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

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.

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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.”

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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.

But maybe most fundamentally, “Cloud Atlas” offers worlds to be decoded.

Among the things that distinguishes the modern Hollywood tent pole from its antecedent, the Hollywood historical epic, it’s where it all takes place, and what that’s setting means.

When we watch Moses try to get the job done against Pharaoh, we have a pretty good sense of where he was living, what he wanted to achieve, what he was up against. The joy came from seeing how he (and filmmakers) did it. Ditto for Scarlett and Rhett in the 1860s Confederacy, or T.E. Lawrence in WWI Arabia, or plenty of others.

When we watch “The Dark Knight” or “Harry Potter” or others of its ilk, a lot of the pleasure comes from figuring out exactly what the rules are in this new environment we’re seeing. Even those well familiar with the source material want to understand how the filmmakers shaped and interpreted it. (And there are, of course, millions of filmgoers who aren’t familiar with the source material.) The world is, for lack of a better word, a character. It’s also part of the movie’s mystery.

Like one of these genre epics we’re now used to every June or July, “Cloud Atlas,” too, is a movie that doesn’t simply drop characters in a familiar setting and ask us to go along on their adventure. It creates a world and activates in it unique rules, the deciphering of which is part of the fun (or frustration) of watching the movie.

As waves of media about “Cloud Atlas” rolled out over the past few years, the movie began to seem like a kind of mimetic exercise, something that takes the idea of dreaming big and doing the impossible contained within its storyline (writing the perfect symphony, starting a revolution, etc.) and attempting that feat itself.

My personal feeling is that it didn’t succeed on a number of counts. I didn’t respond to nearly as many of the stories as the filmmakers clearly wanted me too. I didn’t think the movie needed to jump nearly as quickly between story lines as it did.

The use of the same actors to play different people not only made the souls-migrating-through-time point obvious, but it also, paradoxically, made that point not at all a big deal.

And I found many of its faux-spiritual themes forced and dated. (As one moviegoer tweeted this weekend, “Just saw ‘Cloud Atlas.’ Cool. We’re all connected. :)” One can laugh at the sheer reductiveness of that statement, but it’s also strangely accurate; even the movie’s supporters have to acknowledge the film breaks a pretty big sweat trying to convey that mushy message.)

But I liked the movie for at least one thing: that in several cases it took stories we’d seen before, like a truth-seeking journalist or on-the-run prisoner, and recast them in a cinematic world that we hadn’t, then made us engage with that world. In that sense, “Cloud Atlas” wasn’t just the best of what Hollywood used to do, but the best of what it still does.


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