Posted November 3, 2012 by William Dunmyer in Science Fiction

Cloud Atlas: Hinduism for Fifth-Graders

Hinduism for fifth-graders. That’s how I’d describe “Cloud Atlas,” the new three-hour magnum opus from the directors of “The Matrix” trilogy. “Cloud Atlas” is not so much a bad film as a mediocre one, with some bizarre casting. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry playing the leads in a film adaptation of a highbrow literary novel? Maybe they should have added Cher and Tom Cruise to the cast. Now that’s a highbrow picture!

The novel, which bears the same title, was published in 2004 by David Mitchell and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, arguably the most prestigious literary honor in the British Commonwealth. I have not read it, but based on its renown I would hazard a guess that it’s a major work of art.

If that’s the case, then something dreadful happened on the way to the screen. Lana and Andy Wachowski, along with their co-director, Germany’s Tom Tykwer (yes, three directors), have given us a version of “Cloud Atlas” that is not a major work of art. It’s a didactic, over-simplified version of the Hindu dictum that everything is connected. In this philosophy, which is at least 5000 years old, all of life is one. Plants, animals, and the planet itself are all made of the same basic stuff, with slight modifications in form. Sameness is more significant than difference. The self and the other are the same in all the ways that are most meaningful.

Americans with fifth-grade educations (fans of Hanks and Berry, one might say) probably have never studied Hinduism. But grown-ups who’ve read a book or two in their lives are not new to world religions. In fact, anyone who has had a Hippie phase in his or her life has gotten wind of this. It’s hard for me to understand why “Cloud Atlas” (the film) presents this as a revelation. The Wachowskis can’t be that uninformed.

The marketing department at Warner Brothers, demonstrating great learning and taste, has even used the tag line “Everything is Connected” in some of the ads. Literature reduced to a slogan! Maybe the studio dumbed the film down, against the Wachowskis’ wishes. I suppose we’ll never know whom to blame for the hollowing out of this project.

Another pronounced theme in the film is the human tendency toward bigotry. In one era it’s whites oppressing blacks. In another it’s straights oppressing gays. In others it’s natural-born humans oppressing “fabricants,” humans created in labs. Bigotry is bigotry is bigotry. This is also hardly a new idea. It’s hard to stay connected to the film when middle-school banalities are presented as art. At times it felt like the movie had been conceived by smart fifth-graders.


 “Cloud Atlas” contains a half-dozen interconnected story lines, each taking place in a different time period. The oldest one is set in 19th-century America, when the movement to abolish slavery was gaining momentum. We watch a young white man’s conversion to the abolitionist cause. He eventually writes a memoir about this experience.

In 1930s England, a gay man (played well by Ben Whishaw) receives sustenance and encouragement in his battle against homophobia when he reads this long-forgotten memoir.

In the 1970s, this man’s former boyfriend (James D’Arcy) tries to muster the courage to blow the whistle on his employer (Hugh Grant), who is risking ecological catastrophe by playing fast and loose with nuclear power. He struggles to tell his story to a journalist (Halle Berry), who is trying to live up to the example set by her journalist father. Her example inspires a 12-year-old Latino boy, who in 2012 becomes a published novelist.

His publisher (Jim Broadbent) is involuntarily institutionalized by his ruthless brother. He writes a memoir about the experience, which is turned into a movie. This movie then becomes an inspiration in the 22nd century for a fabricant (played beautifully by Korean actress Doona Bae) struggling to break out of the captivity to which all fabricants in “Neo-Seoul” are subjected.

And so on. Captivity and bigotry are the recurring themes, with oppressed people and their allies leaving traces that assist and enlighten later generations. Some of the vignettes are directed beautifully; some not so beautifully. The Neo-Seoul story line stands out and is arguably the best. But it too has laughable, hokey moments.

Overall, “Cloud Atlas” collapses under the weight of its own ponderousness. It doesn’t have anything new or profound to say, but it believes itself to be a revelation. It would be difficult for any film to bear the weight of this excessive ponderousness. But it is especially difficult for a film that has so many moments that reek of mediocre television.

The 1970s story line starts out well but ends up feeling like a weak imitation of “Starsky & Hutch,” with one of the worst chase scenes in cinema history. Also laughable are some parts of the story line set in the distant future. During this sequence, which is led by Berry and Hanks, I sometimes felt I was watching a remake of the cheesy 1960s TV show “Lost in Space.” Danger, Will Robinson!

I could hear tittering throughout my sold-out audience during this sequence — the palpable sound of an audience disengaging from a film that is much thinner and more banal than it believes it is.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.