Masterpiece or Mishmash? Talking Cloud Atlas

By David Corbett

There’s an old saying: Critics are the kind of people who go out after a battle’s been fought and shoot the wounded.

That little chestnut came back with a vengeance when I read some of the reviews for Cloud Atlas.

Briefly #1: If you’re unacquainted with the novel by David Mitchell on which the film is based, or the basic outline of the six nested stories that make up the narrative, this summary by Wikipedia is serviceable.

Briefly #2: I was amazed by the film, touched to the point of tears more than once. I left the theater in a kind of marvelous daze, like I was walking on fog, something that rarely happens at the movies any more.

Apparently, this isn’t the consensus view, at least among the illuminati.

I may be one of the few people on earth who went into the theater expecting next to nothing. I’d not seen a trailer, I’d read no reviews, imbibed no other media hype, and I’d not yet managed to read the book. (I intend to correct that last limitation as soon as I can.)

My sole pre-viewing opinion came from a writer friend, Tom Barbash, who’d seen an advance screening and said the film rivaled Citizen Kane in its importance to American cinema—this from a Stegner fellow and Stanford professor who didn’t merely love the book, he read it four times.

But after viewing the film—more on that in a moment (don’t worry, no spoilers)—I was hungry for more information, especially when a friend informed me the reviews were “all over the map”—a phrase, interestingly, often used to describe the film.

And so I went to the ever-informative Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic websites to see what the wise ones were saying.

I’m sorry I bothered. I compare the experience to overhearing a circle of gossips carp and snipe about what’s oh so obviously hideous about your sweetheart.

On reflection, I too can see many less-than-successful aspects of the film. But I found little merit delving in to the orgy of self-congratulatory bile that in too many cases tried to pass itself off as legitimate criticism.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and I see movies and books from the inside, looking at what was attempted, not just what’s there. I’ve learned to both enjoy the decor while also checking out the plumbing. And I was seduced by the ambition of Cloud Atlas. More than once, I sat there wondering: How are they getting away with this?

Clearly, many believed they got away with little or nothing. And they can’t say it spitefully enough.

Some of this I suspect is the usual professionalized envy that too often masquerades as criticism. Some of it is political—the Wachowskis are deemed “radical.” Some of it is the kneejerk railing against anything ambitious as “pretentious” or “pompous”—an opinion often expressed in flamingly pompous fashion.

But what I experienced over and over and over again while watching this film was the magic of the movies. I had a blast. There’s a just a visual, experiential joy to the film that I found not just inviting or seductive or infectious but engulfing.

The actors play multiple roles, crossing gender and color lines and playing a variety of ages. Is the makeup unconvincing in places? I’m enthusiastic, not blind.

Are some of the performances overly broad? You mean as in opera? So?

Is the theme delivered in ham-handed fashion or in leaden dialog?

At times. And I don’t minimize this fault. If you need to announce your theme, you’re doing something wrong. But the theme was also brought home so often by the visuals and the structure that I decided to overlook this limitation. Yes, I think the theme the filmmakers chose to emphasize is a bit simplistic, and that oversimplification created a somewhat cartoonish evil—The weak are meat, and the strong will eat—opposed by a less cartoonish but still unconvincing good—boundaries are illusions, we are all one. But the interplay of this theme in its various manifestations—some witty, some tragic, some melodramatic, some potboilerish, some hip—helped mitigate the simplicity by adding texture and contrast.

Is the movie as subtle, thematically suggestive or structurally ambitious as the book? Oh, please.

This last question seems to go to the heart of some of the most withering criticism. In just the sections I’ve managed to read so far, the prize of subtlety so clearly belongs to the book as to render the question irrelevant.

This isn’t the book. It doesn’t try to be, nor should it.

It’s a big budget ($100 million) film that needs to do well in many markets to earn back its investment. That means it has to honor the intent of the original while also playing to the cheap seats, not just here but around the world. For my money, it does so not just well, but marvelously.

However, despite earning a ten-minute standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival, it appears to be stalling at the domestic box office. The middling reviews are creating a downward drag; those who might have gone to see it are reconsidering. (How can I shout this loudly enough: Screw the reviews, go see it for yourself!)

Argo stole this past weekend’s top receipts, and Those in the Know opine that Cloud Atlas may continue languishing and lose out not just in receipts but at the Oscars to Argo, The Hobbit, and other weighty fall fare.

That’s a shame. Because I think it’s pretty cool that a literary novel can be turned into a great visual feast and a daring cinematic event that also induces that childlike wonder that reminds us of why we go to the movies.

And I think some of the criticism against Cloud Atlas results precisely from the fact it’s not as much of a “film” as some wanted, but rather a movie.

And that’s what I call shooting the wounded.

* * * * *

So, my readers: If you’ve seen the film, feel free to chime in.

If you haven’t, what criticism have you read lately that raised your hackles—or resonated with the truth?

Do you believe in a clear bright line between “movies” and “films”?

* * * * *

This is a repeat of information I provided yesterday concerning my upcoming class through LitReactor, starting Thursday. We still have a few seats available so sign up now.


The Spine of Crime: Setting, Suspense, and Structure

in Detective, Crime, and Thriller Stories

Online at Litreactor

Building on my preceding course, The Character of Crime, I move from the Who of crime writing to the Where, What and How. (The prior class is not a prerequisite for this course. The subject matter to be covered here stands alone.)

In this 4-week course and workshop, you’ll learn the crucial role of setting in crime stories—perhaps the most setting-dependent genre in literature. You’ll learn how to let suspense emerge not from coincidence but as a natural extension of character, context, and conflict. Last, you’ll learn how to construct the “spine” of your story through structure, finishing up with an examination of the unique plot elements that characterize stories in the detective, crime, and thriller sub-genres.


The Classes:

Week 1 — Setting: How to Ground your Theme, Characters, and Structure in Place

Whether your story takes place in a pastoral village or a skyscraper jungle, how people live in a specific place and time will define the nature and limits of what’s deemed a crime, who gets called a criminal, and what stands for justice.

Week 2 — Techniques of Suspense: Character, Conflict, and Context—not Coincidence

The trick is always to make the reader keep turning pages. Creating suspense always requires a bit of legerdemain, but to do it well, you need to look deep inside your story, not rely on chance.

Week 3 — Structure: Letting the Conflict Shape Your Story

Three-Act structure too often strands the writer in a meandering second act. By understanding structure as an outgrowth of character, plot points become meaningful events in your story’s growing conflict, not just turnstiles in the plot.

Week 4 — Structural Beats for Specific Sub-genre Types: Detective, Crime, Thriller

Each sub-genre has its own unique thematic emphasis, and that’s reflected in the nature of the adversaries and the conflict they generate. Those variations result in unique structural emphases and expectations.


* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: One of the themes of Cloud Music concerns the seemingly recurring, perhaps even eternal nature of certain patterns of behavior–and musical refrains. My vote for timeless, in the realm of music at least:


15 thoughts on “Masterpiece or Mishmash? Talking Cloud Atlas

  1. David Corbett

    A quick note:

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  2. Shizuka

    I haven't seen the movie, but found the book really interesting.
    (Not interesting enough to read twice; I only connected emotionally with 1 of the 6 narratives. Black Swan Green, on the other had, has the same prose gymnastics with a much deeper emotional connection.)
    I admire the way it plays with structure.
    But many of the criticisms about the film — lack of cohesion, six stories cobbled together — could also be applied to the book. It's a book you read for the quality and breadth of prose and flexibility with voice.

    Personally, I'll watch the movie because the Wachowski brothers are amazing visualists and Tom Twyker is a great story teller.

    I don't care at all if something is a "film" or a "movie."
    (The word "film" actually makes me think of still cameras and dirty windows).
    In the same way I read books that interest me without caring if they're labeled "literary," "genre," "popular," or whatever else.

  3. Lisa Alber

    Hi David,

    Love this line: I’ve learned to both enjoy the decor while also checking out the plumbing. It's so true. In fact, I go a step further when I step into a movie theater. I put away my critic's hat and expect enjoyment. Most movies have flaws–why focus on them instead of the good stuff?

    But then, by nature I'm not a critic.

    Cheers, Lisa

  4. Sarah W

    I haven't read Cloud Atlas or visited a theater since the Avengers moved on, but I've read Life of Pi and was surprised when I saw the trailer. How could anyone adapt that layered fantasy into a movie without severely curtailing all the simultaneous possibilities (cough, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, cough, World According to Garp, cough)? But that won't discourage me from seeing it–quite the contrary.

    If it's stipulated that movies are for entertainment and films promote enlightenment/education/introspection, I think I prefer movies and am far more forgiving of them (except for Die Another Day, because c'mon).

    That doesn't mean that I don't appreciate films (I'd say 'enjoy,' but did anyone really 'enjoy' Schindler's List?), but there's nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment's sake–for that sense of wonder you mentioned.

    I'm wondering, though, if this isn't an artificial division. Movies can educate (13th Warrior). Films (Tinker,Tailor) can be fun. Maybe the problem comes when people mistake the purpose of the flick and assign rules?

    Or maybe I'm talking through my hat. Wouldn't be the first time.

  5. David Corbett

    Shizuka: I think you stated the matter perfectly with this: "I'll watch the movie because the Wachowski brothers are amazing visualists and Tom Twyker is a great story teller." Right on both counts, imho.

    Lisa: I too go into movies just wanting enjoyment, but I can't help but "check out the plumbing." It isn't so much my critic hat as my craftsman hat I seem to be wearing. I'll bet you inadvertently slip your own on from time to time as well.

    Sarah: I think the division gets very blurry around the middle, but at the extremes it's pretty easy to differentiate Persona from Singing in the Rain. The problem comes when one is seen as having intrinsically greater artistic merit. That implies that one effort is easier in some fundamental way than the other. To which I respond: Oh yeah? Let's see you dance like Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds or Donald O'Connor.

    I think Preston Sturges dealt with this issue better than anyone in Sullivan's Travels.

    But I also like this formulation that I got from a friend of mine, who may have borrowed it from somewhere else: There's nothing wrong with entertainment, just entertainment that insults your intelligence.

  6. David Corbett

    Alex: I didn't read the book, and now fully intend to do so. And I know it will be a fundamentally different experience than the movie. But I'd urge you to go see it now. First, because it needs to be seen on a large screen. Two, with your interest in story world, you'll be gobsmacked.

  7. Allison Davis

    I was an art critic for years and published regularly and never painted (much) or did performance art (which I covered). I DO NOT let critics off the hook because they are not writers. You either get it and empathize and understand the art or you don't. If you are merely commenting on the surface or "in the context" as so many like to do, meh. Critics should understand art histroy, and should understand where in societal normsl something falls, but more than either of those fairly standard backgrounds, should also allow the more viseral part of the art to invade them and they should feel it. So often, they are afraid to venture that far.

    When critics pan a movie for the reasons stated here, just makes me want to go because I don't believe them. But that's another entire post on the nature of criticism and how it has become much more superficial than it was — no more Pauline Kaels? Sigh. Criticism should be the dialog around the art — fun, informative, contextual and unashamed.

    This movie was on my radar and I will definately see it at the next opportunity. I am almost back from my sabbatical and will come visit more often.

  8. David Corbett


    I didn't realize you were an art critic. How fascinating. You continue to surprise and amaze.

    I think your comment about surrendering to the experience of the work is key. A lot of critics think it's their job NOT to do that, and their reviews are therefore, as you say, inherently superficial. It's like focusing on the wallpaper when your making love with someone. (Not that I'd know anything about that.)

    I'm not a huge Pauline Kael fan, because sometimes in her search for context she lost track of the actual film. She could get seriously lost in the weeds.

    I think both David Denby and Anthony Lane are generally reliable. (Lane wasn't thrilled by the movie, btw, but he wasn't an ass about it). A.O. Scott can be okay. Manohla Dargis tries too hard to be smarter than everyone else, and in so doing misses the point so wildly at times I almost feel sorry for her. Peter Travers hasn't said anything that made me want to smack him.

  9. Reine

    I want to see it. I have been so absent from life recently, that I hadn't read or heard about it until now. Thank you, David. xo

  10. Reine

    I want to see it. I have been so absent from life recently, that I hadn't read or heard about it until now. Thank you, David. xo

  11. Sarah W

    "There's nothing wrong with entertainment, just entertainment that insults your intelligence."

    That's perfect, David. And if Gene Kelly on roller skates is supposed to be an insult to one's intelligence, then that's not the kind of intelligence I wish to have.

  12. Vince

    Haven't seen the movie yet but I will, inspired in part by this Aleksandar Hemon article in the New Yorker that not only profiles the Wachowskis but the scale of the film's ambition. It makes it clear how difficult it was to complete a project of this scope as an essentially independent production.

    The article confirms that the presence of recognizable stars like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry made the movie happen. Bringing up one fear, David: are they TOO recognizable? Does seeing them even under all that makeup knock you out of the movie?

  13. David Corbett

    Reine: Well, this movie may not get you back into LIFE, but I think it will intrigue.

    Sarah: I think the whole art vs. entertainment thing is a sham. Joseph Chaikin once described Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht as artists he admired equally but would never invite to the same dinner party. That's the way I feel about many things I enjoy. Yeah, they're wildly different — so?

    Vince: Yes, the makeup can be distracting, and how do you conceal Tom Hanks — and do you want to? Some critics howled about this, and I thought, so what? You accept that as a given and remain immersed in the story. Anthony Lane never felt immersed. He's not alone. I did. But I also accepted the kind of movie star peekaboo thing going on, and decided to get into it, not fault the movie for it.

    My advice? Go with the intention of having fun. You will.

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