You make enough classics and people will start asking you to pick your favorites. Hey, Paul McCartney: What’s the best Beatles song? Yo, Jerry Seinfeld: What was your favorite Seinfeld episode? And recently, Bill Simmons asked Tom Hanks on his Ringer podcast to name his three best movies. Hanks sidestepped the question, saying, “I would not do it according to the way the movies came out. I would do it by way of the personal experience I had when I was doing them, which is very different.”
With that criteria, Hanks picked A League of Their Own, Cast Away… and Cloud Atlas. In all three cases, he talked about getting to be with his family and enjoying what sounds like dream vacations while simultaneously making a movie. But with Cloud Atlas, he added, “We shot it on a hope and a dream and nothing but a circle of love. … We were part of this big, massive ensemble of fantastic people who were just trying to do the hardest, best work on a deep throw. … That whole movie was such a deep throw that making it was magical.”
So, clearly, Hanks wasn’t talking about these being his best films — just ones that meant a lot to him personally. This didn’t stop The Bill Simmons Podcast from advertising the segment as “Tom Hanks’s Top-Three Tom Hanks Movies” — or film outlets from positioning his comments as an endorsement of Cloud Atlas as one of his all-timers.
Naturally, the reason why Cloud Atlas got more attention than the other two movies he mentioned was that people generally like A League of Their Own and Cast Away. People generally don’t like Cloud Atlas. When the film came out during awards season in 2012, it was a bomb. In that year’s Village Voice film critics poll, Cloud Atlas was voted Worst Film. A movie starring not just Tom Hanks but also Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and others — all playing multiple roles across time — Cloud Atlas has earned the reputation of being an ambitious, expensive calamity.
This hasn’t stopped the internet from constantly coming to Cloud Atlas’ defense — even though, again, Hanks didn’t actually name it as one of his three best movies. I actually wish Simmons had asked the Oscar-winner what he thought of the final film — not just the experience of making it — but, turns out, I didn’t need him to. Hanks has talked about this himself. In 2017, in a profile in The Guardian, he was discussing his movies that have failed at the box office, noting, “I’ve made an awful lot of movies that didn’t make any sense, and didn’t make any money, but that doesn’t alter the work that goes into it, or even what your opinion of it is. … I made a movie that altered my entire consciousness — Cloud Atlas — I thought, ‘Jeez, this thing is so fab’; it’s the only movie I’ve been in that I’ve seen more than twice. And it didn’t do any business. And there’s nothing you can do about it. And you must allow yourself a week of thinking, ‘Jeez, I’m so bummed out.’”
Beyond the fact that Hanks uses “jeez” a lot, I love him because of his ongoing fondness for Cloud Atlas. Partly, that’s because I’ve always been fond of it, too — even though I know it’s an unwieldy, uneven, sometimes annoying concoction. But that’s also what makes the film special: It really shouldn’t exist. It’s the sort of film that studios stop from happening all the time, probably for good reason. Cloud Atlas is three hours long. It covers about 500 years of time, going as far back as the 18th century and stretching out to 2321. The actors play a range of characters, often wearing goofy wigs or silly makeup. But the stars aligned, and this thing came into the world. Cloud Atlas is a mess, but when it’s not, it can often be quite astounding.
Based on David Mitchell’s acclaimed book — one of those “It’s so great, but you could never turn this into a film” novels — Cloud Atlas was a collaboration between Lana and Lilly Wachowski alongside Tom Tykwer, probably still best known for Run Lola Run. The plot synopsis from Warner Bros., which had previously worked with the Wachowskis on the Matrix films and Speed Racer, encapsulated the film’s potential appeal, as well as its possible limitations: “Cloud Atlas explores how the actions and consequences of individual lives impact one another throughout the past, the present and the future. Drama, mystery, action and enduring love thread through a story that unfolds in multiple lifetimes as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and a single act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”
Or, as Lilly Wachowski put it at the time, “Cloud Atlas is our getting back to the spectacle of the 1960s and 1970s, the touchstone movies.” Basically, they wanted to make 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of their favorite films.
As luck would have it, that’s also Hanks’ favorite film, and when he met with the Wachowskis, they sold him on their vision of paying homage to Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece. It took some coaxing, though: He hadn’t read Mitchell’s book and, as he told The New Yorker, “The script was not user-friendly. The demands it put upon the audience and everybody, the business risk, were off the scale.” But Hanks had been reading Moby-Dick at the time and talked to the Wachowskis about the book while they all sat in his office. According to Hanks, Lana pointed at a 2001 poster on his wall and declared, “Moby-Dick and this — that’s what we want to do.” That’s all Hanks needed to hear — plus, he loved that the filmmakers “were not ashamed to say, ‘We make art!’”
Cloud Atlas is so complicated that its Wikipedia page breaks down which character each actor is playing in the film’s six separate time frames. Sadly, there’s no such chart for all the accents and wild facial hair on display. (If you ever wanted to hear Hanks try to sound Irish — well, I think it’s supposed to be Irish? — Cloud Atlas is the movie event for you.) There are thematic and narrative connections between the stories — and, with the same faces popping up again and again, also the notion that each of us is actually in the midst of a long cosmic journey spanning several lifetimes. But Cloud Atlas is also a collection of genres, moving from love stories to sci-fi adventures. As befitting its epic runtime, the film wants to be the definitive statement about human existence — who we are as a species and where we’re going. The film is one big swing after another, tackling everything from individual tragedy to the destruction of civilization itself. There’s even a comedic prison break from a senior-citizens home.
Juggling so much on such a relatively modest budget of less than $150 million — movies of that magnitude are usually $200 million, bare minimum — Cloud Atlas is tonally inconsistent, and when it tries to be funny, the film is leaden. And then there’s the unwise decision to cast white actors in yellowface. To be sure, Cloud Atlas can be cringe-y in all types of ways.
And yet, its bighearted embrace of an ultra-macro perspective — its notion that we’re all just minor participants engaged in our little dramas, part of something far grander than we can possibly imagine — is rather stirring. Frankly, it’s the kind of thing I can see Hanks falling for, too. As an actor, he’s often gravitated to stories that “celebrate the human spirit,” to invoke a cliché I absolutely hate. But the Wachowskis and Tykwer legitimately go for such sweeping sentiments, and the scale of Cloud Atlas’ vision is certainly fitting for the task at hand. Addressing slavery, homophobia, revolution, murder and the act of stoytelling itself, Cloud Atlas recognizes all the best and worst parts of humanity — which only makes it that much more unfortunate (yet oddly apt) that the filmmakers allowed their own racial insensitivity to mar the film.
But the movie’s stabs at profundity are nicely mitigated by a sense of play: Surely Hanks has never had such a ball on screen playing dress-up. Cloud Atlas is certainly not his best performance(s) — his gangster author in 2012 and reluctant leader in a post-apocalyptic 24th century are pretty hammy — but it’s his boyish spirit throughout that animates the movie as much as the filmmakers’ ambitions. There’s a gee-whiz innocence to Cloud Atlas that’s quite charming in its nerdy enthusiasm. For a film full of catastrophes and sadness, it’s animated by the thrill of being alive and getting to create. And cornball that he is, Hanks no doubt appreciated the message that all of us, no matter how long it takes, can locate our inherent decency. In that New Yorker piece, the Wachowskis said they pitched Cloud Atlas to Warner Bros. thusly: “Tom Hanks starts off as a bad person but evolves over centuries into a good person.”
It’s merely anecdotal, but I find that when I track down other Cloud Atlas fans, they tend to be a bit protective of the film, willing to overlook its sizable flaws because they love its unbridled emotions and general optimism. Basically, they sound like Tom Hanks when they talk about it. Humanity remains a work in progress — and, according to Cloud Atlas, will be for centuries to come — but the filmmakers and cast seem hell-bent on hoping for the best. There are plenty of reasons to hate Cloud Atlas, but one of the reasons to stick up for it is that it’s ballsy enough to wear its heart on its sleeve so boldly.
Hey, we’re far from a perfect species, but you should see some of the movies we can make.