In my not-so-humble opinion—don’t even waste your time going to see the muddled, befuddled, confusing, disjointed, at times embarrassingly bad “Cloud Atlas,” an ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful and disappointing, $100 million flop from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer. An array of elaborate visual effects and make-up effects—and acting gimmicks–cannot save this story, which tries too hard, takes on too much, and ends up sinking fast from its horribly disconnected, jumpy and wayward storytelling. Although the film tries to tell several generation-jumping stories at the same time, and tries to weave them all together, and tries


Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant

by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski

Produced by Grant Hill, Stefan Amdt, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski

Written by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowsk, based on the book of the same name by David Mitchell

to make some mysterious, but unclear, point about reincarnation and rebirth—it’s just not successful on a smart, consistent storytelling level. The stories do not seamlessly connect, the messages and themes are buried under the weight of the project’s lofty goals, and several underlying ugliness, meanness, violent and depressing aspects just sink the entire thing to a below-average level.  I just can’t recommend this film on any level.  I can’t recommend it to science-fiction, fantasy or supernatural fans—because it ends up being unappealing and unsatisfying on all of those levels.To the many people who said David Mitchell’s 2004 book was “unfilmable”—-they were right.

That said, it’s interesting to note that some folks have ranted and raved about this film, but, guess what?  Good and bad reviews occur with just about every film, even some films considered by most film observers to be classics and standards. It’s part of the process. That obvious bit of film criticism history is only noted in regards to “Cloud Atlas” because this film is one of those confusing, overly-ambitious films that’s going to hoodwink, scam and fool some misguided souls into thinking that it is a good film because of its scope, ambition, broad and complex storytelling, array of actors in different roles (this is not the first time in the history of film that several actors have played several roles in a movie!), length, effects and determination to proceed despite everything stacked against it. It’s that time of film—battle lines will be drawn as to whether it succeeds or not—but in this corner, from this respective perspective, this film is one huge, gigantic, meandering and misguided flop.

The problems mainly rest with the disjointed and jumbled storytelling. The Wachowskis and Tykwer—all three produced, directed and wrote the film—try very hard to tell a collection of individual stories and try very hard to connect these stories, and try very hard to make some type of point with all of the stories. However, the stories drag on, several just aren’t that interesting, there’s no depth there—yes, everyone will argue that there’s nothing but depth and it’s about all these things, blah, blah, and, most importantly and most glaringly, the stories simply do not connect and make their attempted points in a clever, interesting, unique, original and intelligent manner. They just don’t. What you do get is a jumpy, jangled, entangled and just messy barrage and bombardment of little individual tales that stretch from the 1930s to the future, that don’t connect, as noted, and generally ramble on far too long. And, in a seemingly desperate attempt to wrap everything up near the end before the next millennium begins, a frenzied attack of jumpy editing, rushed exposition, decreased expectations and long-windedness occurs to finish the stories and get to the end credits so the film could finally end. At about 165 minutes, the film does not justify its length, and the film rambles on far too long.

The argument raised by some that if you have not read the book, the film won’t make sense just simply does not cut it—here or for any film in film history. That lame debate is just a sorry, juvenile excuse, is amateurish, and is an offense to the art of film. A film—any film—should stand on its own. A film viewer should not have had to read a source book before viewing a film. The film should stand on its own—point-blank. Anyone who makes any argument to the contrary completely misunderstands the very essences of the book and film mediums. They are different mediums.

Sometimes, a book is just a book, and a film is just a film.

“Cloud Atlas” has stalwart troupers Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant—good actors all, but not always during all of the scenes of this film—trying their best to earnestly make sense of the various comings and goings. They all turn in what some could or would consider a high-level acting exercise—playing various characters in various time periods with various make-up and costumes and accents.  That’s difficult and ambitious under any circumstances—granted.  It’s a taxing exercise, and not everyone can pull it off—granted. And it takes a foundation of acting experience and knowledge to pull off this trick.  However—and it’s a big however—no matter how many different characters, time periods, rubber and latex and other make-up materials, costumes and accents these actors deliver in “Cloud Atlas,” at times it seems the entire project weighed them down, and their energy seems to deflate about two-thirds of the way through the film. And some of the make-up affects don’t register as anything other than a gimmick. And some of the accents—Hanks’ country-bumpkin, distant-Gump-relative shepherd country accent especially and some of the more absurd future-settings accents—simply don’t succeed at all. Some of the acting seems forced, some of the characterizations fail to register on a big level, and some of the scenes are so poorly-written and campily staged and blocked, the whole thing just falls apart.

The story attempts to weave together a collage mish-mash of tales involving characters from the 1930s, the 1970s and the present day—those were directed by Tykwer—and more characters from the 1800s and two periods set in the future—those were directed by the Wachowskis. Although one of the basic points and premises is that the actions of one person could impact the actions of many other people, in small and big ways, and in good and bad ways, and that perhaps there is a touch of reincarnation and spiritual rebirth among people through the ages, the story, again, just is not clever enough to connect everything in a consistently clever, intelligent, interesting or entertaining manner. It doesn’t help that for two hours and 40 minutes, the film constantly jumps back and forth from period to period, character to character, story to story.  The result is a disconnected array of stories that seem to perhaps connect, but perhaps don’t connect.  It’s all too muddled and confusing to seamlessly connect in a satisfying manner.  And, unfortunately, some of the futuristic stories and scenes just come across as campy—but without the intended humor or sarcasm that saves some camp. It’s not presented for laughs, yet some of the futuristic scenes are just laughable, as the acting, costuming and stories themselves fall flat.

The problems with “Cloud Atlas” could have been solved easily—the film would have worked better told in a chronological order, with each individual story greatly condensed and shortened, and with less hectic, frenetic and violent editing. A smoother, cleaner, less gritty and more stylishly presented chronological story that started with the earliest period, and then steadily continued through the following periods, ending in the future, would have worked much better. And a two-hour running time would have also worked better. Many of the scenes just simply could have been cut completely, with no loss to the story or the storytelling.  There are those who would argue this, of course—but a story told in a non-complicated, straightforward manner–and chronologically–generally wins out over a tiring back-and-forth, back-and-forth.

It’s interesting to note that “Cloud Atlas” is being released soon after the far-better—and successful—“Looper,” which managed to also present a storyline that overlapped different time periods and also included characters that exist in different time periods.  But “Looper” had a very clever story and backstory, and was directed with a steady, suspenseful pace, was interesting, and managed to contemplate similar themes of people during one time affecting people during another time with standard, time-tested and clever science-fiction tenets.  “Looper,” then, works on every level where “Cloud Atlas” fails.

The Wachowski siblings (Larry had a sex-change operation, is considered transgender, and now goes by the name Lana) are riding a tricky sliding slope of mediocrity or sub-mediocrity, with the failures of the second and third “Matrix” films (both unnecessary), “V for Vendetta,” “Speed Racer” and now “Cloud Atlas.”   They bring to mind the equally slope-sliding M. Night Shyamalan, who, similarly, started off strong with his first film and then proceeded to spew out some mediocre or below-average fare.  All of them need to take a few steps back from everything, take a few deep breaths—and find a script that tells a real story, in real time, with real people that real people will care about.  Perhaps their next films should be small, low-budgeted, non-fantasy/horror/science-fiction/supernatural, and involve down-to-earth, grounded, normal folks.  The same advice equally applies to Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and J. J. Abrams. The kid-in-a-candy-store approach to moviemaking eventually wears thin, is noticeably juvenile and amateurish, and eventually turns away filmgoers.

To paraphrase Casey Kasem, it’s okay to reach for the stars–and the clouds–but it’s also good to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.