The Amazing Vanishing Act of Cloud Atlas

What happened to Cloud Atlas? My favorite film of 2012 has totally vanished from the face of the Earth. It was made by the highly successful, mainstream Wachowski siblings and their collaborator Tom Tykwer, who has also had mainstream success. It featured some of the biggest names in Hollywood (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant), as well as a huge, well-known supporting cast. It was so grand in scope and spectacle, so bold and daring, so unique, and so expertly executed that it was bound to leave audiences awed and inspired. As I sat dumbfounded in my seat after seeing it, I fully anticipated that it would pile up accolades through awards season and cement its status as a classic.

Enter crickets chirping. None of that happened. No accolades, no awards, and very few Top 10 lists. It didn’t even get any nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, which is amazing considering it was one of the most ambitious independently funded films of all-time. It was even branded the worst film of the year by Time Magazine, and its DVD/Blu-ray release has been delayed not once, but twice.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but it seems like something fishy is going on here. I know I couldn’t have been the only person to be totally blown away by Cloud Atlas, so why is it being neglected, ignored, and buried by the industry?

To go back to beginning, it was incredibly difficult to get the film made in the first place, and the project likely would have been abandoned if it weren’t for Tom Hanks’ enthusiasm for the project and his determination to make sure it was completed as written. Which leads me to what I assume is the real issue here. The subject matter.

Yes, Cloud Atlas is a sweeping, genre-bending epic with big name actors and incredible special effects, but it’s also highly political. And not just political, it’s revolutionary. The narrative weaves together several stories that take place over several hundred years, but the theme of openly resisting injustice and authoritarian power is carried throughout. It’s proudly anti-establishment and openly embraces resistance and revolution as the solutions to human exploitation and oppression across the ages. While right on the money politically, that’s not a line the major studios are too keen to finance, promote, and distribute.

And even though the film has one of the best trailers I’ve ever seen, an incredible 6-minute composition in its own right, the film wasn’t marketed on television very well. The TV spots focused on action scenes, flashed generic critical praise on the screen like, “A remarkable movie experience,” and left out all the political content that would actually make people want to see the movie. Cloud Atlas is an intricate, philosophical, politically timely film, but it was promoted as a run of the mill thrill ride of the week. And, not surprisingly, its low box office numbers reflect that generic style of marketing. When you’ve got a film like Cloud Atlas in your hands, a film that has something important to say about the human experience, you’ve got to sell it based on what it actually is and hope it connects with the intended audience. You don’t advertise it as a roller-coaster ride… unless of course you’re afraid of the message and hope to limit the audience to people who just want to see things blow up on screen.

And once the film was considered a “flop” it became poison to awards nominating organizations. And thus, the best film of the year was buried. Its dvd/blu-ray release date originally set for January, was pushed back to March, and eventually delayed until May 14.

There are those who will argue that Cloud Atlas has been forgotten and buried by the industry just because it didn’t perform well, and perhaps others will say it’s just not a very good film. Those people are entitled to that opinion, but in my mind it seems clear that the reason the industry mishandled this project from the beginning, from the difficulty in acquiring funding, to the poor marketing, the lack of critical acclaim, the way it was conspicuously ignored by all the major award shows, and the twice delaying of its home video release… was a chain reaction caused by the desire to suppress the film’s progressive, anti-establishment, revolutionary political content.

It’s a film about how human beings are connected to each other, and the way we treat each other matters. It’s about finding the strength to resist evil, even if it seems like that evil is permanent and the entire universe is against you. It’s a film that desperately needs to be seen right now. We need some revolutionary hope. We need to learn that things don’t always have to be the way they are, and that if enough people get together and decide to do the right thing we can truly change this world for the better. The fact that Cloud Atlas, a film that champions this anti-establishment position and embraces a spirit of human interdependence and revolution, has been shoved in the corner, mocked, and left to be forgotten is practically criminal, especially while so many negative, politically harmful films are upheld critically and widely promoted.

4 thoughts on “The Amazing Vanishing Act of Cloud Atlas

  1. Cloud Atlas was my favorite film of 2012 as well. Although I agree with your praise, I am not sure that I agree with your argument that the film was ‘suppressed’. I suspect that the forces at work here are more benign. I think the real problem is that, even though the movie was great, and even though the people who actually saw it tended to love it, it’s still a hard sell to audiences, even if studios were fully committed to selling it. They needed a 6-minute trailer to convey the essence of the film, but a the 30 second TV spots, a poster, and web ads can’t accomplish that goal. Can you describe to a friend in a single sentence what the movie Cloud Atlas is about in a way that will pique their interest? The film is so unique, so unlike anything else, that the lines of communication break down. To paraphrase the Wachowski’s most successful film “Unfortunately, no one can be *told* what Cloud Atlas is. You have to see it for yourself.” The brilliant marketing campaign behind The Matrix, a comparatively more conventional film, succeeded against similar odds, but Cloud Atlas was too different. Perhaps, over time, the film may have the trajectory of a classic like Blade Runner. But, we’ll need to be patient.

    Coincidentally, my second favorite film of last year also suffered from marketing schizophrenia. The Grey was marketed as an action film in the vein of Taken, when in fact it was a deeply existential film about death, religion, and man’s animal nature.

    • I think it’s important that I clarify what I mean by “suppressed.” I don’t think it’s some shadowy conspiracy that made an organized decision to make sure the film wasn’t seen by many people and to keep it from being nominated for awards. Rather, my argument is that the system running society (Capitalism) creates an atmosphere where radical left-wing art is neglected by the industry as a whole. It’s not in the interest of big corporations to create, promote, distribute, and praise a film with a message that speaks out against the core of their existence. See what I mean? So, as a result, openly left-wing art often gets hung out to dry, while on the other hand the industry is more than eager to promote stuff like Argo which is based in a worldview that doesn’t challenge the foundation of the capitalist system.

  2. Even with FedRev’s clarification, I’m going to have to give this round to Luhks. The uniqueness and complexity of Cloud Atlas, which attracted many of its fans (and those of the novel before the film), probably did contribute to its failure to win the audience it deserves. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with FedRev that progressive and revolutionary artists fight in hostile territory, albeit cultural, just like anyone fighting for justice in this society. I agree that the deck is stacked and anyone trying to say or visualize any progessive idea or even criticize deeply one aspect of injustice faces what would seem to be overwhelming odds. And yet, just as in politics, there is no shortage of courageous folks willing to Fight the Power in the cultural arena. The good news is that many prevail and find their works not only get made but in some cases are able to reach large, even huge audiences, despite those overwhelming odds. Reds, to cite one example, was the passion of Warren Beatty for decades. He found the money, assembled an amazing array of talent, made the film, and saw it reach a broad audience far beyond those who might have agreed with the politics of its subject John Reed. And he achieved this in the context of a political low point that produced the Presidency of rightwinger Ronald Reagan. I personally think some organized backstage skullduggery robbed Reds of Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but it did win other Oscars, and Beatty got the well-deserved Best Director award. (Reds gets better with age, by the way, check out the amazing Blu-ray.)

    And how about more recently? What are the prospects for a big hit-making name director making a unique, visionary film with a ginormous budget, a daring film that depicts a victorious People’s War of Liberation against an imperialist power (one that WINS!), and also challenges traditional ideas about race, gender, environmental contamination and many others. What are the odds that such a film would reach the largest worldwide audience in all of film history, break all previous box office records, and give inspiration to everyone on the planet who enjoyed seeing the army of war criminals get a serious ass-whipping. Oh, I forgot, this film was actually composed for 3-D and made stunning technical achievements as well. Of course I’m talking about Avatar (let the legion of Avatar-haters jump in, if they’re not otherwise busy), which I also think was robbed of its deserved Best Picture award by a well-financed campaign to deny it that honor by promoting a small, well-made but minor film that, guess what, just happens to take the side of the imperialists in an unjust war.

    There are countless examples of great, commercially successful films that might focus on one ugly manifestation of our society, say misogyny, and achieve artistic and commercial success. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo novel produced 2 films, one great (the original) and one good (the copy), and featured brilliant performances by 2 great actresses. Brokeback Mountain did the same for same-sex love (there’s that Best Picture award problem again).

    So I think this question of how do progressive, radical or revolutionary artists succeed in a hostile climate is quite complex. Kudos to FedRev for championing Cloud Atlas and focusing in on its revolutionary aspect, which ironically might have been missed by the very audience that would most appreciate it, and thanks to Luhks for spelling out how even the best intentions of filmmakers can go awry. Fortunately, Cloud Atlas did get made, will reach more people through DVD/Blu-ray) and hopefully those behind it will go on to other achievements that are better appreciated.

    Great to have a web site that can provide a home for a discussion like this.

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