How Cloud Atlas could have, should have changed the big and bold cinema.

Cloud Atlas tried to go big, but then went home:  the movie, released in late 2012, was not a financial success. Produced on a budget of 100 million dollars, it garnered a mere 130 million – considering the costs for marketing and distribution, the movie most certainly is a box office bomb. To put it into the movie’s own words: Cloud Atlas „tried to upend the natural order of this world“, and consequently did not fare well. And that’s a real shame – not only for all those involved with producing and creating the movie, but the entire movie industry as a whole. I predict: for the foreseeable future, audience members who long for entertaining yet challenging movies will suffer from the failure of Cloud Atlas.

The movie of ideas.

It is safe to say that Cloud Atlas is one of the most audaciously ambitious movies of the 21st century. The 164 minute behemoth covers six stories, each set in a different timeline: a lawyer getting to know the horrors of slavery in the 1840s, a homosexual composer at odds with the rules of the 1930’s society, a journalist uncovering a conspiracy in the 1970s, a publisher resisting old age, set in 2012, and two timelines set in the distant (and very distant, respectively) future. „Everything is connected“, boasts the movie’s tagline, and there are indeed many recurring themes, characters and even actors interwoven and employed throughout all of the 6 timelines. Spotting those connections and figuring out what they mean is one of the movie’s many joys – as such, Cloud Atlas becomes a puzzle that begs for repeated viewing.

The general sentiment hasn’t changed since its release: the movie may be too big for its own good, even though the ambitious nature of the movie can still only be marveled at. Cloud Atlas was reaching for the stars, which it so evidently displays in its presentation: the stories differ in visual style and genre, and each of them has a distinct appeal to it – what sane mind would try to fuse all of these stories into one giant whole? At the same time as it builds plot momentum and somehow tries meaningfully interweave the stories with each other, the movie sets itself the goal to further its themes on a macro-level, trying (and sometimes failing) to offer wisdom without spoon-feeding its audience.

Cloud Atlas is a movie of big ideas – reincarnation, fate, freedom of will, the future of the human race, you name it – and in dealing with all these issues, becomes a metaphor for itself: a movie that symbolizes an idea itself. The movie is the poster-child for what movie magic is capable of – thrilling, daunting, overwhelming, maybe even being pretentious, but most of all: challenging. The answers are rarely doled out, and that’s only if you managed to figure out the questions the movie poses in the first place. How do the stories connect – both from scene to scene as well as on the grand scale? How do the actors portraying different characters figure in on all of this? Why do humans make „the same mistakes, over and over“, and how does the movie portray it? And what answers does the movie offer?

Source: official Warner Bros Cloud Atlas homepage. (c) WB, no copyright infringement intended. This is for educational purposes only.

There is no shame in not being able to answer these questions – they are meant to be discussed, and thought about – and thus make sure the movie will stay in your head. And as any respectable filmmaker will tell you, that’s what movies are all about, or rather: should be about. Yeah, sure, they’re entertainment too, fair enough – but true art will never be content with just letting the audience have a good time. True art is meaningful, and attempts to stimulate human beings beyond just grabbing their attention. It elicits emotional responses out of us, makes us question our values and maybe, perhaps hopefully, enlightens us in the search for our place in the world. Many movies do this, but Cloud Atlas perhaps more than most.

The catch.

Fact: the most intellectual, artistic movies don’t do well at the box office. These are simply not what most people go to movies for. We do want to be entertained – only after the credits roll does the entertainment become secondary to the movie’s themes and message(s). But what we all prefer, which really amounts to the Holy Grail of film making, is combining both agendas, making the challenging movies fun. More often than not, however, it is the other way round, and the depth of the movie is relegated to the sidelines when the movie has to decide which of the two sides it wants to emphasize.

Cloud Atlas is the sort of movie that is rarely produced: the intellectually challenging, thought-provoking and original blockbuster. It is considered to be the most expensive independent film ever made, because even its well-known directors Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The Perfume) and the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix trilogy) could not convince a Hollywood studio to shell out so much money for a movie that is so unlike any other blockbusters in recent memory. A lot of goodwill was thus given to Cloud Atlas in advance – a big gamble that can, in large parts, be attributed to the success of Inception (2010).

Christopher Nolan’s Inception is Cloud Atlas‚ role model, perhaps not even consciously. Quite aptly, Inception may have heralded the beginning of a new trend in the movie industry, one that Cloud Atlas wanted to hop on to: that challenging movies are accepted by a broad audience, rather than being relegated to the art house cinemas. Now, Inception is not the be-all answer to the call for intellectual movies, but its combination of complex story, Nolan’s name and the big money attached to it was certainly a wake-up call for Hollywood, particularly once it became clear it would become a genuine box office success. With Cloud Atlas‚ huge production values, its well-known crew and cast (headlined by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry) and an absolutely mind-blowing trailer, the movie surely tried to emulate Inception’s success – but alas, failed.

It is difficult to pinpoint why. Cloud Atlas‚ reaction from critics is officially described as „mixed“, but does not reflect that most critics either loved or hated it – and the same is apparently true for audience members. The question is: aren’t movies that you will find either marvelous or atrocious significantly preferable to average or even good-but-not-great movies? With the Academy, the movie did not find much love – which I to this day find confusing, particularly in the editing category. All of these things may have been detrimental to Cloud Atlas‚ success, but in the end, it is the people who decide what kind of movies they like, and by extension, what kind of movies the people demand. And in 2012, the audience decided that it did not want movies like Cloud Atlas.

On the business side, this was a clear sign, and seeing such a behemoth tank so hard at the box office must have sent dozens of red flags on the major studio’s radars. The movie did not find the audience it sought – and since it is such a one-of-a-kind movie, it inevitably became the epitome of films featuring challenging, grand themes. Moreover, Cloud Atlas wasn’t even a movie produced in Hollywood, and as such makes even the private investors more vary of banking on a daunting movie like this. Worst of all, however, is that by the time it became clear Cloud Atlas would not become a major success (or any at all, for that matter), the idea of making grand, audacious, challenging, and artsy died a little, and the repercussions will be felt throughout the next years.

Cloud Atlas‚ failure to gross big buckets will cost the movie industry – a cost not measurable by monetary means, but by creative ingenuity. One is free to loathe the movie for whatever reason (its pretentiousness may be a good start, if one thinks it is pretentious), but it is difficult to argue with just how impressively the movie was conceived and executed. The movie’s courage probably towers over the film’s artistic achievement – particularly for people who acutely watched Cloud Atlas perform at the box office. And for Cloud Atlas to be a warning sign for executive producers to work with movies that challenge the boundaries of movies – that is undoubtedly a small tragedy in its own right.


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