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How 'Cloud Atlas' is (a little) like 'The Dark Knight'

October 29, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Raeven Lee Hanan as Catkin and Tom Hanks as Zachry "Cloud Atlas."
Raeven Lee Hanan as Catkin and Tom Hanks as Zachry "Cloud Atlas." (Jay Maidment / Warner Bros. )

The story of Tom Hanks' "Cloud Atlas" this weekend isn't its dismal box office. With the movie's complicated premise(s), extended length/reduced number of play times, and its not-quite-bankable-anymore stars, the Warner Bros release was always in for a rough ride. When the film received a number of high-profile unfavorable reviews, you knew the car would be skidding off a cliff.

The more interesting question than how it performed is the film itself: what it means and, really, what it means that it was made.

In the run-up to the release of "Cloud Atlas" there were many who argued that the Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski collaboration is like nothing else Hollywood does these days, or perhaps has ever done. There’s something to that, but not as fully as I suspect some people mean.

PHOTOS: Who's who in 'Cloud Atlas'

Sure, few novels of such ambition ever make it to the screen, and the idea of a Hollywood studio creating what is essentially six mini-movies using two sets of directors and rolling it all into one major release is, from a purely arithmetic point of view, close to unprecedented.

But amid all the talk about how new and different "Cloud Atlas" is, I can't help thinking how much it has in common with several other types of studio creations.

Hollywood has, from its very earliest days, made epics. Production values and modes of storytelling may have changed -- the postmodern fold-in narrative wasn't exactly Cecile B. Demille's thing — but looking at how "Cloud Atlas" treats time and space, one doesn’t feel like spiritually it’s all that far from "The Ten Commandments" or “Lawrence of Arabia.”

VIDEO: 'Cloud Atlas' trailer

But perhaps you already believe that, and want to argue that "Cloud Atlas" is an anomaly for these times. I'd say that once you get beyond the scope of the thing, "Cloud Atlas" isn't, despite a kind of literary gloss,  all that different from a certain sort of movie being made today -- the summer comic-book/adventure film.

Before fans of this film (or, for that matter, of "The Dark Knight") jump up and down, check this.

As with the most sprawling of the comic-book lot, there is epic storytelling in “Cloud Atlas.” There are founding myths. There are also, early and often, existential questions; indeed, when an apparational devil appears to retro-future Tom Hanks, I couldn’t help thinking of Heath Ledger’s Joker snarling about the nature of evil. (There were also, on that  score, a lot of people in this movie wearing Halloween-ready costumes.)

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And there is, of course, a kind of kitchen-sink approach, only here instead of the effects and action scenes that get thrown  at us in more commercial confections, its characters and storytelling elements. If many a summer director subscribe to the more-is-more school of filmmaking, it's clear watching this movie that Tykwer and the Wachowskis have been sitting in the front of the class and dutifully taking notes.

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