Cloud Atlas – Review

Tim Boden

Cloud Atlas

On my way in to see Cloud Atlas, I impulsively did something I’ve not done since Woolworth’s was still a high-street fixture, and bought myself a bag of pick-and-mix. Funnily enough, this turned out to be the aptest snack I could have possibly chosen.

Cloud Atlas isn’t an easy film to summarise in a paragraph. It’s got six main plots, three directors, and a long list of big-name stars playing multiple characters. The segments cover a variety of genres from historical drama, conspiracy thriller, science fiction and comedy. The apparently very different stories come together to reveal a shared theme and message.

The overall effect is certainly striking, and the variety means that the film feels shorter than its near-three-hour running time. The initial confusion caused by telling several stories at once is swiftly overcome, and it’s quite enjoyable to pick out the overt and subtle ways by which the different stories are connected. It’s utterly gorgeous to look at, with every setting and costume evoked in lush detail. All of the ensemble cast do excellent jobs, with Jim Broadbent in particular being outstanding. For a grand blockbuster it’s also likely to provoke a lot of post-movie discussion, both regarding its themes of individuality and freedom, and for its choice to highlight the connections by having the same actors play multiple roles, sometimes crossing boundaries not just of age and nationality but also, perhaps more controversially, race and sex.

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The problem is, it’s all surface. The inevitable difficulty of translating books to film is that unless the book in question is very short, details will inevitably have to be removed. Even though the film is long, each individual plotline in itself hasn’t got the depth of backstory and character to rise beyond the level of cliché  Furthermore, the film’s central moral is rather trite and obvious. Cloud Atlas very much wants to be a grand, life-changing epic that leaves its audience marvelling at its deep philosophical truths, but it’s the philosophy of the drunk first-year student trying to impress someone they’ve met in the smoking area outside a pub. It’s the exact same philosophy of the Wachowskis’ best-known previous films, The Matrix and V For Vendetta – and far be it from me to criticise directors for repeatedly touching on the same themes when I’ve defended Quentin Tarantino for doing exactly that, but at least Tarantino knows he’s producing self-indulgent nonsense.

It’s not a bad film, by any means. There are times when all those prosthetics are more distracting than convincing, and my ability to take one subplot seriously was completely ruined by Hugo Weaving playing a character who looked and sounded exactly like Old Gregg from The Mighty Boosh, but it’s lovingly crafted and admirably ambitious. There is much in it to enjoy, from the wit of the subplot involving Jim Broadbent’s washed-up publisher escaping from an old people’s home to the brief but nevertheless marvellous glimpse of Ben Whishaw in the altogether, and it’s certainly made me interested in reading the original to get the details I missed from the film. Many critics have adored it, and there may be many less cynical than myself who find its themes genuinely moving and inspirational.

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But for me, in the end, I realised while watching that Cloud Atlas was the cinematic equivalent of my pick-and-mix box: perfectly enjoyable and with plenty of variety, but not quite able to overcome the substandard quality of its individual parts, and despite taking the edge off my hunger, fundamentally lacking in any real substance. Although the chocolate fudge crispies were rather nice.

About Tim Boden

Tim Boden has been a grumpy old man since he was about 13. Born and raised in the darkest East Midlands, he now lives in Australia as part of an ongoing project to avoid getting a proper job and settling down for as long as reasonably possible. His interests include comics, beer, rugby league, 20th-century history and other things mostly favoured by middle-aged men who spend a lot of time in sheds. He has very strong opinions on vegetables.