Cloud Atlas - Why the Critics Are Wrong (SPOILERS)


No need to read this if you already wanna see the movie. But if you already saw it then maybe this will be interesting to read.

Whatever man it's opinions!

I saw the movie "Cloud Atlas" tonight. As soon as I saw the trailer I knew that I had to see it in theatres, becuase it was obviously a visual spectacle and also a movie that tried to do a lot, to dare new things. Here's the trailer in case you didn't see it:

But first, let me ramble about the critics.

The Critics

Looking at rotten tomatoes, it seems like this movie has been panned rather thoroughly. This I absolutely can't understand.

Nonetheless the core criticisms seem to be:

  • It's self-important or pretentious
  • It's confusing and inconsistant in it's meaning

Just so you know, these are both absolutely wrong.

First let's look at what it really means to be pretentious. Self-important or pretentious is where something puts itself to be something more than it is; when a movie that is really trite or simple plays itself as something sophisticated or meaningful.

But this is an obviously expertly-made, impeccably-acted film with lofty ambitions which is trying to say something significant and not simple about human nature. The critics seem to be stumbling over themselves to say that the message of the movie is clouded or that it's just nonsense, wrapped up prettily.

I think what it comes down to is they are so numbed by typical Hollywood morality tales that they actually just have no clue what a real message even looks like.

If ever there were a time to despise critics, it would be for panning Cloud Atlas.

(SIDE: Notably, Ebert and Roeper both liked the film. Say want you want about Ebert's editorials on videogames but in my view he knows what he's talking about when it comes to movies. OTOH if you are interested in an arrogant, flippant, and brutally dismissive review, look no further than that touchstone of philosophy and culture, Christianity Today.)

What's The Message Of This Movie

Really I didn't find anything here too hard to grasp. There are a only few key ideas, none of which are made particularly obscure but are also not trite:

  • The powerful are often sucessful in creating systems of oppression and slavery over other, less powerful people
  • Ideas and words are the only way to overcome these systems, because the central truths of these ideas must be apprehended by all
  • Humans themselves are in turn shaped by the systems they are born into

Let's start with the last point.

Tom Hanks' characters are central to the movie. He narrates it, opens, and finishes it. In each timeline, his incarnations are the most morally uncertain, as well. In one timeline he is an outright villain, in another, a coward, and yet in another, a hero.

Halle Berry's characters are also central. Unlike the characters played by Hanks, however, whatever context she appears in is heroic. Somehow it's in her nature to stand against adversity. She is the champion, save for one case-- but first let's talk about reincarnation.

There is certainly some mystical concept of reincarnation present. It's probably a misinterpretation to see this as an argument for reincarnation as a supernatural reality, however. Each of these lives may well be the same souls lived over and over, but the entire purpose of showing all of this is so we can see how different circumstance would shape the same person differently.

In one situation (slavery timeline) Berry's character is utterly powerless. She plays no meaningful role here. This is not coincidentally the same timeline where Hanks' character is most wretched. In each other timeline, something in her heroic nature allows for Hanks' reincarnation to be redeemed, to overcome it's cowardice. But where she is rendered powerless, there is no opportunity for her heroism to shine through. Without her, Hanks' character is lost utterly because she isn't around to save him. And she is powerless in the system of slavery that she was born into.

Nature and Nuture

Every single actor's portrayal follows this pattern quite clearly-- they all have core attributes that are somehow present. Consider this as the "nature" part of human nature. But how these play themselves out can change tremendously-- this is "nuture".

And in each case the "nuture" aspect has everything to do with systems of power. For instance Jim Broadbent's characters are always opportunistic, not-quite-certain of their own talents but very willing and able to capitalize on others. Only in the present-day timeline is his character fully redeemable-- and only here once he is rendered powerless. His experiencing this powerlessness stirs something in him to rise above the usury that he resorts to in every other incarnation, becuase in every other incarnation he is in a position of power. That said, his is certainly not a black-and-white character, but this movie rarely paints with those colors.

Doona Bae's character has everything to do with the passive voicing of transformative ideas. When born into systems where she would be unable to speak (e.g., slavery timeline, where it is made clear early on that women are seen by society inconsequential, an early analogy made obvious early on with outright slavery) she can have little impact. But in other timelines where she is given a voice she can engender ideas to transform the entire world. She is a Ghandi or Jesus character, able to inspire others but herself non-violent.

Again this holds for all characters. Hugo Weaving's incarnations are heroic and idealistic. Hugh Grant's incarnations are always power-hungry and controlling.

Be Sensible, No Crazy OK?

It's possible to take this too far. Some actors also play roles where it is not clear if they should really be interpreted as an incarnation of the same soul or not.

For instance Doona Bae's "Mexican Woman" character fills the a small part in the 70's timeline, and performs an important deus ex machina for the plot. It's possible to try and say the film violates it's own core premise because she commits a violent act, here. But I think it's more fair to say that she isn't mean to be recognized in this role. In all of her other incarnations it's made very clear who she is. Here she is just a Mexican Woman. Further, in this same timeline it is shown that she is the mother of another character, who would have lived at the same time.

But, whatever, right? You don't point to one small counter-example in a wholly magnificent film as a disproving of the entire thesis. You accept that there will always be some detail that isn't exactly right.

Most likely Mexican Woman is just Mexican Woman, but it's also quite reasonably understood that this insertion is meant to make us realize that even a selfless, messiah-like personality is subject to circumstance, and could be very ordinary in another place and time.

This Really Ties In

These incarnations, as well as trying to show "nature" vs. "nuture", also always make commentary on the systems they are critiquing. This is never heavy-handed: when talking about slavery the message isn't simply "slavery is wrong". The message is, "here is what slavery might do to 6 or 7 different people on both sides, and here is what these people might have been like if they were born into another time and place, even another form of slavery or powerlessness."

So: is this really pretentious?

I fail to see how any critic who has spent any time at all thinking about this movie could possibly think it doesn't do justice to this question.

Or perhaps what these critics mean to say is that the question of human oppression, circumstance, moral choices and equality is a trite one? Does anyone really believe this question has a simple answer? The film certainly doesn't provide one, and nor should it.

A film made on this scale and with this level skill deserves to be looked at just a little more closely than just a jaded shrug, or a "too confusing for me."

Everything Else Holds Together, Too

As an real fan of so-called 20th century classical music I expected the "classical music composer" segments to be cringe-worthy. They definitely were not. You could see in one shot that the actor was not miming the piano playing properly (this was shot so you couldn't see the hands, but you can tell from body motion that it's incorrect.) But really: are you kidding me? It doesn't matter.

Other details, sci-fi-wise, also seem to hold together. One bit was confusing, at the end Earth is shown as a blue dot. At first I thought they might be on Mars but now I am pretty sure it was just artistic liberty and really they were in another star-system. Mars wouldn't make sense. So these eight or nine pixels were perhaps irksome anybody who knows a bit of astronomy but again, who cares!

The segment with the ship in the Sonmi-451 timeline was chilling, and makes excellent commentary both on the kind of religious lies which can be used to control and pacify people, and also our relation to eating meat and slaughtering animals. The dehumanization of the fabricants is exactly the same depersonalization we make of animals so that we can slaughter them-- I'm not trying to make an argument against eating meat here: I eat meat. I'm just saying don't pretend animals don't have personalities and emotions. People believed that about other human beings, too, once upon a time, but in both cases the evidence is clearly otherwise.

The writing, narration, and acting are all excellent. Many of the scenes (for instance, the car going over the bridge) are wonderful for their imaginative capacity. The dialogue is always except, and the movie is also very funny and perfectly light-hearted in places. I think the word might be "elan" (but with an accent I don't know how to type.)

Pacing is also excellent. It really didn't feel long to me, at all Other movies I have seen recently, which were shorter, and less critically-panned, and which I have also enjoyed, have seemed overlong or silly at times, but I am resolved to not even mention another movie in the same space as Cloud Atlas.

Here's The Bottom Line

If you want my recommendation, yes, just go see this movie. Based on the crtics, I went in expecting it to be visually interesting and with an intruiging but perhaps nonsensical or confusing story. Nothing could be further from the truth. It holds together, it makes sense, and best of all it somehow really zips along for it's 2 hours and 45 minutes.

The only point of warning I have is that it's maybe more violent and disturbing in places than you would expect from watching the trailer, certainly I averted my eyes in a few places but this is nothing unusual for me (I never watch horror flicks, for instance.)

Bottom line: no matter what the critics say, Cloud Atlas really doesn't take itself too seriously. It just really is a masterpiece and you should see it.


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