NSFCCDP Movie Review: Cloud Atlas (2012) – Webs of Self-Realization and their Consequences

Doona-Bae-in-Cloud-AtlasI finally got out to the cinema after a 3-month hiatus, but I was well-awarded with the excellence that is Cloud Atlas. Actually, I was with NSFCCDP’ers m.poulet, juju, and his gf. In this article, I propose to cover several aspects of the film: its unique matricidal structure, the themes of redemption and self-discovery that are present throughout, and then some ponderings on why this film flopped so hard in the US.
_1351547825The film is an intricate web of 6 stories from disparate periods of history recycling the same actors in a myriad of different roles. As the info graphic from the web on the right shows, the periods are all roughly a century apart and cover most of the globe. The stories  are a;; unique: the slavery ship voyage in the South Pacific in the 1800s, the homosexual musical tragedy in Scotland in the 1900s, a politically charged thriller in San Franciso in the 70s, the British old folks comedy in England in our times, a revolution of the clones in Neo-Seoul in the 22nd century, and an apocalyptic story set way in an indeterminant future “after the fall”. The stories combine elements of classic cinematic themes: sea voyages, the desperate artist, car chases, ribald comedy, science fiction (very, very Matrix-inspired), and a pseudo-western (although m.poulet felt it was more of a Planet of the Aps). The way the film was stitched together leaves the audience constantly guessing and never bored at all. The camerawork is outstanding with dozens of difference sets all with unique lighting requirements and the makeup is VERY convincing. There were lots of laughs at the end when we get to see the characters and the actors playing them because there were several surprises. From a pure entertainment and Hollywoodian technical perspective, this film was FAR better than Argo (and CERTAINLY featured MUCH better acting) in nearly every way: better makeup, more complex and coherent plot, more believable characters, etc. All four of us were a bit taken back that Cloud Atlas was forgotten during the Oscars a few weeks ago.

What seemed to me to be the common theme (other than the more explicitly stated ones of love, etc) in this film was self-discovery and redemption (or lack thereof). In the first tableau, the main character evolves into a suffrage activist and is redeemed by survived, finding his wife and leaving the oppressive in-law’s home for a new life. The second story (the most negative of the 6) was a tragedy where the principle character hoped to transcend his mediocre station in society, but his sexual preference betrays him and he is not able to achieve redemption in time. In the comedy, the unlikeable and fearful old man has the balls to escape from the retirement prison (with an extraordinary performance by Hugo Weaving as the Evil Nurse!!) and even win back his true love from decades past. In the thriller, Halle Berry remains faithful to her father’s legacy and saves 1000s of lives by exposing the plot to explode the reactor. In the future, the clone actually discovers love and transcends her semi-human state to become a sacrificial but critical symbol in the liberation movement. In the last story, Tom Hank‘s character is able to shirk off his demon (played amazingly well by Hugo Weaving once again!) and save the little girl and even Halle Berry’s character (sort of finding a lost courage like in the modern comedic story). So each story, gives us a human story of self-discovery and sometimes redemption. The story arcs were wonderfully weaved throughout because at the point where one of the more amicable characters dies and all the other heros seem in desperate peril, all of the destinies start to take off and the tone of the film becomes transcendent and positive. It was extremely well-orchestrated and left us breathless.

Lastly, why didn’t this film work in the US? One thought I had was an analogy to the types of painting that Americans typically like to go see here in Paris: Impressionist paintings. They have a single subject which takes a while to put together into one cohesive picture but they are relatively easy to interpret and derive meaning from – like Argo. There was no real complexity and almost no real suspense to the film since we all knew the outcome way in advance and the story was totally straight-forward. When we look at Cloud Atlas, it is more like looking at a Medieval triptych (sextych?) because here we have 6 relatively simple (and even iconic) stories interwoven together – like when we see the lives of the Saints and of Jesus and Mary all on the same wood or tapestry. When I walk around European museums (and I do that A LOT), there is very rarely a flock of Americans in the Medieval section. Now, the counter-argument would be, “yeah but look at TV series that have 6-10 subplots (or even more like in, say, Game of Thrones)”. My answer would be that TV series can do that because the story is developed over 13 to 16 hours typically and also over multiple years and/or seasons. In Cloud Atlas, we are presented with 6 parallel stories each with considerable complexity and character development, each with an independent (although with some parallels) story arc, and all concluding in 2h46m. Perhaps the American audience just couldn’t deal with that kind of density for whatever reason. Perhaps readers would like to debate the point in the comments?


About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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3 Responses to NSFCCDP Movie Review: Cloud Atlas (2012) – Webs of Self-Realization and their Consequences

  1. m.poulet says:

    Great review.
    For my part I thought the mane theme was liberty and exercising free will.

  2. SophieAtherton says:

    Thanks for the link to my blog (prettylittlethingsmagazine.wordpress.com) I hope you enjoyed my review! Agree totally with what you’ve said in your post and can see what you meant by the Neo-Seoul plot being influenced by the Matrix, I have to add how much better this film is than any of the Matrix films though! I’ve never been much of a fan of the trilogy if I’m being honest, but this story-line did pay homage to them a little. Cloud Atlas was under-rated by critics and so not many people went to see it which is a shame because the narrative was so intricately constructed and it overall proved a very rewarding watch. Hopefully it’ll prove to be a cult classic in the future like so many box office flops before it. (:

  3. Pingback: Movie Reviews: My Top SciFi Films for 2013 | Fino's Weblog

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