Cloud Atlas: Why a Good Movie Fails at the Box Office

I’ll warn you right now that this review will be longer than my usual reviews because Cloud Atlas is in need of some plot explanation and serious discussion. And I mean “serious discussion” in terms of why a movie that required a hefty budget in order to translate a book’s complicated (yet epic) plot into an equally epic film is failing at the box office. This is the relationship between Hollywood, the story, and the audience that I find interesting. Because, somewhere, this story got lost in translation between Hollywood and the audience.

Cloud Atlas is the big-screen interpretation of British author David Mitchell’s 2004 novel under the same title, which has been of some talk in the literary world due to its nontraditional storyline. Unfortunately, I’ve only read an in-depth analysis of the novel and not the novel, itself, as I didn’t have enough time to read the novel before the film’s release (Don’t worry, I’m English degree-shaming myself as I write).

After seeing the first Cloud Atlas trailer, I can say without a doubt that I’ve never been so intrigued by a movie in my entire life—and I say that even after seeing Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life trailer, which was just as mysterious and beautiful. The way this trailer was put together left me yearning for more information about this movie—so, basically, somebody did their job right.

Now, Cloud Atlas was directed and written by the Wachowskis, who you may recall from The Matrix trilogy. Knowing that they were involved with this title, I instantly assumed that Cloud Atlas was either going to be an awesome mind-blow (like The Matrix) or an unstructured mess of plot (like The Matrix: Revolutions). You may be thinking that because I’ve already told you this movie isn’t doing so hot at the box office that it means the movie was the latter of my assumptions. But you’d be wrong…

The plot is tricky, so I’m going to break it down for you as best as I can. The novel Cloud Atlas has a fairly complex storyline, and it translates just as complexly into a film with multiple actors—Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, and Susan Sarandon—playing parts in each of the six, interweaving stories that make up the main plot. Not following? Okay, well, here are the six stories that make up Cloud Atlas‘ plot:

  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1846), which follows American notary Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) as he sails for San Francisco
  • Letters from Zedelghem (1931), which follows young, English musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) as he works with a composer in Belgium and writes letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, about his work on his own composition called the “Cloud Atlas Sextet”
  • Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1973), which follows journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) as she investigates a nuclear power plant
  • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (early 21st century, movie cites “2012”), which follows publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), who is confined against his will in a nursing home after fleeing one of his clients
  • An Orison of Sonmi~451 (2144), which follows genetically-engineered fabricant Sonmi~451 (Doona Bae) as she is being interviewed before her execution for masterminding a rebellion in the Neo Seoul totalitarian society
  • Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (post-apocalyptic distant future), which follows tribesman Zachry (Tom Hanks), who lives on a primitive island after “The Fall” of humanity and helps Meronym, a member of the last remnants of the technologically-advanced society

Obviously, the whole point of the book’s storyline is that each of the six stories flow into the next, which I thought was executed fairly well by the screenwriters in the movie interpretation because they made certain to emphasize the parallels between the stories. For example: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is a diary read by Robert Frobisher in the Letters from Zedelghem story; the letters written by Robert Frobisher to Rufus Sixsmith in the Letters from Zedelghem story end up being found by Luisa Rey after Rufus Sixsmith is murdered in the Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery story; Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is a manuscript being read by publisher Timothy Cavendish in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish story; The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is a film Sonmi~451 watches in the An Orison of Sonmi~451 story; and An Orison of Sonmi~451‘s story is a holographic recording of Sonmi~451, which is watched by Zachry in the Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After story.

That might sound really complicated, but I promise it’s magnificent. But that’s just the main example of the interconnectivity of these stories. The parallels drawn in the visuals and the story, itself, are even more detailed and interesting (In fact, I think I’ll have to watch the movie again to see if I can catch more). Here are some that I noticed.

Jim Broadbent’s character in Letters from Zedelghem holds another character against his will in his home, but then in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, his character is held against his will in a nursing home. In Letters from Zedelghem, Robert Frobisher shoots himself through the mouth a few seconds before his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, finds him, but then in Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, Rufus Sixsmith is murdered by getting shot through the mouth a few seconds before Luisa Rey finds him. Hugh Grant’s character in An Orison of Sonmi~451 dies on his back after overdosing on “Soap” (an artificially-produced food), and then his character in Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After overeats after his cannibalistic feast and falls asleep on his back, which results in him getting killed.

Tom Hanks’ characters (all six of them, I believe) end up with a blue gem that he is either given, steals, or finds. The “Cloud Atlas Sextet” theme plays during all of the stories at least once. Halle Berry’s characters (at least five of them) are wearing white at some point: her slave character has white hair and markings, her composer’s wife character is racially white, Luisa Rey wears a white t-shirt in the elevator and after nearly drowning, her Asian doctor character wears a white lab coat, and Meronym wears an all-white outfit. Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving’s characters are antagonists in practically every story. There are plenty more, but I won’t bore you with them (in case I already am). But seriously, each story has impressive links to the others, which takes a lot of time and attention to detail in the screenplay. And I’m willing to bet that that was no easy task.

The message of this movie (and book) is great. The “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others. And with each crime and kindness, we birth our future” line is a prophetic statement from Sonmi~451 as her rebellion is destroyed, which then becomes sacred for the people in Zachry’s village after The Fall. But it really is so much more than just a line in the movie. It really encompasses the tone for the entire movie’s idea of karmic actions and behaviors affecting the future. In each of the stories, we see the outcome of those actions and behaviors in the following story.

And what’s more amazing is that the notion of karmic love (romantic, familial, and/or friendly) is prevalent throughout each of the stories, guiding the characters to their destinies. A religions class could have a freaking field day dissecting the religious notions in this movie because I’m fairly sure that there are Judeo-Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist subtexts to each story.

Not that this necessarily causes problems for the audience, but if you’re not familiar with the actors in this movie (like my blissfully unaware boyfriend), then I can tell you that you’ll have a hard time keeping up with the parallels drawn between the actors’ different characters throughout the movie. If you’re not trying to think when you see this movie, you won’t care. But for people who are really trying to keep up and aren’t able to follow which actor is playing which character, then this movie could be somewhat stressful,  like the world’s trickiest game of Where’s Waldo? (especially with all of the gender and race bending, which leads me into my next point…)

While I thought it was really unique that this movie had most of the actors bending their genders and races for their characters, the actors who aren’t of Asian descent playing Asian characters looked AWFUL. The makeup and prosthetics were just all wrong; and if taken the wrong way by the audience, the false features could seem offensive. Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and Hugh Grant in An Orison of Sonmi~451 particularly stand out here. All of them had what can best be described as “melted eye” effect and awkwardly placed fake eyebrows. None of them looked Asian, which was kind of hard to get passed while watching that story.

Even though some will say the budget was overblown (especially for a movie that ultimately failed at the box office), I have to say the settings, the props, and the cinematography in this movie were fantastic. From what I know of the book, it deserved an epic look and feel, and it certainly had that. The shots and action sequences in the Neo Seoul setting alone were very Matrix-like.

Overall, Cloud Atlas is one of those movies that is extremely complicated but awesome, as long as you can keep up with it. There are a lot of actors jumping roles in the storyline, which can be hard to follow if you don’t know (or recognize) the actors. And on top of that, because there are six, interweaving stories making up one nontraditional storyline, there are intricate little pieces of imagery and story parallels uniting all of the stories together—a lot of which I think I caught, though I’m sure there are still several I could find if I watch the movie again (which I probably will).

Also, the movie’s message and symbols have some very deep correlations to all of the major world religions—Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism—which you can find if you analyze the movie’s ongoing theme of the future being the result of our current actions and behaviors. If I had to compare this movie to another movie, I would have to say it’s most like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, a film which was equally beautiful, complicated, and underrated at the box office (and it also continues to mystify me no matter how many times I’ve seen it). Though the cinematography was well done, there were times where I thought the time and effort needed for the settings and special effects greatly overshadowed the time and effort spent on the gender and race bending makeup and costumes, which should’ve been a little more important considering that some of the characters looked unrealistically terrible.

The only reason I can imagine why this movie didn’t do well at the box office was because, unlike me, people were not intrigued by the trailer but rather confused and, therefore, turned off by the movie. It’s hard to market a movie like this, I imagine, as it was also really difficult for me to write a review about it (though I could easily talk about it for months). If you read all of the articles on how this movie totally flopped, let me remind you that Cloud Atlas is no John Carter. Sure, it nearly had the same budget, but this movie had depth and actors with much more experience than the tool that is Taylor Kitsch—and it had a solid novel to guide its screenplay. If you were debating about seeing this movie, please don’t let the talk of box office failure stop you from seeing it. I promise you that, if you’re looking for a movie with substance (and you’ve already seen Argo), then Cloud Atlas will definitely give you some things to think about.

Cloud Atlas: B-

9 thoughts on “Cloud Atlas: Why a Good Movie Fails at the Box Office

  1. I thought it was interesting and confusing. I liked that. If a movie 3 hours long can keep me awake, then there is something there, peaking my interest. I’ll admit I didn’t quite get the whole message of the movie, until it was explained to me, then I just went, “huh”? Still, I liked what I saw. Good review.

  2. You’re right about that. Most people wouldn’t be able to sit through a nearly three-hour long movie UNLESS it was interesting. What I don’t understand is how some people think that a confusing movie can’t also be interesting. Shouldn’t the fact that it’s confusing and requires a little more thought on the audience’s part mean that it’s more interesting?

  3. I have read the book, though it was a while ago and I’m not sure I got all the nuances. I’m looking forward to seeing the film, which isn’t out here (the UK) for another four months (22 February), which is odd in this day and age.

    I just saw Ben Whishaw this evening as the new nerdy Q in Skyfall, which might make him more recognisable to a wider audience. He’s getting about – before that I saw him as Richard II in the BBC’s great Hollow Crown Shakespeare quartet (Richard II, Henry IV 1&2, and Henry V), and he’s previously played a young Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones.

  4. Here’s an article from the Guardian about the messy and confusing publicity and distribution schedule . As I mentioned above, we’re only just getting it in the UK about now.

    “Cloud Atlas was eventually financed, appropriately, with a patchwork of international capital: part-Warner, part-German Federal Film Fund, part-Asian investors, part-preselling distribution rights to territories around the globe. The latter push was overseen by Focus Features, whose CEO James Schamus had once sewn a quilt of similar deals for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
    “But the fragmented nature of this arrangement caused problems, beginning with a haphazard release schedule trailing over six months that means Cloud Atlas, arriving in the UK this week, has the air of yesterday’s news. “Our plan in the beginning was to have a much more coordinated release,” says producer Stefan Arndt. “But what happens if you have 20 territories with 20 investors with 20 opinions – in the end you cannot force your distributors to follow one strategy.””

  5. This movie requires thinking and that’s what I loved about it. When I realized who was who and rewatched the movie, it was just amazing.Everything made sense and how each soul somehow had a happy ending in a way. Sadly, most people today don’t like to think and would much prefer to have the movie spoonfeed everything.

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