“The movie itself was very interesting, but I didn’t think it was very good because I didn’t really feel different when it was over.” – from Stephen Chbosky’s novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Cloud Atlas is a like running a marathon. Both are long and arduous. Then the strenuousness results in a runner’s high that creates a sense of euphoria. That’s how I felt after spending 172 minutes with my head in the clouds.
Cloud Atlas is a film I’ve seen twice now. The first occurrence was my final night (Sept. 26) in Austin, Tex. as part of this year’s Fantastic Fest. Up until the feature presentation I had already seen two other films that day, and a total of twenty features in a seven-day span. Needless to say, a weeklong slog of high calorie food, dim-lighting and fantastic features caught up with me, as I drifted off to sleep a time or two. Let this be a written record that this was not on account of the film, but my own fatigue.
The second viewing of Cloud Atlas was a much better experience, and I’m sure it will be this way for most moviegoers. It’s an enthralling science-fiction epic that could easily be viewed as a “glorious mess” by some or a “kaleidoscopic epic” by others. My initial reaction was in accordance with the quote that precedes this article. Atlas is visually interesting, but its subject matter seemed lacking in nature. Yet, the film wouldn’t leave my head for the next few days; bits of my brain matter were too busy mulling over the content. So in a way I was different having watched it those two times.
Adapted from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, the film tells six stories over the course of nearly three hours. It’s probably for the best, as none of the stories could serve as standalone films. They would turn into conventional tropes of the same histrionics we’ve seen countless times before. But in their current form the six stories work extremely well, mostly on account of the editing and switching back and forth. And what of the six stories? Well, with this being a sci-fi epic, you need some breadth to tell the story. Atlas obliges with a story that takes place between the years 1849 and 2346. The film is also populated with intriguing personalities: a seafaring lawyer on his way home; a musical apprentice/con artist; a newspaper reporter about to blow the whistle on a U.S. Energy company; a book publisher who winds up in a retirement home; a restaurant worker who is given freedom from her life of servitude thanks to a young rebel; and a tribesman who befriends a woman from a far more advanced society. And that’s just the tip of the casting iceberg. In the half dozen tales the same actors appear in different roles, playing characters of different races and genders.
The term unfilmable is used to describe a piece of literature that is so dense that it’s near impossible to adapt the material and make it work as a feature. Personally I don’t agree with that idea. Anything is adaptable in the hands of the right people. Yes, the six stories in Cloud Atlas act like Russian nesting dolls. In Mitchell’s original novel it begins in 1849 with lawyer Adam Ewing and proceeds chronologically through the other five, and then reverses order until it wraps up with Ewing once again. In a departure from the novel, filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski along with director Tom Tykwer take the novel and present it with a far more pronounced structure.
Opening with a quick montage that gives the viewer just enough of each of the six stories so to be familiar, we go back to the order of the novel, albeit for only about ten minutes each. After that, Tykwer and the Wachowskis bounce between segments as if it were a game of pinball, cutting between them with surgical precision. One of the better transitions involves a manuscript for a mystery novel. On my second viewing I was able to match the author with one of the secondary characters in a story.
Rather than delve into the minutiae of the individual stories and have your eyes glaze over with my verbosity, just know that Cloud Atlas involves characters dealing with corruption and oppression in a film about the interconnectivity of our past, present and future.
What will likely be one of the boldest films this year, Cloud Atlas sees the Wachoskis return to a genre they know all too well. After striking gold with 1999’s The Matrix, they followed it with two unnecessary sequels and Speed Racer, a financial bust but a family film that was cotton-candy confectionary for the senses. Independently financed, the $100 million film is a genre-bender for sure; it incorporates different filmic styles (from 19th century period drama to ‘70s era thriller to a future that will have you dreaming of electric sheep) and motifs to tell the story.
Not all of the stories are created equal, however, as some are better than others. This will be seen as a benefit to ADD viewers needing a break from watching actors speak in Olde English or futuristic gibberish. Had the Wachowskis and Tykwer followed the structure of Mitchell’s novel the film would have only worked on a certain level. But the editing choices draw greater parallels and connections between characters in the divergent stories. In watching the progression of the stories, Tom Hanks, one of the first actors to attach his name to the ambitious project, we see him evolve from a callous doctor to a primitive elder that is at peace with himself and his providence. Further connections are also revealed, but if you don’t see them at first then maybe a second viewing (or third) is warranted.
Aside from the cinematic tapestry weaved, the keenest decision may have been using the primary cast as different incarnations in each story. Huge credit goes to the hair and makeup department in making the actors nearly unrecognizable. The acting across the board is serviceable, though the biggest standout is Jim Broadbent as book publisher Tom Cavendish. His perplexed demeanor as an unwilling resident at a retirement home is a hoot, especially knowing he’s matching wits with a Nurse Ratched-inspired turn by Hugo Weaving in drag.
Another great decision was Tykwer’s ingenuity to compose the film prior to the start of filming. He, along with Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil, have made a gorgeous score, one of the year’s best by far – just listen to “Prelude – The Atlas March” if you don’t believe me. The compositions along with editing pull everything together to create one of the most daring films of the year that will either be loved or loathed by a vast majority.
Director: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer
Writer: The Wachowskis and Tykwer, based on the novel ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell
Notable Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, Keith David