Why ‘Cloud Atlas’ is no ‘Magnolia’

Mike Gristand how to fix it, Book / Movie Reviews 16 Comments

Cloud Atlas is not a normal movie. It’s epic, glorious, ambitious, complex, etc, but as you’ll have surely heard from other reviews, it’s not a normal movie at all. Rather, it’s a kind of sprawling poem, in film, that ruminates on weighty issues like the ‘natural order’ behind slavery, and the revolutionary forces that rise up against it.

Over nearly 3 hours, it tries to blur 6 stories together, cross-cut over time and space, from 1849 on a South Pacific island to Neo Seoul in 2321, aiming for a climactic coda similar to Magnolia’s crowning ‘rain of frogs’. But in the end it disappoints, because in combo these stories fail to deliver any larger karmic punch, and never unite for one climactic action.

Why did it fail? And how did Magnolia succeed?

*** SPOILERS ***


I believe the lack of a rising climax is the major failure point of Cloud Atlas. This problem is very visible in the movie, but was quite likely baked in from the start, with the David Mitchell novel showing the same lack of substantial connections between the 6 narratives, connections required to reach Magnolia’s climactic heights. Resultingly, to get around that lack in both the book and the movie, numerous tricks are played to make it seem as though Cloud Atlas is actually a unified story, when it barely is. These tricks are largely cosmetic, surface level effects used to fake a greater coherence. The most obvious of them is the experimental narrative structure.

Experimental narrative

cloud-bookIn Mitchell’s book, the six stories are told in a matroska-doll style, with each story nested inside the previous story. This means there are six beginnings; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, for something like 30 pages each, followed by 6 endings; 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. The stories are organized by time, so we start in the past, zoom to a mid-point in the future, then zoom back to the past again.

This structure forces us to abandon each story halfway through, and spend the rest of the coming stories wondering how it will tie in, so when we do find links, however tenuous, it feels mildly satisfying, even if in terms of plot there is never any confluence at all.

In the movie the matroska style is abandoned, perhaps to the story’s detriment, replaced with a blend of all 6 stories happening ‘at the same time’, and cutting between them. The directors Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer made the point that what works in a book won’t work in a movie, and delaying the start of the 6th story, introducing all new characters, until the 90 minute mark of the movie would be disastrous.

Who knows though? I think it may have been better, more honest, more natural than the insane amount of cross-cutting they ended up with. Because Cloud Atlas cross-cuts wildly. Obviously there can be no rhyme or reason to these cuts, except at opportune, perhaps similarly themed moments. At one point Sonmi 451 (the fabricant clone/slave in future Neo Seoul, 2144, story 5) is asked what the afterlife might be like, and she says she imagines “heaven is a door opening”. We cross-cut to a gate opening in the middle of Timothy Cavendish’s (a chap locked up in an old people’s home in 2012, story 4) escape attempt. Is there any connections between these two? None, except the notion of a gate, perhaps as a symbol of freedom.

Bridging Symbols

And so Cloud Atlas is seasoned liberally with symbols. There is the comet birth-mark shared by 6 of the characters across the 6 stories, in each case possessed by the character who fights back against slavery. There is the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’, a piece of music composed in story 2 (Robert Frobisher, who fights against a kind of enslavement from his composer boss in the 1930s) being repeated in every successive story; in a record shop for Luisa Rey (a journalist seeking the truth behind a coming nuclear accident, story 3), in the background of Cavendish’ story 4, as the song the fabricants sign as they ascend to exultation in story 5, and probably somewhere in story 6 too.

There are also the tricks of actor and location. One of Cloud Atlas’ best known tricks is having the same actors play different characters in each story, often slathering them with disguising makeup (which changes Halle Berry from black to white, Doona Bae from Asian to white and Mexican, Hugo Weaving from male to female, and so on). They also re-used stage-sets repeatedly, simply redressing the same spaces with some of the same items of furniture for different scenes across different times. There are also repeated props, like the button of Will Ewing’s shirt (Ewing is a lawyer fighting the slave trade in blacks in 1849, story 1) recurring as a jewel in another story.


Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in their various roles.


Huge Weaving as various bad guys (and one girl).

These symbols offer a bridge of connectivity, but one that is wholly cosmetic. There is still some satisfaction to spot them, in being first to shout out “hey that’s Hugh Grant!” but none that make up important moving parts, except for the very weak sense that each story ‘inspired’ the next.

Sonmi 451 (story 5) watches a clip of a movie based on Timothy Cavendish’ escape (story 4) and is inspired to start a revolution. Luis Rey (story 3) reads Rufus Sixsmith’s letters (story 2, Robert Frobisher’s lover) which makes her wonder “why we keep making the same mistakes”. Zachry (a valleysman after the ‘fall’, story 6 in 2321) has a vision-dream and receives a prophecy, both of which feature snippets of the 5 other stories, as well as generally revering Sonmi 451 as a goddess figure. Yet none of these connections are that important. Sonmi 451 finds much better inspiration for her revolution. Luisa Rey’s letters don’t affect her choices materially.

These are all tacked on. Like the swapping actors, they are fun to spot, but don’t add to any sense of rising action or important connection.


More experimental narrative

However I didn’t finish describing the narrative. The following tricks seem unnecessary, and are probably a large part of the reason Cloud Atlas confused many people. It’s hard enough that there are 6 stories told across time and place, but the directors further confuse matters by not starting each respective story at the beginning. Rather many start with flash-forwards, to a point of high drama, before cutting back to their actual beginning.

The movie starts with old Tom Hanks (Zachry in story 6) telling the story of his life in retrospect. We then see snippets of Luisa Rey’s midpoint (story 3) with her car being driven off a bridge, Frobisher’s ending suicide (story 2), Sonmi 451’s near end inquisition (story 5), and perhaps others too. I didn’t mind this too much, but I do feel it’s a little lazy. The writer/directors clearly scoured their material for the best stuff to ‘engage’ the audience, found none of it at the start, so simply chopped a bunch of stuff from later on and moved it to the beginning.

It’s too much, really. It felt a little desperate to me.


Magnolia_posterSo how did Magnolia deal with all this? That was a complex, ambitious narrative, principally thematically based around the various forms of child abuse, and their impacts on both victims and perpatrators. There’s Tom Cruise who hates his absent bastard of a father, and becomes a very negatively presented pick-up artist motivational speaker. There’s the girl who was abused by her father, and only now coming to terms with it, and the father’s view as well. There’s the smart kid forced to do quiz shows by his domineering dad until he wets his pants. There’s the lonely cop and loser burglar, who may or may not have parental issues, but perhaps expand the theme to include lonely people as well.

One thing Magnolia benefits from that Cloud Atlas can’t is that all these stories are happening at the same time, on the same days, in the same city. This allows paths to cross over several times. The abusive father is also the host of the quiz show the kid is on. The lonely cop dates the abused girl, and also meets the lonely burglar. Etc… Each of these connections, when they come, is very satisfying. It makes it feel like there is some reason we are watching these particular characters, at this particular time. It strengthens the bond we feel for them, and makes us care more.

And in Magnolia, there is rising action, with a global act-of-god event that connects all the stories together. It is perhaps ridiculous, but it is also amazing, and ties every story up at its peak beautifully, allowing each cross-cut to just amp up the climaxes, one on top of another.

Of course, it rains frogs. At the same moment, Tom Cruise is giving his career best performance, ranting at his dying absent-father in a hospital bed, the abused girl gets sympathy and understanding from a mother figure at the same time, the lonely cop and burglar talk to each other, perhaps save each other to some extent. Everybody gets a climax, all at the same time, and when that is over, the movie is over. Boom.

There is nothing like that in Cloud Atlas. Across time and space, how could there be? Instead we get a series of rolling climaxes, as in each story the comet-birthmark character steps up to the plate and strikes a blow against the ‘natural order of things’. Will Ewing (story 1) quits the slave trade, confronting his father-in-law who is a slave maven. Frobisher (story 2) actually wimps out, with suicide, so a fail there (though he argues suicide requires the greater courage). Luisa Rey (story 3) rather sort of survives, gets lucky, but with no satisfying denouement (she never faces evil Hugh Grant down). Cavendish (story 4) escapes the old people’s home with a bit of cunning, then bashes Nurse Noakes’ (Hugo Weaving) head in with a bit of help. Sonmi 451 lays the seed of a revolution (story 5) then dies like Christ. Zachry (story 6) mans up, ignores the satanic Old Georgie, and kills the cannibal Hugh Grant.

Good. Nice. But there is no tie-in. I wish there could be some sense that these were not just independent short stories of bravery, and in fact they really were caused by a ripple effect through history, as the trailer promised. But really they are not. They are individual stories with only cosmetic connections, so as one reaches dramatic height, there is not a lot of carry-over from one to the next. In addition, several of them have dramatic heights that are anti-climactic, or too comedic. Cavendish’ story is comedic, and while comedy certainly has a place in a movie like this, I would argue it doesn’t come in climax. Frobisher and Luisa Rey both whimper out. Story 6 has a climax, as Zachry gets to put aside his cowardice in the same place that his cowardice lost him his brother and niece in the beginning, but it’s not on the same order as story 1 and story 5.

Stories 1 and 5 are direct blows to the slave trade, and the most thematically connected. 1 is a slave-trader giving up his business, and 5 is a slave rising up. They are the strongest climaxes, and the most relevant. Sadly they don’t get the maximum play they would need, to approach rising action near the levels of Magnolia.


And how to fix it

So how can we fix this sprawling mass of narrative? Does it even need fixing?

First off, I’ll argue no. As a tone poem, a meditation on a theme from different perspectives, it does not need changing. It is beautiful, exciting, and there are climaxes to every individual arc.

Secondly I’ll argue yes. Alongside a movie like Magnolia, which used its stories to bring us to a fever pitch climax by the end, each building on the others, Cloud Atlas performs poorly. It does not rise, it does not link, and everything that happens in the middle stories feels largely irrelevant to what happens at the end. It’s just a bunch of bits, told in funky out of sequence ways so as to make the most of dramatic spikes.

So how to fix that? Here are a few ways.

1- I would refocus the stories around the most important, most dramatic event- Sonmi 451’s rebellion. I would use her as the frame story, perhaps even keeping it as her inquisition at the start. Then I would have every previous story come as an ingredient to Sonmi’s decision to rebel. They go this way a little bit already, with her watching Cavendish’s talking “I will not be subjugated.” It should be taken further, with his lines being the last lines she says before she dies, as they are clearly the most powerful thing influencing her on her martyrdom.

Then we enter Cavendish’ story, and somewhere at his moment of truth, he will think back to what inspired him, in his case- Luisa Rey. Then we see Luisa Rey’s story, and she’s inspired by Frobisher’s music to be strong, who in turn was inspired by Will Ewing.

In fact I think I may have just inverted the matroska structure here. Ewing is now the heart of the movie, which actualy makes more sense, since he is the earliest in time, and everything from him is a ripple. Then Sonmi is the frame, which makes most sense since we want to finish with the thing that came last.

I suppose if we’re going in this direction, we can add Zachry back in. But then his finale needs to carry more weight. His faith in Sonmi needs to give him strength to do something for himself, rather than simply be rescued, as he is now. I’d like Halle Berry’s tech up on Mauna Kea also tell him that the raiders were coming, via radar or what not, in time for him to get down from the mountain and fight. Or perhaps they have already been enslaved? Then we have a brilliant moment as he faces the giant Sonmi statue, and considers his choices. Then he’ll race down the mountain, and fight. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter if he wins or not. what matters is that he fight. End.

The current Zachry ending is weak. Great climaxes come when both good and bad guy are at their most powerful moment. Zachry however finds Hugh Grant asleep. Easy. Then he wins not by being resourceful or badass, but because Halle Berry has an awesome gun. Nice, but not satisfying as a conclusion to the story of finding the strength to rise up against unbeatable odds.

So we need that to be the throughling- finding the strength to rise up against unbeatable odds. And it is because of the hero’s actions in the previous story, that the next hero finds the strength to rise up and fight back.

That’s in Cloud Atlas now, but so lost and diluted, more footnotes than prime motivators (for example, Luisa Rey is far more inspired by her father than by Frobisher’s music- for the narrative to hold, it must be the music that inspires her, likewise for Frosbisher, he enjoys Ewing’s story, but we can’t say it’s his main reason to fight his boss, chiefly he fights cos he wants to be famous, and also he fights by accident). We need those 6 decision moments to be inspired each by the last, for the movie to have that rising sense that something massive, a great ripple through time, has been affected.

I’d also like to know that Sonmi’s revolution somehow either caused the ‘fall’, or helped avert it from being even worse. I want it to have meant something more than the utter failure of humanity. Perhaps it could be more explicit that it was her influence that seeded the space colonies.

I’d like to see this version. Of course it will never be made, but existing footage could probably be cut to straighten things out a bit more, and make for a much more powerful climax.

Comments 16

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  1. This movie is a fusion of several genres as well as an attempt for an art-house cerebral movie to attain commercial blockbuster status. In my opinion it mostly succeeds, but finding a large mainstream audience is its biggest challenge to be met . There’s a smörgåsbord of material here for most people: human drama, mystery, violence, sex, adventure, farcical comedy, gloomy sci-fi and occasional romance. It’s 6 movies for the price of one! Just be ready to spend almost 3 hours in your seat and suffer a bit of whiplash as the transitions can get frenetic at times, with multiple cliff-hangers happening simultaneously.

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  2. As much as I loved the film (because it inspires future films to at least TRY and do something new and thought provoking), you have a point with this article. But I have to say though, that all the stories had each protagonist claiming their own version of solace. Whether it’s leaving a job that promotes slavery, committing suicide in order to leave a world of nothing but depression regarding how talented you are, exposing a conspiracy in order to stop a nuclear accident, freeing yourself and reuniting with a childhood sweetheart, being executed in order to become an impacting idea for the future, or trying to find basic solace by trusting others you don’t know yet, as well as confronting your demons, and end up with what works best. The message from Zachry’s story is that it is not always about being brave, he stepped up and it didn’t matter if he fought, which he did, but not very well. What mattered was that he stood up to his inner demons and found solace with Meronym and the little girl who survived the Kona raid of the village. It’s all about Earth’s animate creatures trying whatever they desire, in order to gain solace, no matter what the form of solace may be. Cloud Atlas is like a bedtime story for adults.

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      I like the about the characters seeking/finding their own forms of solace throughout the movie, Cerone. I love the idea that it’s a bedtime story too. I just wish it was a bit less of 6 unrelated vignettes, and had a bit more of a through-line, so that the connections between stories were more apparent and more important.

      As is, I feel they all stand alone, pretty much entirely- except for thematically. That’s fine I suppose, but I think it would be stronger if the stories came together more.

  3. Hey Michael! Ah, your sites been gone for a while. I dropped by seeing if you’re were back by chance… so many cool stores and photos here.

    I’m on a bit of a time limit so a quick response from me.

    I don’t agree with you on this one. A few tweaks might be in order and they didn’t follow the order in the book – but overall, I love this movie. If you watch the video on IMDB in which the cast and directors talk about the challenge of the story, perhaps that may help. They made the movie because of their love of the book. And that type of story telling is a challenge.

    Your question about “Sonmi’s revolution” causing the Fall. My answer (which maybe true): The Fall was going to happen, it was war along with climate change. As our waters rise and population gets crowded, there will more likely be conflicts over resources. The Fall has nothing to do with Somni. But her rebellion inspired a way to escape to another planet.

    In general, Cloud Atlas is a love story – that is the angle you seem to be missing. That is the connection between the 6 stories. As the characters souls meet each other by chance or “order of things” at these specific times in history. If we follow the belief of rebirth after death, then souls may not actually meet at the same location at the same time… Refer to the movie “Enter the Void” 2009 in which an American dies in Japan… and his spirit floats around in Japan watching people have sex, its an artistic surreal movie.

    The soul-connection is the lovers as well as the bad guy. Hence, the connection was malemale at one point.

    I believe in spirituality (not religion) – in life, there are people we may like, dislike and love upon first meeting. You could like someone who is hot, but fall in love with someone who is not. Overall, I think its a very good movie – it rates a 7.7 (above avg) for movies. The story and acting is quite good. Hey, its not a Michael Bay film. Everyone I know who has seen the movie, liked it (not many saw it, of course). The failure of the movie is NOT based on reviews as it is on promotion, its considered an independent film.

    A bit of update since my last post on this site. It relates a bit to this movie. I had posted before Cloud Atlas release about love lost, spirituality on another site. I meet a women, who has seen me dance with many women at a club. We both thought we’re going to have 1-night stand/casual sex that night. But we were inlove pretty much that first night. Her thinking I said things “to all the girls” was going to be a cum and go thing. Less than 3 weeks of dating, I proposed to her without planning – I literally thought about it for a few seconds. She said yes. I’ve never asked anyone for marriage in my life. She does it for me, physically and spiritually. We won’t get married for another year – we are crazy, not stupid! And we saw Cloud Atlas together, after I proposal. The end of the movie was climatic to me… the past connects to the future.

    She’s not exactly my type of girl. She’s a bit hard-core, I’m more laid back. We have some different views but also many that are the same. I know I want and can be with her for decades until we die. I feel we are connected that way – since the first kiss. I’ve have lots of casual/1-nighters and the kissing has been just kissing. I meet a girl last year for which our souls were possibly connected twice before in our pasts – in a brother/sister way. She said things that kinda matched up, things I have felt. I let her be on her way (she didn’t live in my city, just visiting family) and didn’t want contact info. Past is in the past. I have other things to do that are more important. 😐

    When I watched Cloud Atlas a 2nd and 3rd time… the movie got better for me. There is a lot to take in, and they are cramming a lot to tell a story after all.

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      Hi Dr. Downs, site had a virus for a while, everything should be back to normal now though.

      You raise interesting thoughts. I guess the love sotry angle had registered with me- plainly it’s there in various scenes in the movie, but I hadn’t thought it was such a key point. In the 5 minute trailer, I definitely noticed it. But across the whole movie, it gets so diluted by other stuff, and other love stories and plots, that I think it’s hard for any one thing to rise above the noise.

      Except Sonmi. In my view, it seemed everything was rising to the Sonmi storyline. You mention that because of Sonmi, people somehow found a way to get to other planets, but I don’t think I got that from the movie. Is it in there? And even if it is, how would that work? I can’t imagine a slave revolution leading to that. And if it did, well, then I want to see a bit more of that.

      But then I won’t say it’s a bad movie. It’s a very interesting movie, full of stuff, and probably a strength of it is that we can each come away with our own central idea of what it was about. You got the love story. I got the rising up thing.

      Probably this is a case where my own imagination, and indeed the trailer, raised my expectations too high. I probably watched the 5min trailer about 20 times before watching the movie. I’ll probably watch it again in the future, because I feel it encapsulates more what I wanted from the movie than the movie does- a stronger sense of connection between the storylines, rising to an epic climax.

      There was no epic climax. Or if there was, the raid on Zachry’s village, it was one in which our characters lose. Whereas I wanted to see some victory. Instead we get the quiet coda at the end, closing the love stories. Which is nice, but not epic.

      As to your marriage news, and the end of your pimping days- congratulations. I’ve been happily married for over a year now, and it’s pretty much the best thing I’ve ever done.

  4. I think this movie has a lot of ingredients in it. There is much food for thought in this movie. It has everything like drama, violence, sex, advantage, romance and much more. But I expected the climax to be different. The climax was a disaster form my point of view.

  5. @Thomas: A big climax wasn’t needed, IMHO. The pay-off is that the lovers in the past were successful in the end. Remember the father, the bigot with limited thinking. Seeing the daughter at the end was a “connection”. They her and her husband were more progressive in thinking and spirituality.

    With that, they improved mankind with Somni… but we don’t see that until the final future. Her way of thinking was for mankind to improve itself on another planet… rather than transfer mankinds stupidity to another planet… to destroy. Afterall, the Earth becomes a radioactive cesspool of death for man. It would take many thousands of years for the Earth to heal, human race would most likely die out.

    I had no expectations of a climax… I knew the basics and avoid reading the book (I will some day).

    Its not a perfect movie, but its far better than most dribble from Hollywood’s butt.

  6. @MJG: Part of my response to you is was towards Thomas.

    The Epic/climax was the things set in motion was over the course of hundreds of years. Slavery in the past vs. future. Even today, in the USA we have a form of slavery, in which many people work 2 jobs at min. wage and are supposed to “live”? And with all those hours, have no benefits.

    I too watched that trailer over 20 times. In 5 minutes, its a rather excellent build up. Its one of the better trailers IMHO.

    A life changing moment could happen at any time. Who you meet and when. I’ve dated a woman, who I had actually meet a few years earlier. Back then we wouldn’t have dated each other. We had our fun, moved on. I see her at the club regularly (even 4 days ago) and is buds with me and my woman, who knows I had a relationship with her.

    My woman, for example – almost didn’t happen. We’ve danced here and there, I’m drunk at clubs and I’ve forgotten her. Last fall, she comes up to me and says “hi”. (A lot of girls give me hugs, say hi to me – many I don’t remember their names or worse) I don’t remember her, I’ve not been out drinking/dancing for a month – and just went. I don’t buy strangers a drink, but I buy her a drink. We chat, we dance a bit

    At some point, I said she was cute. She said I was full of shit since she was dressed as a “stud”/ suit-like outfit and no makeup. I thought she was wrong and then kissed her passionately; we melted. (*Stud = A lesbian, dressed to look like a tomboy/ male.)

    She was out looking for girls. I’ve asked her out before (I didn’t remember) but she was dating a girl, etc. When she came up, it was to say “hi” and get a dance out of me before I moved onto another girl or socialize with others.

    She thought I wouldn’t call her after that night. I called her and hoped she wanted to see me again. Our first date was 2 nights later. We are still together 10 months later. We still have awesome time together, other than money issues – no drama, no real fights. Some usual couples issues. It’s all good.

    – Heheh, My pimping days are not quite over. I still dance with other girls as well when we go out. We’re social and kinky. We are a team, partners.

    It was the right time for her to say “hi” and me to kiss her which is caused us to be together, and that STILL fascinates me.

  7. As The official synopsis for Cloud Atlas describes it being an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future. Here one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.There was a news making rounds that due to lack of finance, the film was almost abandoned several times.And that keeps me wondering if it could be a plausible reason to compromise in the story and the screen play.Cloud Atlas had mixed reviews as few rejected it calling it messy, or complicated, or undecided whether it’s trying to say something new,profound or not.For me, I could not find logical connections between the segments, stories and characters.While others thought it ambitious, thought-provoking and impressed by its eye-catching visuals.

  8. I saw this movie and it fell short of all my expectations. When I read the reviews first, I expected it to me more of a out of world experience. But once I saw the movie, I was quite disappointed. I don’t know what the people were thinking when they told that this movie was good.

  9. Ah… we are having a child… Was planning for a few years from now, but things happen. 🙂 We are excited, she’ll be a good mother.

    I still chuckle from time to time when I’m massaging her. A simple act of meeting that night and that first kiss leads to us creating a life (no, its not a miracle) that will continue my DNA into the future long after I am gone.

    Caroline : Hollywood and most viewers prefer simple movies. I don’t rate it as a good movie because its artsy-fartsy… but the story and acting. Its not great. But then again, many of us can enjoy watching campy Doctor Who for what it is.

  10. This movie indeed has a lot of ingredients. But I think they weren’t mixed in the right proportion to bring out a successful flick. When I saw the promos, I expected a lot from this movie. But when I watched it, it was a total disappointment for me.

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