The Ten Percent: Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas (2012) promotional poster.
Cloud Atlas (2012) promotional poster.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello and welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. It’s no surprise then that most of the works we’ve discussed here were produced at least ten years ago (Breaking Bad being a notable exception, because Breaking Bad). The passage of time sorts things out, and separates the merely momentarily popular from works that continue to speak to audiences across the years.

Well, this week I am going to add another work to our very short list of exceptions to time’s testing by talking about 2012’s incredible Cloud Atlas. Directed by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer; Cloud Atlas is far and away one of the most original, risky, and ambitious films ever made. Based upon the eponymous, best-selling novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas tells six stories, each set in a different time, each a different genre, each featuring the same actors playing different roles, races, and sexes, and each connected to the other through a kind of transcendent humanity that sometimes manifests in the non-human. It is also absolutely gorgeous, lush as only a Wachowski film can be, with a mastery of light, color, texture, and mood that is breathtaking.

Sonmi-351 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) in Cloud Atlas.
Sonmi-351 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) in Cloud Atlas.

Unusually for me, I watched the film before reading the book, and loved it (Afterwards I immediately put David Mitchell on my list of authors to read, and he has since become my favorite contemporary novelist).  Regular readers will remember that I come by my fondness for humanist cinema honestly via the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, and Cloud Atlas ranks alongside both Ikiru and Red Beard as one of the greatest examples of the form. Like Kurosawa’s masterworks, Cloud Atlas rewards rewatching. Scratch that – it demands rewatching. There is simply too much going on in this film to take it all in with one viewing. At two hours and twelve minutes, the film is long by modern standards, but well worth it even with multiple viewings. The first time, I got the basic plot, and sussed out Tom Hanks’ future-primitive accent. Then I read the book, and the second time I saw the film I began to notice all the very small things that connected each of the stories, each life depicted, one to another to another.

Cloud Atlas has become more beautiful, more brilliant, every time I have watched it, and that’s something that can be said of damn few films. Ever.

For a movie geek like me, the final film is just the beginning. Note the three directors. The Wachowskis directed three of the stories, while Tom Tykwer directed the other three, creating a shooting schedule that was perhaps even more complex than the film itself. Lana Wachowski notes that it took three months just to figure out the schedule, and since both teams were using the same actors in different roles, any delay could send the whole thing into chaos. The multi-genre hybridity of the film is almost as astonishing as the fact that it works, that one tale, one genre flows smoothly into and out of the next. Combining gothic romance, investigative thriller, comedy, post-apocalyptic and high science fiction, and tragic romance into a seamless whole is an achievement in and of itself. To create beauty and tell an incredible story as you do it, well, that’s art, isn’t it?

Andy Wachowski, Tom Hanks, Halle Barry, Tom Tykwer, and Lana Wachowski at the German premiere of Cloud Atlas
Andy Wachowski, tom Hanks, Halle Barry, Tom Tykwer, and Lana Wachowski at the German premiere of Cloud Atlas

Not that Cloud Atlas is free of problems. No project of this scope could be. The makeup used to disguise the actors from role to role sometimes becomes ridiculous, as when Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving don various prosthetics to become “Korean” (Sturgess looks like some kind of Neanderthal – Keanu Reeves hybrid, while Hugo Weaving, being Hugo Weaving, comes out looking like the most terrifying Romulan spymaster in the history of the Star Trek franchise), and while the film is for the most part remarkably faithful to the book, the Wachowskis and Tykwer felt the need to unnecessarily Hollywood-ize the ending.

Hugo Weaving as Bordman Mephi, apparenly a Romulan trying to infiltrate future Korea!
Hugo Weaving as Bordman Mephi, apparenly a Romulan trying to infiltrate future Korea!

Yet I feel confident that this film belongs in the Ten Percent. It’s fairly low performance at the box office aside (and after all, Casablanca was no blockbuster in its day), Cloud Atlas is a film that deserves study, that I will go out on a limb and predict will be studied for decades to come, and become at the very least a cult classic along the way. Unless I miss my guess, the experience and production of Cloud Atlas has also heavily influenced the Wachowskis’ and J. Michael Straczynski’s latest endeavor, Sense8, currently blowing minds on Netflix. The phenomenal Doona Bae stars in both productions, bringing yet another level of interconnectedness through her own intertextuality.

Finally, I cannot summarize Cloud Atlas for you. I cannot explain it any more than I can explain a painting by Picasso or Monet, or Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. This film is waiting to give you something, but like any work of art, you have to go and find it for yourself, and along the way, you’ll find out why Cloud Atlas is part of the Ten Percent.

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

7 Replies to “The Ten Percent: Cloud Atlas (2012)”

  1. I read the book first–and took NOTES b/c my friend said it was so confusing! David Mitchell is crazy brilliant and now that I’ve also read The Bone Clocks, I have learned that he is creating his own universe and that all his books are connected. While I was reading Cloud Atlas, I decided that one person could NOT have written it, that it had to be a team of researchers and writers! What a ride! I didn’t like the movie as well as the book, but maybe I need to see it again, as you’ve suggested. Thank you for choosing this phenomenal author as a top ten percent!

  2. Mrs Widds and I walked out of the cinema after watching Cloud Atlas completely gobsmacked. It was magnificent, and as you rightly said, needing several views to pick up all the nuances.

  3. You made me watch it again -today- and I just have to say thank you. To borrow a phrase – ‘utter brilliance.’

  4. Thanks, guys, I really happy you all enjoyed the post. Cloud Atlas is simply an astonishing film, and David Mitchell an incredible writer. If you haven’t read Mitchell, I highly recommend him. He returns again and again to the themes of Cloud Atlas: interconnectedness, eternal recurrence, and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. I’ve now read every novel he’s published and am anxiously awaiting his new one, Slade House, later this year.

    I really don’t understand the tepid critical response (with the notable exception of Roger Ebert) to the Cloud Atlas film. Unfortunately, I fear that it may have suffered from being a summer release that you really had to pay attention to, and think a bit about, something that fewer and fewer films are asking of their audiences. Anyway, I really appreciate the comments – it’s always wonderful to know that I’m being read! Thanks again!

  5. To echo all of the sentiment here, this film is awesome! I think it’s emotional poignancy and visual beauty went above the heads of most critics. Additionally, it’s amazing how much cohesion there was despite such a sprawling story. Nice article paying CA it’s proper dues!

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