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Tom Hanks
Halle Berry
Ben Whishaw
Hugh Grant
Hugo Weaving
Jim Sturgess
Doona Bae.
Lana Wachowski
Andy Wachowski
Tom Tykwer.
Lana Wachowski
Tom Tykwer
Andy Wachowski.
Running Time
172 minutes

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Cloud Atlas
Plots. Lots of plots

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The threads that bind man’s past and future are revealed in six stories that stretch from a 19th-century Pacific island to a far-flung Hawaii via pre-War Edinburgh, ’70s San Francisco, present-day Britain and a dystopian Korea, although not necessarily in that order.

Cloud Atlas

As with most things that pique the interest of the philosopher-geek Wachowksi siblings — on this occasion enrolling compeer Tom Tykwer into their wizard schemes — David Mitchell’s time and tale-traversing novel presented another chance to dally over vaulting matters of life, the universe and everything. Mitchell’s tapestry of six stories contends with the cycles of time, the eternal bust-up between fortune and predestination, and our lonely quest for higher meaning. How mankind is cursed and blessed to repeat himself. And how he makes sense of his capacity for both great good and hideous evil by transforming them into stories and myths; religions and science; songs, novels and movies too. Here also was the chance for Wachowski, Wachowski and Tykwer (who sound as if they are as likely to file a tax return as direct a movie) to spread their creative wings and swoop from the benighted city-state of Neo-Seoul populated by slave clones (forms of slavery persist across storylines), back to a Joseph Conrad-flavoured, 19th century sea-faring tale adrift in the boundless Pacific (oceans and islands are significant), concerning a treacherous ship’s physician with a thing for collecting teeth (baring their own tales of former owners).

Mitchell’s literary remix devised an ingenious Russian-doll structure, moving forward in time through the beginnings of the first five stories of his pyramidal saga, before the sixth, most temporally distant episode played in full, then reversing outwards, completing each story in turn to end exactly where it began. That’s the book. Fearful such a framework might make their adaption feel too much like a portmanteau movie (a set of short films housed under one roof), even if that is exactly how Inception works, the directors take a more cinematically conventional, if technically challenging, approach by crosscutting back and forth between time and place, story and story, guided by an underlying thematic and associative blueprint. You could opt to simply relax and see what comes of letting the waterfall of stories wash over you. Yet, the cryptic layering of it all urges you to open your eyes, ears and dusty lobes to decipher what the Hydra-headed film might be getting at.

There is little doubting the glorious ambition of the project, both as an epic tableau and in terms of its filmmaking engineering. In an age of relentless safety, its cocktail of human foible and movie madness is intoxicating. Even at nigh on three hours, it never drags.

Most daring of the directors’ narrative chicanery is to embody the concept of recurring souls (or a genetic strain) by having the same actors play different parts in different stories. The cast rises to the crazed multiplicity of it all with aplomb. Tom Hanks, marked out by a cornucopia of conks, variously assays that wicked ship’s doctor (stage one), a brute Irish gangster-turned-memoirist (stage four), a sullen landlord in ’30s Edinburgh (stage two), and a cowardly tribesman, mottled in tattoos, in a far-off scorched Earth, whose face greets us as the chronicle begins (stage six). “I’ll tell you the true true...” he warbles in Mad Maxish pigeon-speak, a peculiar man telling tales by an open fire like an aged Homer with its wink to the oral tradition. A good ‘for instance’ of the many drawstrings that pull Cloud Atlas into shape is this referencing of different modes of communication: body art, folktales, music, letters, journalism, fiction, television, the push and pull of interrogation, the dating of incisors. Investigative reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), cottoning on to a cover-up at a local power plant (stage three), is transformed into one of the ‘Luisa Rey’ detective novels by stage four.

You’ll be reading until kingdom come if we supply all the actors and all their parts — and one of the movie’s pleasures is clocking where each materialises, like a game of Where’s Halle?. A hint: amongst her more elusive occurrences, Berry turns up as a Jewish mistress and a Korean man. Another hint: there are through-lines for each actor, where each of their characters echoes a sense of the others. Hugo Weaving, be it as a fusty matron (stage four) or Satanic apparition (stage six), always possesses a menacing aspect not so distant from Agent Smith.

Beyond the book’s intricacies, Cloud Atlas, the film, ponders the architecture of filmmaking. Making connections across time and space is pretty much how films are assembled, and the editing here proves a virtuoso display of overlapping storylines, interweaved via character, theme, image, music and plot. Though subdivided into six parts, the overall film retains a distinctive arc: six starts, six middles and six conclusions. All intermingled. It is, indeed, a symphony, as emphasised by stage two, where Ben Whishaw’s itinerant amanuensis composes the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’. A recording of which turns up on vinyl in a San Francisco record shop early in stage three.

Yes, there are flaws — the exuberant sprawl of it all almost welcomes them. Just keeping up can wear you out. Patience is called for. In the book, the pastiche of narrative styles is readily established and cleverly divided, a charm dispelled by the film’s more frenetic structure. This leads to violent lurches in tone. Alighting from the quasi-fantasy, island-set, post-apocalyptic future (stage six) upon the vulgar whimsy of British sitcoms in the contemporary ‘old-people’s home’ sequence (stage four) — in which Jim Broadbent’s geriatric publisher plots escape as if absconding from a POW camp — threatens whiplash. While the high-wire daring of having actors transgress racial lines more often loses its flirtation with taste.

Then, casting Hugh Grant (overarching theme: a rotter) as a rampaging future-world cannibal (stage six) as well as a sun-leathered nouveau riche slimeball (stage four), a deceitful power company exec (stage three), and a predatory Korean restaurant manager (stage five) is surely not to be taken too seriously. Maybe such shudders of taste and style should be applauded. If you’re trying to encompass the entire human story, there’s sure to be as much ridiculous as sublime.

Don’t let its commercial nosedive in the US tell the whole story. Cloud Atlas is a tough sell, but a rewarding journey all the same. It’s an adventure into the very concept of storytelling: magical, enthralling and thrilling as much as bewildering, pompous and potty. In other words, up in the clouds.

Reviewed by Ian Nathan

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for Cloud Atlas
Empire Star Rating

5 Stars for ambition, 4 for the movie.

I think this movie didn't do as well as it could because nobody knew how to market it, but don't be put off because it's worth your time. Cloud Atlas is a very interesting, heartfelt movie and I actually wish it had been longer, to be honest. A TV miniseries would have been very welcome because I think any 'problems' come from having to squeeze so much in. That said, it is all lovingly realized (when it's on the money it's spot on, and it's on the money a lot) and the cast come across as being r... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Nicky C at 15:05, 07 January 2014 | Report This Post

"There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well."

Audacious, sprawling and pretentious, Cloud Atlas does have its merits, but one could argue that it fails to find a unifying arc between its stories. However, this is quite an achievement in its own right, if simply for having ever made it to the silver screen in the first place. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by movienut707 at 19:41, 23 November 2013 | Report This Post

Cracking movie

I have to say that I thought Hugh Grant was actually surprisingly good. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by chris wootton at 14:47, 11 September 2013 | Report This Post

Best film in recent memory

This is the best film in recent memory. Complex, emotional, exciting, challenging and full to the brim with ideas, quite simple amazing. The reason it underperformed at the box office is that it is not a movie for 12 year old children, which nearly all cineplex forder are. A few minor flaws relating to the cast and make up but over all I just can`t recomend this movie highly enough. Brilliant. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by extremetee at 00:30, 02 August 2013 | Report This Post


In many ways Cloud Atlas is one of the most ambitious films to be released in recent years. It’s a largely independent production with major stars and a budget over 100 million. It’s three hours long and rarely drags. But tempered with the recommendation is the inconsistency of the narrative. It doesn’t always work. Some of the stories are absorbing others less so. By having the same actors play different character’s over the time periods it’s both a blessing and a distraction. Tom Hanks as a c... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Conboy at 16:01, 08 June 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Pure gold

Each story is about one persons different problem, usually a serious problem that is effecting their life. In each time period the same people are seen because (I think) they are suppose to be the same reincarnated soul over centuries. In the end all the stories are being told by Hanks character from another planet, an Earth colony. Unsure how he knows all these stories though, maybe I missed something there. The film in general isn't really about any one thing, just many different story a... More

Posted by Phubbs at 16:44, 29 April 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Pure gold

Watched this on a recent flight, not having read the source material... What the chuffing fuck was it all about? Has to be one of the most equally brilliant, bonkers and downright awful films ever made. I can't remember a film with so many WTF moments in it. ... More

Posted by UTB at 06:25, 29 April 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Pure gold

d Atlas (GER, 2012) Another novel adaptation, this one a more recent publication. Surprisingly the film is an independent film made in Germany but you wouldn't think it, a huge budget, a cast of stars, directed by the Wachowski's plus the whole thing comes across like a Spielberg production, well to me it did. The film is very much like 'A.I.' in my opinion, the reason being I'm sure it will split opinions right down the middle. I can well understand people loving the film but I can well... More

Posted by Phubbs at 22:08, 28 April 2013 | Report This Post

Pure gold

Best film i have seen in a long time. not for everyone but for me pretty near perfect. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by bigollytg at 23:29, 24 March 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

I feel sorry for Jim Broadbent as "old Korean man playing the Cloud Atlas theme". What must have been a long time in make up for seconds on screen. This film is a real lingerer. ... More

Posted by homersimpson_esq at 11:51, 08 March 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

L: Timon Ha! I said that when 'Korean' Hugo Weaving walked on the screen. I turned to my girlfriend and HomerSimpsonesq and said: "He looks like a Vulcan." Still, they looked better than white Jewish Halle Berry. Ben Winshaw looked good as a woman though. Nurse Ratchet Hugo Weaving is the stuff of nightmares. liked the make-up to make Halle Berry and Doona Bae white myself. At least they still looked human. lso, Halle Berry as an old Korean man had the best make-up in the en... More

Posted by AxlReznor at 09:19, 08 March 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

L: matty_b Which woman did Ben Whishaw play again? imothy Cavendish's sister-in-law. ... More

Posted by AxlReznor at 09:17, 08 March 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

Which woman did Ben Whishaw play again? ... More

Posted by matty_b at 09:11, 08 March 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

Ha! I said that when 'Korean' Hugo Weaving walked on the screen. I turned to my girlfriend and HomerSimpsonesq and said: "He looks like a Vulcan." Still, they looked better than white Jewish Halle Berry. Ben Winshaw looked good as a woman though. Nurse Ratchet Hugo Weaving is the stuff of nightmares. ... More

Posted by Timon at 09:03, 08 March 2013 | Report This Post

RE: enjoyed it

L: Timon Finally saw it last night and thought it was fantastic - that's the true-true. However I have questions: Is the comet tattoo meant to symbolise change/rebirth in the characters that have it? Was The Fall an apocalyptic war and were Zachary's visions a result of prolonged radiation exposure or just general madness? Why does Jim Sturgess look really good as a Korean? sp; 1. Yes 2. Also yes... I think as a result of broadcast causing people to rise upNo ide... More

Posted by AxlReznor at 08:25, 08 March 2013 | Report This Post

RE: enjoyed it

Finally saw it last night and thought it was fantastic - that's the true-true. However I have questions: Is the comet tattoo meant to symbolise change/rebirth in the characters that have it? Was The Fall an apocalyptic war and were Zachary's visions a result of prolonged radiation exposure or just general madness? Why does Jim Sturgess look really good as a Korean? ... More

Posted by Timon at 08:23, 08 March 2013 | Report This Post


STUNNING Human Drama come Sci-fi EPIC!!! So where do you start with this epic movie tapestery? Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwerr pull of a no easy feat of adapting the complex and brilliant novel of the same name by David Mitchell into 3 hrs of sublime, touching, beautifully acted and visually stunning celluliod. There may be a few spoilers here;) Ok the film centers around mainly six characters, here we go;) Well we start with Tom Hanks in many guises first an elderly wisema... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Ramone87 at 22:54, 28 February 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Disappointing - mediocre

L: Olaf Warning! Thesis about the meaning of this doggerel incoming. I really enjoyed the film, personally. ------------------------------------------------------- ------------------------------------------------------ I’m usually opposed to reviews of film adaptations that dwell for ages on the differences between the book and the movie, but it seems necessary in this case because of the book in question – specifically, the way that it’s a book about books and how the Wac... More

Posted by homersimpson_esq at 10:14, 28 February 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

Am too lost for words to do a review tbh. Will just say that this is the best film I have seen in a very long time. That is all. 9.5/10 ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Dr Lenera at 08:35, 28 February 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

Well, I've seen this for myself now. I can't say I thought it was great, but it was almost always intriguing. The acting was pretty good, and there was an element of celebrity-spotting, which was a bit of a distraction, and some of the make-up was a bit dodgy. The far future bit was in an annoying singsong language which I couldn't be bothered to understand so I may have missed some deep insights into the human condition. Notwithstanding this it looked really good, as did the rest of the pieces... More

Posted by GCH at 21:17, 27 February 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

I still don't get why it has to be so confusing, like with the book you can go back once u've read one bit but to me they just seem to have thrown it all together and its a bit too messy for my liking ... More

Posted by SarahBanks195 at 16:57, 27 February 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

I loved this film despite its flaws. I can see why it's such a divisive film. though. ... More

Posted by MonsterCat at 01:30, 27 February 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

It’s been fourteen years since Lana (formerly Larry) and Andy Wachowski made the first Matrix, which was a wake-up call to a generation that is defined by its philosophical ideas and geek quality with the blending of genres such as cyberpunk sci-fi, Hong Kong-styled action and references to anime. Following the flawed sequels of the trilogy, as well as their visually spectacular live-action version of Speed Racer, the Wachowskis have collaborated with Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer as all thr... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by R W at 19:37, 26 February 2013 | Report This Post

RE: Cloud Atlas

Fantastic film. Crazy, almost bizarre, but fantastic too. In ten years, when Silver Linings or whatever that's decent enough but that's all it is, is long forgotten, people will still be talking about Cloud Atlas. ... More

Posted by Proudfoot at 18:56, 26 February 2013 | Report This Post

Quite Simply...

MAGNIFICENT!!! No - it will not cater to everyone, but go in with an open mind and let the film lead the story telling. It massive, very deep, moving entertaining and thought provoking. I loved all the performances. This is one of the most ambitious films I've seen in a very long time. The connections between characters and people are sometimes obvious, some times subtle. If ever there was a film greater than the sum of its parts, its this one! * Note - bring an open and empathic mind! ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Funk_Knight at 14:32, 26 February 2013 | Report This Post

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