CLOUD ATLAS. Grand, amusing, failure… sort of

Cloud Atlas is a bit like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain…

Grzegorz Fortuna

18 March 2024

CLOUD ATLAS. Grand, amusing, failure... sort of

… – it also tells several stories featuring characters from different eras played by the same actors; it also attempts to address the things that have constituted the meaning of existence for humanity since time immemorial.

However, while The Fountain had six characters, two actors, and only three timeframes, and the film itself lasted an hour and a half, compact and coherent, albeit not necessarily easy to understand. In Cloud Atlas, there are over twenty important characters, six timeframes, and the whole thing wraps up in – a staggering – almost three hours of runtime. Additionally, the film’s creators try to address all the big-ticket items at once, things typically written in capital letters – Love, Responsibility, Freedom, and Friendship. And although the Wachowskis and Tykwer refer to Cloud Atlas as their magnum opus, it’s hard not to feel that they quickly lose themselves in this magnum opus.

Cloud Atlas Tom Hanks Halle Berry

We alternately observe the fates of six sets of characters – in the mid-19th century, a sick notary befriends a black slave during a ship journey; in 1936, a homosexual composer becomes the secretary of a cynical master; in 1973, an investigative journalist fights against a big energy company and tries to protect herself from a hired killer; and in 2012, an elderly editor plans to escape from a nursing home. Added to this are two storylines set in the future – one in futuristic Seoul, where a cloned slave encounters a member of the resistance movement, and one in a post-apocalyptic world where Tom Hanks pretends to be back on the set of Cast Away.


The whole fun of Cloud Atlas lies in the fact that each actor plays several completely different roles; women play men, men play women, black actors play white characters, white actors play Asians, and Hugh Grant plays a cannibal. Perhaps the best ensemble is given to the outrageously comedic Hugo Weaving, who in one incarnation is a ruthless killer working for an energy company, in another a slant-eyed guru, in another the sister of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and in yet another, a dark version of the Leprechaun. If we were to treat Cloud Atlas as an endless (literally, considering the film’s duration) game of quotes and borrowings, emotionally dead but fun in itself, we could somehow defend this film. There’s certainly an abundance of material here – if a character jokingly mentions Green Slime in one scene, we can be sure that the Richard Fleischer film motif will return in another story, albeit in a completely different (and much more serious) form; if a future character’s name is 451, then we already know that – as in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – they will stand up against an oppressive regime. The directing trio also references many classic films, from The Matrix to Apocalypto, and utilizes a wide spectrum of film genres – from dark dystopia to slapstick comedy.


The problem, however, lies in the tone of Cloud Atlas. Despite the humor present in the film, the Wachowskis and Tykwer don’t want to play with the audience. They want to inscribe a new Bible on the film reel. Pompous maxims and monologues assault the viewer at every turn, almost all dialogues are entirely declarative in nature, and every scene must – due to the multitude of mini-plots and the need to close each one – push the action forward. The result of such action is lamentable – Cloud Atlas is supposedly a paean to storytelling (as suggested by the film’s framing device), but it doesn’t really tell any stories. Instead, it goes on a wild ride through genres, styles, and epochs, bouncing from one timeframe to another, adding ellipses, flashbacks, and insertions, suggesting connections between the fates of characters from different timeframes, but never, absolutely never bothering to actually tell something.

Cloud Atlas Bae Doona Jim Sturgess

The Wachowskis and Tykwer don’t even have time to outline the characters’ personalities. Instead, they resort to using worn-out, familiar clichés that automatically impose these characters. So, the conflicted representative of a primitive tribe will eventually find inner strength, the passive representative of the “subhuman” species from the future will become a symbol of rebellion, and so on – these aren’t even spoilers because all of these things can be guessed after the first appearance of a character on the screen. Each story, when viewed superficially, is painfully obvious, and every conclusion is known from a thousand previous films or books. Cloud Atlas is not so much a mosaic as it is the filmic equivalent of the work of some exceptionally untalented Dr. Frankenstein (or rather, three Dr. Frankensteins) – ostensibly neatly sewn together (because the editor tries to make up for the shortcomings of the screenwriters), but still lifeless.

Cloud Atlas

During this piecing together of scraps, the creators lose the sense that supposedly organized Cloud Atlas. The film’s original tagline states that “everything is connected,” and one of the characters even claims that “every action of ours affects our lives in the future,” but the Wachowskis and Tykwer don’t deliver these maxims – cruelly banal as they are – on screen. If we follow the fates of successive incarnations of individual actors, we’ll notice that one doesn’t affect the other, and the actors play the characters because that’s what the directors wanted. The thread connecting all the stories is very thin – in one tale, letters from a previous one appear, characters from different segments share similar traits, etc. There’s no cause-and-effect relationship suggested by the advertising slogan, and the aforementioned connections are just a pretext to weave six stories together with clever editing.


So what is Cloud Atlas? A film about reincarnation, as many critics would have it? Not at all. The main (and indeed, the only) idea of Cloud Atlas simply states that our experiences, feelings, and emotions are something repeatable, something that millions of people before us have felt, and that millions more will feel in the future; that certain patterns of behavior repeat constantly throughout history, and that’s – if it can be called so loftily – the meaning of the universe. It’s not a very complicated thesis, one that ancient people had stumbled upon, but it would probably have been illustrated quite interestingly if the directorial trio had allowed the audience to come to these conclusions on their own. Instead, we’re constantly led like children, and the aforementioned truth is presented through pompous speeches uttered by characters made of cardboard.


However, it’s hard to define Cloud Atlas as an absolute disaster. It’s a film that’s impressive in some sense – in terms of the scale of production, the directorial scope, the number of worlds created on screen, and the utterly insane make up effects. And if we let some of the master Coelho’s truisms go in one ear and out the other, the viewing experience won’t be as painful as the litany of accusations above might suggest. Unfortunately, on the intellectual level, the creators keep wading in the shallows, failing to bring any of the dozen or so main characters to life, which makes Cloud Atlas a grand, sometimes unintentionally amusing, failure. Watching it is like observing the actions of a madman who deluded himself into thinking he’d build a church out of matches – he’ll never succeed, but watching him try is somewhat interesting.