Early Reviews: Is Cloud Atlas A Triumph Or A Disaster (Or Both)?
"Everything is connected," reads the tagline for Cloud Atlas. As it is with life and the history of time and humanity, so it is with film reviews; sharply divided reactions have been coming out of Toronto, where the ambitious, history-spanning epic had its world premiere. Seldom do movies garner such polarizing critical reads: Is Cloud Atlas a triumph of ambition or, as one critic spat, "a unique and totally unparalleled disaster?"
[PHOTOS: First Images From The Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas]
That biting reaction comes courtesy of The House Next Door's Calum Marsh (full review here), whose beefs — and there are many — range from technical shortcomings to wider structural issues... which, in the case of a film about human interconnectivity and spirit, which interweaves six disparate storylines set in different eras that are filmed in varying tones and genres and feature the same actors in multiple characters (and, sometimes, in yellow- and white- and whatever-face), can be a problem:
"'What is an ocean,' one character asks smugly, 'if not a multitude of drops?' And what's Cloud Atlas if not a multitude of terrible details and unwatchable moments? [...] The problem isn't that this is one of the worst films I've ever seen in my life; the problem is that it's seven of the worst films I've ever seen in my life glued together haphazardly, their inexorable badness amplified by their awkward juxtaposition. Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski wanted to make a movie unlike any other, and they certainly did: Cloud Atlas is a unique and totally unparalleled disaster."
But one critic's disaster is another's transcendent cinematic opus. Devin Faraci, reviewing in Badass Digest (full review here), gives high marks to Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer's reach as scripters and co-directors, arguing that while imperfect, Cloud Atlas is "one of the great pictures of the 21st century so far":
"Cloud Atlas is sometimes silly, and it’s sometimes pretentious and it’s sometimes overstuffed. But every single one of those things, to me, is a positive. It’s an exceptional piece of filmmaking, one of the bravest works I have ever seen. The Wachowskis have followed the poorly received final two Matrix films and the bomb of Speed Racer with a three hour meditation on the nature of human interaction, featuring a few actors in many make-ups. Some may see that as self-destructive, but I see it as incredibly heroic."
Most early reviews thus far fall at various points between Marsh and Faraci (Cloud Atlas is currently at 60 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with 10 reviews counted*). That's not too surprising, given the difficulty of the undertaking at hand; adapting David Mitchell's 500+ page novel into their own structure, no less, can be a tricky feat; doing so while pushing a sentimental theme, even moreso. Critics may agree on how the parts fit, but whether or not they see the larger picture congealing is another story.
Cloud Atlas jumps around from narrative to narrative, from an 18th century sea voyage to 1970s San Francisco to the dystopian "Neo Soul" future and beyond. At least it has stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, who appear in multiple characters throughout, to lend some star wattage. (Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Jackman, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, and Hugo Weaving fill out the cast.) Did I mention it's three hours long?
The strange thing about these early reviews is that I'm inclined to believe them all. Both sides of the coin: Triumph and, perhaps, disaster. (Then again, I loved Speed Racer. That turned out to be both at once.)
* The film's Tomatometer rating is now up to 73 percent with 15 total reviews, 11 fresh and 4 rotten. Goes to show how quickly the tide can shift so early on. We'll be keeping an eye on the critical reaction as it builds toward week of release.
Stay tuned for more on Cloud Atlas, in theaters October 26, and catch up on Movieline's coverage of the Toronto Film Festival.