What We Talk About When We Talk About Cloud Atlas

It’s like Metropolis meets The Matrix meets Magnolia meets The Road meets Star Trek meets Leprechaun meets yadda yadda yadda…ya dig?

Ahhhh…remember 1999?  It was sooooo cool to be a sophomore in college and watching movies, man…movies that spoke to my generation.  The old people just didn’t get it.  This was our time, and film was right there with us at the turn of the millennium saying, “Hey, ma!  Look at us!  We’re the first people to ever have these cool ideas!”  Of all the trailblazing films that came out that year, there are two that stick out in my mind the most as having been born of the moment – the Wachowskis’ The Matrix and Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run.  Both played with film convention while waxing about alternate realities and parallel lives, and at the time….THEY BLEW MY MIND.  Unfortunately The Matrix begat two mind-bogglingly awful sequels that tarnished the legacy of the original, and as gimmicky fun as Run Lola Run was, it just never really held up all that well.  Though I liked some of Tykwer’s later work (Perfume still has to be one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen and I was one of the few who liked The International), the Wachowskis completely imploded.  And as it turns out, all of those cool ideas were just rehashed from previous cool ideas.

Now thirteen years later after they appeared to be the second-coming of cinema only to crash and burn, the three have teamed up and concocted a dazzlingly ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s self-proclaimed unfilmable novel, Cloud Atlas – a nearly indescribable film that will infuriate those who allow it to while it should please those desiring to return to the bygone days of 1999.  So what do we talk about when we talk about Cloud Atlas? We’re talking about a return to the happier, care-free days of young adulthood where a film could espouse ideas from Philosophy 101, dress them up in epic special effects and new-agey concepts, and you would buy into it wholesale.  We’re talking about ambitious, heart-driven cinema full of energy and moxy that almost careens off a cliff into mawkishness.  We’re talking about a film about love, destiny, reincarnation, standing up to oppression, art and uncovering the truth of the universe and the meaning of life, or as one character would put it, discovering the tru-tru.  We’re talking about a film that tries to be everything to everyone all at once.

Corkscrewing six disparate tales spanning hundreds of years and multiple continents, Cloud Atlas features genre-busting stories and a gender-bending all-star cast.  The idea of actors and actresses playing multiple roles (and sometimes multiple races and genders) across multiple lives must’ve been something that spoke deeply to transgender filmmaker Lana (nee Larry) Wachowski, and the opportunity to play against type multiple times in the same film must’ve appealed to aging and increasingly marginalized award-winning superstars like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant.  Packed into the swollen but quickly zipping-by three hours are a period piece about slavery and poisoning aboard a ship sailing from the South Pacific, a doomed romance in 1930’s England focused on musical composition, a 1970’s set political thriller in San Francisco, a contemporary comedy about a publisher (Jim Broadbent) trying to break-out of a dastardly rest home in which he was imprisoned as a cruel joke,  a dystopian Korean-set sci-fi opera about a fabricated woman (Doona Bae) rallying against society that was inspired as much by The Matrix as it was by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and a post-apocalyptic epic featuring tattooed cannibals and a top-hat wearing giant leprechaun with feathered fingers version of the devil played by Hugo Weaving (a villain spanning the centuries in various and sometimes hilarious forms) that was surprisingly my favorite piece of the lot.

Major credit has to be given to editor Alexander Berner, who in following the convoluted screenplay from the three directors, whips the ricocheted stories up into a Magnolia-esque maelstrom of genre-defying entertainment.  The viewer is never allowed to stay in one story for too long, which works wonders for covering up some of the inherent silliness and clichés.  Separated, only perhaps the two future-set stories could hold any weight and stand on their own, but woven together by coincidence, literature, art, music, repetitive themes and ping-ponging cast members in multiple roles, the stories sing…and I was surprised at how caught up in all of them I became (even the lame 70’s set thriller about journalism).  As corny as some of the “love is a force of nature” and “we’re all interconnected” stuff became, I can’t deny I was transfixed for most of the time not only by the visual effects and sweeping scenery but also by the giddy game guessing which star was sporting which ridiculous make-up or over-the-top costume.  And believe me, the make-up and costumes span the full spectrum of “WOW! What an amazing job!” to “WOW! What the hell were they thinking?”

I often find myself rolling my eyes at my 19 year-old self and the films I loved in 1999.  But hey, man, they were entertaining and pretty cool at the time and you still have to admire the ambition of the filmmakers and the openness of the love my generation wanted to shower on them.  I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t roll my eyes at some parts of Cloud Atlas, and while this type of film doesn’t speak to me on any deeper level anymore, I would also be lying if I said I didn’t find it to be a whole lotta fun.  Some rare movies, like the most outlandish of old mythology tales told over and over across eons, are a trip, man…and Cloud Atlas is one of ’em.

Written by David H. Schleicher



  1. Ahhhh…yes, I do remember 1999. Started the year as a junior in college and ended it only 12 credits away from graduation. Also met the woman who would become my wife. Also shot, edited, and screened a feature-length video at my college (my one shining moment in filmmaking). Also saw LOTS and LOTS of movies. It truly was a great year for film, with such an eclectic mix of styles and themes being presented, along with visionary directors blazing new paths that, unfortunately for some, ended up sputtering out as the 00’s began. I saw THE MATRIX opening weekend and I still remember wondering if I was feeling the same thing that audiences who saw the first STAR WARS opening weekend had felt, that sense of being there at the ground level for something new and exciting. And seeing RUN LOLA RUN by myself at the Ritz at the Bourse, taking in such a cool movie in such a cool movie-watching environment, was an experience I won’t soon forget. True, both movies have paled with the passing of time, but I still enjoy them today, as I do many other movies from ’99.

    If this were ’99, I’d have seen CLOUD ATLAS the Friday it opened. Times being what they are, though, I may have to wait for DVD. The “Me” from ’99 would surely be aghast about that!

    • Chris – great story! And in the words of Bob Dylan – yes, “The Times They Are a Changin.” It still boggles my mind to look back on 1999 – a year where even the bad films (Deep Blue Sea, anyone?) were good.

      Just consider the overflow of quality films that year, many of them from up-and-comers:

      American Beauty
      Being John Malcovich
      Fight Club
      The Sixth Sense
      The Matrix
      South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
      Eyes Wide Shut
      The Limey
      The End of the Affair
      Run Lola Run
      Office Space
      The Straight Story

      So many of them have not aged well, and ironically it’s the ones that slipped through the cracks then (Ravenous, The End of the Affair, and to some extent Magnolia, though that got plenty of ballyhoo upon its release) that I find myself returning to again and again and appear now ageless. But what an awesome time capsule of “our generation” the other movies make!

  2. Love your analogy with 1999. It truly was an eye-opening, endearing year for me too. The Matrix was a trendsetter and continues to be a cult classic for me. But I agree it doesn’t stand that well now, after all these years.

    1999 was also the year of movies like Eyes Wide Shut and The Sixth Sense, which at that point were wonderful movies for me. Right now, I would think twice before watching reruns (specially the latter).

    Thankfully, 1999 also gave us movies like Fight Club and American Beauty (Sam Mendes). Coincidentally, like the Wachowskis’, Mendes too is treading a different path and is all ready with the next Bond installment–Skyfall. But thankfully a Bond film makes no pretensions of being anything more than escapist spy entertainment.

    Whoa! How one topic about 1999 lead me all the way to Skyfall. We’ve come a long way since the summer of 99′, haven’t we David? Thanks for the nostalgia trip.

    And I plan to try and map Cloud Atlas myself this week. Hopefully, it’ll rekindle the dormant film reviewer in me.

    • Prakash – wow, yeah, who would’ve ever thought the Sam Mendes would end up directing a Bond film! (That looks like great fun btw). Man, it’s so interesting to see the evolution of these filmmakers who rose to prominence in the late 90’s – some would say they all (with the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson and to some extent Spike Jonze) have “sold out.” And The Sixth Sense is the epitome of a film that does not hold up over time – and its director, once thought a godsend, is the epitome of how wrong a career can go.

  3. I thought the jumping from one story to another was reminiscent of “Love Actually”, an element I loved, actually. I enjoyed the fact that they removed the book’s pacing to better compare elements from all six story lines. Discovery, incarceration, escape, fear, hope, etc. The make-up and costuming was fantastic and jarring if only for a moment and then I wanted to see how they develop this incarnation of that actor/actress.
    I enjoyed the movie. I feel like I’ve seen something that others will see in time. Just like when my friend and I went to the Ritz at the Bourse (thanks for the reminder Chris) to see “Life is Beautiful”. This movie will be referenced someday and I can say “yes, I’ve seen that movie, yes it was powerful and changed my point of view”.

    • Holy cow, Boz, you’re right – it was kinda like Love Actually!

      And man, Life is Beautiful…I cringe at the thought of that film now (mostly due to Benigni’s schtick which is so overbearing now but was new and charming then) – but what a unique and moving experience that was when I first saw it. I think I saw that a few times in the theaters…it was one of those films you talked other people into “sharing” with you. I can see Cloud Atlas being like that as well.

  4. Great review and the tie back to bring us back to 99. Well done sir, so many good memories. I am planning on seeing this one in the next couple of days. Cant wait for the trip.

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