This Friday Cloud Atlas debuts, and the reviews are already starting to roll in. Over on Rotten Tomatoes, for example, the movie is still listed as “Fresh,” but it’s percent of positive reviews has been dropping. This actually makes me more curious about the movie, which I was intrigued by ever since seeing the impressive list of talent involved in creating this film. I haven’t read the book, but I understand that many fans and critics considered it impossible to film.
I considered reading the book, but I actually held off because I’ve been strongly considering seeing the movie, and I’m interested in seeing if it succeeds without advance knowledge of the story. I’m certain I put a heavy bias on what I’m watching if I’ve read the book first. If I like the film makers and loved the book, I fill in the cracks and consider the movie a success. If it’s something I didn’t think should be adapted, on the other hand, I see every gap and cut magnified. I don’t have a problem forming my own vision of the story if I’ve seen the movie first, so I’m more intrigued to see if they can bring such a complex story to screen without confusing me. It’ll also be fun to read the book after, to judge if they retold the story well rather than criticize what they may have left out or changed.
I was leaning towards the movie anyway, but now that the reviews are mixed, I actually feel more compelled to see Cloud Atlas. It’s not a contrarian streak necessarily, but more of a curiosity about how this movie will hit me. Divisive movies are interesting to me because they’re ready built for conversation. I remember going to see Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s final film, then going to a bar and spending approximately the running time of the movie arguing about it with a friend. I also make sure to watch Fincher’s Fight Club every time it shows up on cable or a friend wants to watch it. Fight Club is a movie where I still can’t decide whether I love it or hate it, and so I keep watching it, looking for something to tip the balance one way or the other.
Cloud Atlas looks to have that potential. The source material is much loved, the cast is filled with heavy hitters, and the directors are all accomplished. Truth be told I have less faith in the Wachowskis, who have so far only directed two films I’ve enjoyed (Bound and The Matrix), but Tom Tykwer has impressed me with each of his movies since Run Lola Run. If you have a chance to see “Faubourg Saint-Denis,” his contribution to the anthology film Paris, Je T’aime, you can see how his balance of kinetic and static images drives his storytelling in interesting ways. Combining that with the Wachowski’s penchant for lush visuals and Cloud Atlas could definitely be a gorgeous movie. Or combining a high profile cast with flashy film makers could sink the whole thing like a stone.
It feels rare for there to be a true sense of uncertainty around dramatic works nowadays. Between spoilers and review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, a narrative about how good or bad a particular work is tends to set in very soon after it’s released, and sometimes before. When the critics can’t come to a consensus, though, it feels like there’s more opportunity to take the movie in on it’s own merits. I never intend to bring preconceived notions to what I’m watching, I’m sure no one ever does. But the buzz one way or another we hear about things nudges us one way or the other. It’s a part of what drives us to line up opening day, or what keeps us away until we can catch it on TV or video. I don’t mind the comfort of all that buzz keeping me away from terrible films, or driving me towards gems I might not have seen otherwise. But on those occasions where the conventional wisdom fails, I think things become much more interesting.