movie film review | chris tookey

Cloud Atlas

© Warner Bros. - all rights reserved
  Cloud Atlas Review
Tookey's Rating
1 /10
Average Rating
4.89 /10
Tom Hanks , Halle Berry , Hugh Grant
Full Cast >

Directed by: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Written by: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer based on David Mitchell’s novel

Released: 2012
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: China/ Korea/ Singapore/ Germany
Colour: C
Length: 172

A super-colossal flop.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share

Six bad films for the price of one, this vanity mega-flop cost a hundred million dollars to make and heaven knows how much to publicise. It staggers on for almost three hours and calls into question the sanity of some of the world’s best-known actors.

It has no fewer than three directors: Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski, who made the Matrix trilogy, and Tom Tykwer, best known for his chase film Run Lola Run.

It’s a classic example of artistic over-ambition and star egotism crushing the life out of original material – David Mitchell’s much-loved novel – that was bright, playful and entertaining. The film has none of those qualities: it’s long-winded, pompous and full of risibly misjudged performances.

Take just a few of the casting decisions. Hugh Grant (pictured) as a cannibalistic, face-painted warlord? Tom Hanks as a belligerent Celtic novelist? Jim Sturgess, the talented young actor from One Day, as a Korean freedom fighter?

As those who have read the novel will know, Cloud Atlas tells six short stories, set over 500 years from 1849 to the distant future. Mitchell’s artistry means that each tale is an exercise in literary pastiche.

For an adaptation to have worked cinematically, it would have required a director skilful enough to parody six very different cinematic genres: shipboard costume drama with an earnest, libertarian message (think Spielberg’s Amistad), 30s British costume drama (like any of the E.M.Forster novels brought to the screen), an Ealing comedy sensibility applied to a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest scenario, 70s conspiracy thriller (such as Chinatown), futuristic urban dystopia (Minority Report) and post-apocalyptic chase thriller (Logan’s Run).

Tykwer does a moderately competent job on the segment set in the present day, where a cowardly British publisher (beautifully played by Jim Broadbent) is trapped inside a repressive nursing home (where his chief jailer is a Nurse Ratched figure played by Hugo Weaving in drag) and makes plans to escape. It’s thinly plotted and far from plausible, but at least it’s amusing.

Tykwer is less comfortable in the 70s segment, obviously modelled on the movie Silkwood, in which a whistle-blowing scientist (Tom Hanks) works with an investigative journalist (Halle Berry) to reveal nasty deeds in the energy industry, probably perpetrated by a smooth-talking, sexist boss played, like many of the bad guys in the movie, by Hugh Grant. This section comes across not so much as energetic pastiche as a weary rip-off of much better films.

Tykwer’s other segment is his weakest: in which an ineffectual gay pianist (Ben Wishaw) goes to work for a tyrannical old composer (Jim Broadbent, this time cast as the villain) who steals all his ideas. This is presented as a bid for artistic and personal freedom, in the slightly aetoliated style of the Merchant-Ivory film Maurice.

The Wachowskis’ three segments are the big-budget follies. They display no sense of humour and the same heavy-handedness that made the Matrix trilogy collapse into big-budget excess and long-winded, meaningless philosophising.

The least obnoxious is the 19th century one where a young Englishman (Jim Sturgess) learns slavery is wrong while he’s being poisoned for his gold by an unscrupulous doctor - Tom Hanks, this time trying to look and sound like Lee Marvin.

Then there’s a sci-fi extravaganza, stylistically and thematically a mixture of Blade Runner and Soylent Green, in which a second-class citizen-slave (Asian actress Doona Bae) falls in with Korean freedom-fighters led by Jim Sturgess. Despite ravishing visuals of a futuristic city, this degenerates into a wham-bam shoot-em-up all too reminiscent of the third Matrix film at its frozen-faced worst.

Another, even more dystopic vision of the future shows a scientist (Halle Berry) joining forces with a shaman (Tom Hanks) to overcome marauding cannibals led by an almost unrecognisable Hugh Grant. This bit comes across as a talky, often incomprehensible, poor man’s version of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

The directorial decision to intercut all six stories will confuse those who haven’t read the book, and leaves the audience little opportunity to empathise with any of the characters. The book was constructed far more accessibly as a series of short stories. In the novel the interconnections were allowed to emerge; in the film, they’re ponderously explicit.

The device of using the same actor to appear in each of the stories has a limited success as a facile shorthand. If Hugo Weaving or Hugh Grant appears, he’s a panto villain. If Halle Berry appears as a major character, you know she’s a seeker after truth. If Sturgess appears, he symbolises the spirit of rebellion.

The device collapses with the morally equivocal characters. Tom Hanks, who plays a range of heroes, villains and cameo roles with nothing in common, shows all too obviously that his range as an actor is far from limitless; in much of it, he seems to be showing off his non-existent mastery of accents. Someone seems to have told him he’s the new Peter Sellers; he definitely isn’t.

Almost as embarrassing, Susan Sarandon turns up in a variety of roles that scarcely register at all; her loopy omnipresence is merely distracting.

And some of the gimmicky, pointless miscasting of minor roles - the attempt to pass off Doona Bae as a nineteenth century Englishwoman, for example, or Halle Berry as a man or a white-skinned Jew - are laughably unconvincing.

A book with many complexities is reduced to a banal statement that the purpose of life is to fight repression, and that we are all in some mysterious way reincarnated souls. Fortune cookies have more depth.

Cloud Atlas is a pretentious shambles that generates zero emotional involvement with its feeble characters. It will die a horrible and well-deserved death at the box office.

Though it has many of the vices we associate with Hollywood – dumbing down, excessive scale, star egotism - it was put together with money from China, Korea, Singapore and Germany; an entertaining documentary might well be produced, showing how on earth a film this bonkers ever got made.

You can be certain that we will never see its like again. It’s undoubtedly a turkey, but the truth is that it’s weirdly watchable. At least it perishes of over-ambition by people who meant well but were woefully ill-equipped to bring it to fruition. It’s cinematic death by misadventure.

Key to Symbols