Was The Wachowskis’ 2012 Film ‘Cloud Atlas’ Really That Bad?

The Wachowskis are returning to movie theaters with Jupiter Ascending. It’s a big, sprawling, ambitious science fiction film… which isn’t a big surprise because their last movie was a big, sprawling, ambitious science fiction film. And if you haven’t seen Cloud Atlas, you really should.

Cloud Atlas was originally a novel, released in 2004, that told a series of nested stories starting in the 19th century and ranging up to mankind’s post-apocalyptic future and back again. It’s a rich, weird, complex novel that Hollywood, of course, would bulldoze into some dumb story about reincarnation.

So the Wachowskis, who teamed up with Tom Tykwer to direct what amounts to six short films, didn’t make it through Hollywood. Instead, they somehow talked a huge cabal of foreign investors out of $93 million and paid $7 million out of their pile of Matrix f***-you money. And not only did they do that, they managed to talk an all-star cast into what had to be the strangest movie any of them had ever been confronted with.

And that really ties into why, even when they eat pavement, you have to love the Wachowskis. One of the biggest problems with Hollywood in any era, really, is that it’s a business first, and businesses don’t make art. This is why the Transformers have five movies despite the fact that everyone hates them and why found footage horror movies came at a clip of one or two a month for a solid year: They make money. If you’re really lucky, more often than not, you get a director who loves making this kind of product and then you get something special.

But with the Wachowskis, they have somehow managed to pull off, every single time, making the movie they’ve wanted to make. Love it or hate it, they’ve never manufactured a product: They’ve made a movie.

And I get why people hate Cloud Atlas; it turned up on both best-of and worst-of lists in 2012, and Vince has a few excellent points in his review about why precisely that is. It’s a sprawling movie that basically asks you to swallow both hard SF and dream logic in equal measure, and it’s shamelessly sentimental and earnest in ways that feel more than a little corny at points. The trailer for the movie actually does a pretty good job of summing up its flaws:

I mean, it’s not all about the power of love, but yeah, that’s kind of a major theme. Also, whenever the music plays, you have the moment where people struggle to remember where they’ve heard a song before. That’s hard for any actor to pull off, but six times? Oof. And let’s just not even get into the post-apocalyptic sequence’s dialogue, which makes everybody sound like a drunk French comedian reading dialogue from The Beverly Hillbillies. It’s even got Hugo Weaving in yellowface, for God’s sake.

That said, though, the flipside of this movie is that if you’re willing to give it a chance, there’s a lot to love here. It sounds like a complete mess, but it’s surprisingly coherent and well thought-out most of the time. The connections between the stories are undeniably weird and “meta,” like characters turning up on a TV show that somebody in another story is watching, but if you roll with it, it becomes fascinating. And it must be said, if nothing else, the score, composed partially by Tykwer, is probably one of the best in recent years.

Similarly, nobody on the cast is cashing a paycheck: They all read the script, they all wanted to be there, and they all do great work for most of the movie. Hanks, in particular, really makes a go of it and reminds you that, oh yeah, they gave this guy a pile of Oscars for a reason.

Will it work for everybody? Not in the least. But I will say that Cloud Atlas deserves a re-evaluation, or a first-time viewing, simply because it’s a movie that actually tries to be something other than a disposable spectacle. Too often, you walk out of a movie theater and what you just saw effortlessly disappears; love it or hate it, that’s not going to happen with Cloud Atlas.