Is ‘Cloud Atlas’ The Greatest Film of the Year? Or the Biggest Failure? The Debate Begins!

By  · Published on September 9th, 2012

All evening I was prepared for the snarkily apathetic responses to a certain film holding its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival Saturday night. Sadly, there was no Tweet expressing, “Cloud Atlas … shrug.”

But there were indeed some claims of “meh” and “okay,” though perhaps not as many as there were declaring the ambitious effort either a monumental masterpiece or an epic failure. The film, which is based on the David Mitchell novel and adapted and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, seems to be this year’s Inception or Tree of Life, as it parts the waves of criticism more distinctly than even the current American political divide. And, hey, Cloud Atlas actually sounds rather relevant to the presidential election with its apparent themes of history repeating itself and debate over change.

The funny thing about a movie like Cloud Atlas is that the negative reviews seem to be more marketable than the positive. Those who say it’s a narrative mess still tell us to see the film for ourselves, if only because it’s still a marvel of cinema. And critics with the highest praise cut their own exaltations down by stating that a lot of moviegoers are going to hate it, whether because they won’t have the patience or they just won’t get it.

“I am concerned audiences will grow tired and impatient with the storytelling and grow uninterested with what is more of a repetitive theme than a revelatory one,” writes Brad Brevet at Rope of Silicon, “but whether audiences accept it or not, this is a film that will have people talking and for that we should be thankful.”

Discussion-provoking movies are never a bad thing in my book. The power of the medium to connect and then sever us is so strong sometimes that I’m surprised no film has ever started a war. Perhaps this could be the one?

“Those that are unmoved by the way this pushes the audience must be, unfortunately, blind to the revelations within,” states Alex Billington at “Cloud Atlas is an achievement of the grandest of scales. It may forever change your life.”

The opposition may have their eyes open, only they’re rolling them, as in the case of The Playlist’s Kevin Jagernauth. He calls the movie a “dully unimaginative” effort that “offers fortune cookie social commentary put in a blender with a handful of thinly interlocking stories, in a failed attempt to say something meaningful about the human condition.” Interestingly enough, in spite of all those saying it’s inaccessible to average moviegoers, Jagernauth argues that it’s the Wachowskis’ “most mainstream” yet.

In a way, the experience of seeing the film with a potentially disunited audience sounds almost as worth a trip to the multiplex as the theatrically necessary visual spectacle. “Cloud Atlas is a polarizing film, dividing Toronto audiences down the middle,” acknowledges Matt Patches at “but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes.”

Are the visuals or the questions all that great, though? Eric Kohn of Indiewire calls the movie “a bloated pop spectacle that never holds together but often elegantly flails about, resulting in a noble failure akin to Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” treatment for its appropriating of blockbuster ingredients to make sweeping philosophical statements.”

And Jordan Mintzer of The Hollywood Reporter considers it “a movie that yearns to be both arthouse and blockbuster, yet can’t seem to make up its mind […] a film that aims for the clouds but is often weighed down by its own lofty intentions.”

Surely there has to be something for everyone if they look under the grandstand. “While it’s easy to admire the film’s massive scope ‐ and the adroit method in which the film is presented ‐ it’s hard not to notice that, for all its big ideas, the film’s more intimate and small than you might expect,” writes Sean O’Connell at

“In the end, “Cloud Atlas” is a film that dares to imagine something beyond what is typically done in big-budget filmmaking,” concludes Drew McWeeny at HitFix. “It is easy to be worn down by Hollywood’s constant stream of remakes and sequels and comic books, but all it takes is one “Cloud Atlas” for me to once again believe that anything is possible if the right artists are given room to experiment. While it may not be for everyone, “Cloud Atlas” is one of my very favorite films this year.”

McWeeny points out, as do others of positive and negative and indifferent response, that this is hardly the last we’ll hear about the movie. And not just because it doesn’t open to the public until October 26. The debate over Cloud Atlas will continue through the end of this year and probably for many to come. Or, maybe it will just carry over to the next instance of divisive cinema as we critically repeat ourselves over again.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.