I can tell you this: we’ll definitely be running a Second Look piece about this film after it’s in theaters, because it is a remarkable movie experience, one that cannot be digested easily, and any attempt to dig in fully would rob you of the sense of discovery that washed over me as I sat in the theater.
No matter what the subject matter, the combination of Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer would be reason enough to be excited. The novel they adapted, though, is something very special, and a huge challenge for anybody looking to turn it into a film. Walking into the film, I was hoping for something ambitious and different. What I got was one of my two favorite films of the year so far, a movie I’ll be returning to again and again, a unique and beautiful work of film art that dares to dream big in a way we rarely see from either studios or independent sources.
There are six interlocking stories that make up the movie, and at the start of the film, we are taken through each of them chronologically. The first takes place in the south Pacific in the year 1850, and it deals with the journey of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a notary who has no business being at sea, and his unorthodox relationship with another passenger. In the second story, set in 1931, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) finds work as the assistant to a composer (Jim Broadbent) who is in his waning years. The third story is set in the mid-70s, and it’s about Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), an investigative reporter who is determined to learn the truth about a potential health hazard at a nuclear power plant with the help of a whistleblower played by Tom Hanks. In the fourth story, Jim Broadbent stars as Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who finds himself in trouble with gangsters over a book he’s publishing, and he ends up locked away in a nursing home run by the loathsome Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving). The fifth story takes place in a gorgeous futuristic version of Seoul and deals with Sonmi-451, a service clone who becomes a significant figure in a rebellious uprising against the status quo. Finally, the movie jumps into the far future, after the end of what we think of as modern civilization, to tell the story of Zarchry (Hanks again), a tribesman who is asked to help Meronym (Berry again) with a very specific quest.
The film deals first with the notion of how stories serve as both history and as a way of making sense of who we are. Characters from one segment appear in letters in another or in movies that we see in passing or even as stories shared around a campfire. But the bigger connection here is that these completely different characters in all of these radically different times and places are all the same souls, colliding again and again as they move through time. Identity is a malleable thing, with bodies serving merely as temporary containers for the essence that remains constant through time. It seems particularly appropriate that this is the first film to feature a credit onscreen for Lana Wachowski as writer and director, and it fits neatly into the overall thematic interests that both Tykwer and the Wachowskis have explored in the past.
The idea of using a small cast to play roles in each of the different segments, some of the actors changing race and gender over the various stories, is definitely risky, but I honestly believe that if you’re going to make something truly great, you have to be willing to be completely embarrassed. I’d always rather see real ambition that falls short as opposed to someone playing it safe with something we’ve seen before. “Cloud Atlas” is hard to describe if your only touchstones are other films because it doesn’t feel like any other movie I can name. It’s not just the way the film was made or cast… it’s the types of stories being told. Don’t expect conventional punchlines here. Instead, these stories push moral and ethical buttons in some unusual and even oblique ways, and there is plenty of room in the film for every viewer to have a different experience with what they see. There’s a sense of trust on the part of the filmmakers that the audience will be willing to work for the pleasures that are strewn throughout, and there’s also a deeply heartfelt optimism even in the film’s darkest moments that makes it stand apart from the typical dystopian vision of most modern science fiction.
The cinematography by Frank Griebe and John Toll is daring and lush, and the score is equally rich and rewarding, with contributions from Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tykwer himself, who wrote the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” a key puzzle piece in the larger canvass of the film. In the end, “Cloud Atlas” is a film that dares to imagine something beyond what is typically done in big-budget filmmaking, dense and daring, and as with “Speed Racer,” I’m sure some people will be thrown by the basic cinema vocabulary on display. Nothing is spoon-fed to you, and I walked out of my screening almost drunk on the potential of movie storytelling and the idea that there are plenty of frontiers left for us to explore. It is easy to be worn down by Hollywood’s constant stream of remakes and sequels and comic books, but all it takes is one “Cloud Atlas” for me to once again believe that anything is possible if the right artists are given room to experiment.
While it may not be for everyone, “Cloud Atlas” is one of my very favorite films this year. You’ll be able to judge for yourself when it opens on October 26.