Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

Where do I start? Well, there’s an elephant in the room. But let’s just get into it.

Cloud Atlas Poster

Cloud Atlas is a sweeping, complicated tale of interconnected stories that take place over six different storylines, eras, and settings. The film is based on a 2004 novel by David Mitchell, and directed by Tom Tykwer & the Wachowskis. I’ve been a fan of the Wachowskis since The Matrix, and Tom Tykwer since Run Lola Run. I was mostly fascinated by Tykwer’s addition, because I anticipated that his perspective would add to the experience in a unique and visionary way. I suspect that it did, though all three directors have equal credit on this film. I actually really loved the film. But before I get too far into this, let me address that elephant I mentioned.

The bad: Months ago, I remember reading that people were very offended that in the segments with Asian people, a bunch the other non-Asian actors had been made up in “yellow face” so that they could also play Asian characters, calling it racist. At the time, my main thought was “Oh come on, are we still making a big deal about this?” But then I saw it. My gut reaction was that the characters I were looking at were some sort of sci-fi futuristic aliens, not Asians… but as the film went along, I started to wonder… Did the makeup department really think that their heavy-forehead, slanted eye, drawn-on-eyebrowed faces looked at all like actual Asians? Did Doona Bae or Xun Zhou ever look at the makeup and say “Wait, what? That’s what you think we look like?”


I don’t know. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t tell you if they’re supposed to be Asian or if they were some sort of future hybrid race that looked intentionally lumpy and plastic, like wax figures in an exhibit about vintage samurai films. There were definitely Caucasians and actual-Asians in the future as well. What I can tell you is that they tried to also make Doona Bae and Xun Zhou look caucasian and hispanic in some of the timelines, with equally creepy results. I didn’t mind so much seeing Halle Berry as a Jewish woman, I actually thought she looked charmingly beautiful, but the Asians just looked wrong. Asian Hugo Weaving looked like Spock, and Asian Jim Sturgess looked like Ike Barinholtz. Actually, watching the credits is pretty revealing, the best characters in makeup are the ones you don’t even realize are there. For instance, I wouldn’t have expected that Xun Zhou was one of the male walk-ons, or Hugh Grant as the tribal villian.

I’m going to just leave it at: The makeup was terrible, and I almost couldn’t look past it enough to take the film seriously where I needed to. Maybe it was because I was watching it on BluRay? I actually started to ignore what I was seeing in the Sonmi-451 parts and imagine it in my head instead.

The really, really good: The film itself was a huge accomplishment, an enjoyable ride, and the type of film I have been missing for years. I’ve been longing for another film like The Fifth Element, or Stardust, or Amelie, or Moulin Rouge, maybe even something like Labyrinth… a film with a fantastic story, lots of adventure and fun things to look at and imagine, interconnected storylines, something that didn’t take itself so seriously and was infinitely enjoyable and rewatchable. The type of film that the next time you watch it, you spot something new and cool and clever that adds to the meaning of the film. Cloud Atlas is that film.


If you can forgive the makeup, the film is beautiful and engaging. The way the directors have managed to tell six separate storylines and intermingle them all at the same time without losing the viewer is nothing short of miraculous. (I do anticipate that it might lose some viewers, but I enjoy films like this, so it’s not for everybody.) The directors and editors did a top-notch job at creating match-cuts between characters in different timelines, linking the imagery, the characters, and events without losing the pacing of the film. I found myself thinking about how much I would enjoy watching a film that took place in just one of the timelines, particularly the final futuristic tribal timeline that had a blend of surreal and sci-fi happening in it. It felt like a fantastic throwback to 80s-90s sci-fi, and I loved it.

Jim Broadbent. After watching this film, I realize now that I would watch any film he’s in. What a fantastic actor; he can carry a scene like no one else, as if he’s using some sort of magic. He’s expressive, his voice draws you in, and is infinitely watchable. I actually think that his segments were the most enjoyable, just because he is so fantastically good at what he does. Everyone else was great, but sometimes Tom Hanks‘ everyman persona works against him and all I can think of is Castaway. Still great, but it’s hard to shake when I’ve seen so many movies where he plays the likable lead.

I want to read the book now. While watching the movie, I kept being reminded that it definitely felt like a book, and a damn good one. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for it…

I feel as if I spent a lot of time talking about the makeup, and while it was borderline deal-breakingly distracting, I still really loved the film and will be thinking about it for some time. It’s a bit long at almost 3 hours, but it didn’t lose my attention. If I had to rate it, it would be a 4/5 stars. A 5/5 stars if they go back in the future and digitally alter the faces in post-production and successfully make them look more human.

…But I said successfully, not Polar Express style.


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