though there may have been a degree of naivety in the assumption that these things are politically equivalent - it's not that hard for women to get major Hollywood roles. The thing is, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to race issues in the film. Endless clichés are played out, from the escaped slave who is grateful to and enlightens the white hero, to the rescue of a poor helpless Asian woman whose friend is subjected to voyeuristic sexual humiliation. There' even a whole new race seemingly created just to pack in colonialist salvation clichés, the crochet people, who are threatened by a gang of Mad Max escapees and find hope in letting themselves be sexually exploited. That nobody could see what was wrong with all this is, frankly, embarrassing.

Then there's the look of the thing. Here, fans will be pleased - settings from the book are captured very successfully and there is something to be said for that. There are similarities with Life Of Pi in the superficial richness of the imagery, but as in that film, there are numerous flaws in the design work if one looks past the surface. Cloud Atlas suffers from a surfeit of visual noise, imagery that's there just for the sake of it and doesn't contribute anything even in purely stylistic terms. Sets are overdressed to the point of distraction. There's also far too much borrowing and, again, it doesn't live up to the originals. This is a film that will be enjoyed most by people who haven't seen many other films.

The idea of a Cloud Atlas would seem to be that it's a map based on shifting shapes. Sadly there is little here that is not predictable; it's more of a clod atlas.

Reviewed on: 27 Sep 2013
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The story of souls across the centuries.
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Director: Tom Tykwer, Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

Writer: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Lilly Wachowski, based on the novel by David Mitchell

Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Bae Doona, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Robert Fyfe, Martin Wuttke

Year: 2012

Runtime: 172 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany, US, Hong Kong, Singapore


Glasgow 2013

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