Cloud Atlas – Review

tt1371111Cloud Atlas – Review

Film Review by FilmFellaHenry – 9.5/10

The world of film can be a fickle mistress. On one hand, it promises to indulge your escapist desires, whisking you away to worlds far better than this; on the other, it usually delivers what can at best be labelled a mis-sold lesson in disappointment. Years can pass, auditoriums flooded with mediocre celluloid, the whiff of greatness a bygone memory. But then something amazing happens. A film appears that dares challenge the banality of its contemporaries, bold enough to restore the jaded palette of a schlock-weary viewer. A film that strikes a chord so deep and resonant that an audience is reminded, with gusto, of why motion pictures still remain the superior art form.

For me, that film is Cloud Atlas.


Spread across six stories that span oceans of time, Cloud Atlas (adapted from David Mitchell’s bestselling book) delves into past, present and future, linked together by a powerful overarching theme. Beginning in 1800’s slave-ridden America, we follow lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) on his journey to procure slaves from the Pacific. Falling sick, Ewing becomes subject to the ministrations of Dr Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) and encounters runaway slave Autua (David Gyasi), an experience that irrevocably changes his outlook on life. Jump to 1930’s Britain and meet Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a young aspiring composer and all round scoundrel. Planning to aid ageing maestro Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) in creating his final masterpiece, Frobisher strikes an ill-balanced relationship where the fate of a truly timeless orchestration hangs in the balance. Jump again and we’re in ’70’s America, where plucky journalist Louisa Rey (Halle Berry) becomes embroiled in secrets, corporate subterfuge and murder, haunted by fragments of a familiar past. Now it’s present day and low-rent literary publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) finds himself captive in an unusual prison after a lifetime of bad choices finally catch up with him. Cut to a dystopian future where synthetic humans are the new slave race, forced into unquestioning servitude to their ‘pureblood’ masters. But one fabricant, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), is different, set to usurp the assumed natural order of things and challenge the very foundations of modern power. And finally, we are in the far future, where a primitive humanity now struggles to survive in a world of cannibals and radiation sickness.


After reading what is possibly the longest and yet most concise synopsis I’ve had to write, I imagine you’re thinking: ‘how the hell have they fit all that in one film?’ It’s a heavy watch, I’ll grant you, in the sense that it does demand viewer effort to keep up with a particularly skittish narrative. Jumping between stories may initially seem like a confusing way of portraying such a rich plot; however due to the cyclic quality of each storyline, by the third act everything seems to fall into place nicely. And considering the film’s underlying message, such disregard for chronology is certainly appropriate and arguably the best way to retell Mitchell’s engrossing story.


But where the real magic lies is within the characters and the unconventional way they are used. Playing multiple characters of varying gender, race and age, Cloud Atlas becomes a showcase for performance diversity, such as Ben Whishaw’s transformation from dandy musician, to middle aged married woman, then a 19th century ship’s cabin boy. Although undeniably indebted to an incredible makeup department, the seemingly effortless transition from role to role is indicative of the actor talent on display and the according necessary directorial skills. But strangely enough, the player that impressed me the most wasn’t one of the main ensemble, like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry or Jim Broadbent… it was actually that awkward smug Brit Hugh Grant. Seriously, I reckon Cloud Atlas contains by far the best performances of his career.


You can’t review a Wachowski film without mentioning the visuals… and Cloud Atlas certainly doesn’t disappoint. From bleak tech-infused futuristic vistas, to high-speed, gun-blasting action sequences, it’s reassuringly clear the duo are in familiar territory. With a broad, bright colour palette and consistently good cinematography, Cloud Atlas manages to give each story its own subtle visual style that further helps segment the film. And to prevent the constant narrative transitions from feeling jarring, some intelligent editing comes into play, making Cloud Atlas run incredibly smoothly.


Finally I come to the impressive score forged by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer. Essentially the film’s music is an elongated version of the Cloud Atlas Sextet created within the film, which is destined to be an enduring and influential factor within the story. Having to score something that actually lives up to this reputation is an appreciably daunting task, which if insufficient, would seriously undermine the film’s narrative. Thankfully, what Heil, Klimek and Tykwer have created is a fabulous piece of music, both lavish and simplistic, full of sweeping string melodies and powerful brass undertones. And for those who remember Run Lola Run‘s electronica driven orchestrations, take note that it was the same three composers who scored that film too: such a diversity in music production is impressive to say the least.


I think it’s clear from the above gushing that I really, really enjoyed Cloud Atlas. It has everything I want to see in a film: interesting high concept narrative, impressive performances, beautiful visuals and a score that I simply cannot stop listening to. And importantly, this is one of the very few films I’ve seen that surpasses the original source material.


But if I were to boil the film down to a single statement, it would be this: Not since The Fountain have I watched a film as thoroughly satisfying as Cloud Atlas.


About filmfellahenry
Film reviewer, script writer and occasional painter. Fan of Lumet, Aronofsky and Kubrick, with a good measure of early John Carpenter thrown in. Particularly like post-apocalyptic sci-fi, horror and fantasy film genres.

12 Responses to Cloud Atlas – Review

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Excellent review Henry. I’ve heard some mixed opinions on this one but I really like the sound of it and your rating is high praise indeed. Can’t wait to see it.

    • filmfellahenry says:

      Thanks Mark. Normally I’m a bit hesitant when rating a film 9 or above, but i felt that this definitely deserved it. I think a lot of people’s issues are fundamentally to do with the fact that it’s not easily accessible: I’ve read the book and watched it three times already and Im sure there’s still stuff I’ve missed. Personally I find such a quality to be a boon that gives the film additional depth, like with Closer or Revolver.

      Hope you enjoy it!

  2. Filmfella Darren says:

    Kudos Henry, I’ve just seen Cloud Atlas and I can see that to boil the plot details of such an epic, sprawling narrative that somewhat successfully transcends eons of time and space, is a Film Critic’s nightmare. So you did this admirably in your review.

    In all my years of knowing you, I don’t remember you ever being so swept away by a film. It is a very original and ludicrously ambitious film, set on a scale that has never been done before, to convey a message – that to my knowledge – hasn’t been conveyed. In think it is to be expected that something with such ambition and vision is going to have its flaws though. I did enjoy it, and I can’t remember watching a film that I instantly wanted to start over as much as Cloud Atlas, but I can’t say I was as overcome by it as you and personally I can see the narrative flaws vividly.

    Perhaps it’s because I don’t believe in the overall message the film is trying to suggest but I wasn’t as moved by it as you were. The idea we are all interconnected in this life and lives beyond and that love transcends time and space isn’t a view that I believe in and personally I thought there were some tenuous links between the stories in attempt to get this message across. The various narrative strands didn’t tie together as poetically as the film thinks they do. As you rightly suggest, for the large part of the film, well over two hours, audiences are kept completely in the dark as to what is exactly going on in each of the several narrative strands. Most people are going to give up on the film well before the final third as it appears maddeningly complicated. Those who stick with it though, will see that it isn’t as complicated as it tries to suggest, and personally I thought some of the sections viewed in their entirety were rather simplistic and some sections were definitely stronger than other.

    The multi-stranded narrative almost feels episodic by the end, due to the sense that some of the stories feel tenuously linked. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t find it as profound as it is trying to be until just after the credits roll, when the pictures of all the cast members pop up to show you just how many roles each actor played. This was used as a way of showcasing the acting talent on display and a way to show off the incredible make-up effects but actually, it highlighted one of the biggest problems with the film. Some of the actors appear in the stories as only bit parts, not even cameos more like extras in certain scenes.

    It’s seems that they couldn’t really write the stories so each of the actors reprise strong roles in the other narratives, so sometimes they have just walk on parts just to convey the somewhat forced sense that all the characters are effecting each other’s lives in one lifetime and the next. Jim Broadbent playing a blindman in the futuristic story, blink and you’d miss it. Halle Berry made to look like a slave in the 1800 story – almost no screen time. I could list more. Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving characters however had much stronger definition in each story, playing similar antagonistic roles in each dimension. Perhaps you could say that to give each character a fully three-dimensional role would extend the screen-time even further, so perhaps it eventually falls victim to its own ambition. Maybe I will prove myself wrong on my second viewing but I can’t help feeling that my opinion on the film will strengthen on my next viewing. I can’t help feel that you got more out of the film due to the fact you read the source material. That shooting star birthmark thing seemed a little gimmicky, almost a way of saying to the people totally perplexed by the suggested complexity of it all: ‘look everyone, these characters are all interconnected. Was that really in the book? Last word I wasn’t totally convinced by Tom Hanks. Some of his performances were borderline caricatures – the Irish one particularly. And I saw more than a bit of his Ladykillers performance creep into his roles here. Plus Jim Broadbent plays his usual befuddled old, doe-eyed pensioner many times over in this film. I look forward to debating this one with you in the future. In this life and the next!

    • filmfellahenry says:

      Wow. Lengthy comment darren, despite you not enjoying Cloud Atlas as much as I did, it has obviously provoked the critic in you!

      At the risk of seeming like a timid withdrawal, I’ll hold off responding to you for now, with the recommendation that you give the film another watch. While I partially agree with some of your points, I think there’s a good chance that many of them, particularly surrounding narrative, will be resolved on a rewatch. Personally, it took me three goes round to fully appreciate all the story links and i dare say there is still more for me to garner on a fourth viewing.

  3. Stan says:

    I recommend you watch the film Mr Nobody (2009). It has picked up a cult following and is considered the one best film of the 21st century.


    • filmfellahenry says:

      Thanks Stan. I actually have a copy of Mr Nobody lying around which I have yet to watch, though I do intend to give it a shot soon.

  4. Very good review, but I can’t stand this film. I can’t even explain why – I can’t even form an opinion 😛

    • filmfellahenry says:

      Thanks for reading Thea. Perhaps on a re-watch you may change your mind… or hate it even more!

  5. conordcfc says:

    Great review, nice to see you enjoyed the movie as much as me! Take a look at my review if you have the time 🙂

    • filmfellahenry says:

      Thanks Conord! Can’t believe it wasn’t even nominated for Best Editing at the Oscars, but I guess that’s just another reason why I’ve given up watching them.

  6. Anand says:

    Great review. Clod Atlas is one of my favourite movies ever. It was disappointing to find out out that it went unnoticed at the Oscars

    • filmfellahenry says:

      Thanks for reading Anand, Glad to see another stalwart fan, I too am amazed by the lack of industry recognition the film’s received. Perhaps Hollywood is just bitter at being spurned for European funding.

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