Cloud Atlas (2012) – Just a Load of Hot Air…


I was reading about clouds today, because I was trying to come up with a facetious analogy to start off my Cloud Atlas review, and to my embarrassment, I realised that I wasn’t sure how clouds form.

One type of cloud, I learned, is a convection cloud (Cumulus and Cumulonimbus clouds are brilliant examples of these – check this out –


– formed by water vapour in rising columns of hot air condensing into droplets, and ganging together to create what most people imagine when they hear the word “cloud”. )

It is also the type of cloud some people like to look at when laying around in the park, trying to spot clouds which resemble familiar shapes – an elephant, a whale, a giraffe, or perhaps Lady Gaga receiving a Grammy award.

Which brings us to Cloud Atlas, an ambitious and mercurial era-hopping sci-fi drama directed by the Wachowski siblings and Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer.  Adapted from David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, the film presents itself as a high-minded epic, although like our friends the Cumulus and Cumulonimbus, is formed by lots of hot air.  Weaving six stories spanning hundreds of years, it occasionally appears to take the shape of meaningful things we recognise, buts turns out vaporous and lacking any real substance.

Or to describe it another way, it is a bit like a six ring circus, full of clowns in funny make up and high-flying acrobats.  All very entertaining until disaster strikes – the big top collapses and the lights go out, trapping the audience underneath in the dark, wondering what the fuck is going on and if anyone’s coming to rescue them.

The first tale, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”, tells of a naive young man (Jim Sturgess) returning on a long journey from a remote island in the Pacific.  An escaped slave, Autua (David Gyasi), has recognised Ewing as a compassionate man and a potential friend, and stowed away in his cabin.  Meanwhile, Dr Goose (Tom Hanks), posing as Ewing’s friend, has diagnosed him with a deadly parasite.  Pretending to cure him, Goose is actually poisoning his young gullible friend for the contents of his chest.

The second segment, “Letters From Zedelgem”, sees a talented bisexual student, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) leave Cambridge and his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) behind to pursue a job as amanuensis in Edinburgh for a dried up old composer, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent).  While working for Ayrs, Frobisher is able to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”.  Ayrs is an avaricious mentor, however, and threatens to expose Frobisher if he doesn’t allow the elder composer to take credit for the piece.

The Third is “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery”, a paranoid thriller set in the Seventies starring Halle Berry as an intrepid investigative journalist trying to uncover a conspiracy involving a nuclear reactor.  She meets a nerdy scientist, Isaac Sachs (Hanks again), a man torn between keeping schtum and saving his job, and perhaps his life, and helping Rey blow the whistle on a plot to deliberately let a nuclear reactor blow up.

The fourth segment, seemingly thrown in for comic relief, is “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”, sees Broadbent centre stage as a shifty publisher who sees his chance of fortune when one of his clients, local villain Dermot Hoggins (Hanks), takes an exception to a critic’s slating of his memoir “Knuckle Sandwich” and hurls him off the roof at a dinner party.

Cavendish doesn’t bank on Hoggin’s villainous family paying him a visit and demanding money.  He appeals to his brother, Denholme (Hugh Grant), for help, but Denholme’s “help” sees Cavendish imprisoned in a retirement home.  With the help of some other residents, Cavendish plans a break out…

The fifth segment, “An Orison of Sonmi-451” is simultaneously Cloud Atlas’s most important, most spectacular, and most tiresome segment.  It starts off strong, introducing the titular Sonmi-451, a fabricant, or genetically engineered woman who waits tables at a garish canteen in Neo Seoul (You know you’re in the future now – it’s “Neo” Seoul rather than “New” Seoul, and guess what?  Yes, there’s flying cars!)


Sonmi starts developing ideas of her own when a rebellious fellow fabricant starts showing her clips of old movies (a film adaptation of “The Ghastly Ordeal of Thomas Cavendish”, starring Tom Hanks).  After her friend’s failed escape bid, she is sprung from the fast food joint by the mysterious Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess again), who wants her to lead a rebellion against the system.

Lastly, in the dubiously titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”, we get to stare at Hanks and Berry’s ultra-sincere mugs again as a post-apocalyptic goatherd Zachry and a space-catsuited visitor from a high-tech world, Meronym, respectively.

Zachry’s primitive community lives under constant threat from a band of cannibals, led rather improbably by Hugh Grant.  Meronym wants Zachry to take her to the summit of a mountain to find the Cloud Atlas.  Zachry’s decisions are troubled by the devil, or “Old Georgie”, depicted by Hugo Weaving poncing around in green make up and a top hat.  “Old Georgie” may ring bells with fans of the cult comedy series The Mighty Boosh

"Old Georgie" or...

“Old Georgie” or…

...The Hitcher from Mighty Boosh?

…The Hitcher from Mighty Boosh?

The first hour of Cloud Atlas introduces all these stories brilliantly and vividly to life, with the rare confidence found in truly classic movies.  I honestly believed I was about to witness something special, as the Wachowskis and Tykwer told their tales and Editor Alexander Berner done such a nimble and elegaic job of weaving the strands together.

The problem?  The film doesn’t really change in tone, and the six separate parts don’t connect in the ways the filmmakers perhaps hoped they would.  Because Cloud Atlas keeps skipping around through time, there is very little opportunity to actually connect with any of the characters, leaving a gigantic vacuum where the movie’s heart should be.

As the author Mitchell describes it, “We stay in each of the six worlds just long enough for the hook to be sunk in, and from then on the film darts from world to world at the speed of a plate-spinner, revisiting each narrative for long enough to propel it forward.”

It also doesn’t help that for all the film’s po-faced sincerity, it veers wildly from mean-spirited gore to outright farce, largely due to the actors and actresses popping up in each segment, usually hidden by prosthetic noses,  wigs, blackface and dubious slanty eyes last seen when Peter Ustinov played Charlie Chan.

Tom Hanks comes off worst, labouring under a pile of comedy wigs and funny noses, looking like the make up department just found one of Peter Seller’s boxes of costumes from his Inspector Clouseau days.

Everyone coming into contact with Cloud Atlas will surely celebrate the presence of Jim Broadbent.  For a film partly directed by the Wachowskis, whose Matrix Trilogy grossed over 1.5 billion, and the headlining presence of serial award winners Hanks and Berry, it takes a sixty-something veteran British thesp to give the film some energy and soul.

By the time the credits rolled, I felt rather irritated and empty by Cloud Atlas, as if the three-hour movie I’d just watched somehow vanished from under me.  For all its chilly pretentiousness and aloof beauty, the point it was trying to make by cross-cutting all these segments seemed maddeningly elusive, or perhaps deliberately elliptical.  The overall tone of the film is such that you feel the filmmakers would be too sniffy to actually make their point clear – that might be a bit vulgar, perhaps, and you know you’re in the presence of smart-arses by use of words like “amanuenis”.  But since none of the film (apart from Broadbent) resonated on a human level, I couldn’t be bothered to think about it too much afterwards.

About leerobertadams

Lee is an English writer, blogger and film critic living in Brno, Czech Republic. When not watching and writing about movies, he loves football, reading, eating out, and enjoying his adopted home city with his girlfriend and two children.

Posted on 02/02/2014, in Adventure, C, Film, Movies, Reviews, sci fi and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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