Well, if the Wachowski Siblings ever wash out of the movies, they can always turn to knitwear. Their inimitable line of deconstructed post-Apocalyptic Steampunk sweaters, wraps and bodysuits made a big impression in its debut—1999’s The Matrix—and continues strong in their brand new Cloud Atlas collection. Fans will find the irregularly rustic stitches, bold asymmetry, and moody hand-dyed Neo-Gothic palette they love, cast in intriguing new shapes. Tom Hanks’ hooded cape and Susan Sarandon’s stone- and macrame-ornamented dress with matching fingerless wristlets are particularly arresting.
Which is to say that Art Direction is as important in the epic, sweeping, wildly ambitious Cloud Atlas as it has always been in the Wachowski oeuvre, as obsessively thorough and as effectively world-making. The movie is based on a 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell, a book so bulky and complex it took several years for the movie’s three directors—the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run—to work out the script and logistics.
Both film and novel consist of six interconnected stories set in six entirely different time periods and milieus: 1) a young American who becomes dangerously ill on an ocean voyage involving slavery and gold in 1850, 2) a penniless young composer writing his masterpiece, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, in 1931 Belgium, 3) a journalist who endangers her life investigating an unsafe nuclear plant in 1975 California, 4) a bankrupt middle-aged publisher on the run from gangsters who gets committed to a nursing home against his will in present-day UK, 5) a young genetically engineered clone who leads a rebellion against her totalitarian dystopian society in 2144 Seoul, 6) a tribesman in a primitive post-apocalyptic distant future who is visited by a member of the last surviving technologically civilized society.
Filming was conducted simultaneously and separately by Tykwer and the Wachowskis, and then interspliced in high cinematic style in the editing room. Tykwer filmed the stories set in the more contemporary eras—1931, 1975 and present day, while the Wachowskis took on the more far-flung, dramatic periods: 1850 and the two futuristic segments, the latter two of which unsurprisingly very much bear their visual stamp. Each story flows into the next by means of manuscripts, books, letters and storytelling that connect and inform characters from one era to others. In the film the theme of reincarnation is further reinforced by having the same corp of actors playing major roles in each of the six stories.
That means that at various times Tom Hanks plays a homicidal gold-hungry ship doctor, a greedy Belgian landlord, a whistle-blowing nuclear scientist, a violent East End gangster-cum-novelist and a frightened young primitive running from a blood-thirsty warrior tribe in the future. Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Korean film star Doona Bae and to lesser extents Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Susan Sarandon and very notably Hugh Grant go through similar transformations. This results in some cross-racial makeup effects, most unsuccessful (Jim Sturgess and Hugh Grant as Koreans, Halle Berry as a white woman), but all interesting. Suffice it to say there are acres of prosthetics and wigs, and if there were an Oscar for hair, makeup AND teeth, this movie would justly win it.
The viewer is not only sent careening wildly from one story to the next over the course of this nearly three hour movie, she is also caught up in a captivating and distracting game of Zelig/Where’s Waldo—picking out, for instance, Hugh Grant as a self-satisfied 19th century merchant, evil CEO of a corrupt oil company (I know, the redundancies), evil and abusive Korean clone-master, and blood-thirsty, cannibalistic tribal warrior. (This last role must be counted as some sort of apotheosis in Grant’s “Rake’s Progress” from pretty romantic lead to cad to very bad guy.)
Despite or perhaps due to all the smoke and mirrors, fireworks and Heavy Historical Drama—the whipped slave, separated young gay lovers, and grunting, begrimed primitives—the question begs to be asked whether the movie manages to hold onto one’s interest for its entire 164 minute run time. The answer is yes yes and maybe. It helps that the visual effects are gorgeous and the editing terrific, slamming us from story to story with precise timing and whipping the six stories into frothy simultaneous crescendi.
I did wonder, however, numerous times, whether several of the stories could stand on their own, without the constant adrenaline shots of this switchup. The investigative journalist segment, for instance, is your standard 1970s Silkwood variant, complete with car knocked off the causeway into the ocean, city center car chase, and shootout in the factory. The 1850 sea voyage also feels very much a pastiche of movies past, with all the tropes one might expect to see crammed into such a story: a stowaway escaped slave, a poisoning, a chest of gold.
Similarly, we have seen the tortured young composer story oft before, with its picturesque Les Miz-aesthetic poverty and pen scribbling desperately across paper and against time. But as the voiceover reminds us again and again, this is not just about these individual, possibly hackneyed, stories, but of the mystical connections between them. Our lives, it intones, begin not at birth and end not at death, but continue, on and on, on either side. You know the drill.
I haven’t the read the novel, and it’d be interesting to know whether this theme comes from the filmmakers or the author. Certainly it fits within the Wachowkis’ world view as expressed in their previous films. Especially since, as in The Matrix trilogy, all these stories lead to and descend from the story of the Chosen One. In Cloud Atlas the Chosen One is SonMi, the Korean clone, played by the ever-excellent Doona Bae, who inspires and leads the rebel alliance against the omnipowerful totalitarian regime in very much the same way Neo does in The Matrix.
Of course it’s all corny malarkey—the prophet stuff and the reincarnations and the prosthetics and colored contacts and simplistic stories building to their various pretentious and predictable climaxes. Not to mention the frame device, told, inconveniently enough, by the least verbal character in the film, the grunting pre- or is it post-lingual Tom Hanks’ now-aged primitive-of-the-future, who (in his broken-syntax, limited-vocabulary, hard-to-understand, supposed-to-be poetic patois) tells the village kiddoes these stories around a campfire in front of a very Waltons-like white front porch on a planet far from earth.
Do I sound cynical? It says something that for me perhaps the most enjoyable part of the movie was the end credits, when each actor is revealed in all his/her manifestations, an answer key to the riddle that is the whole movie. But I’m not this movie’s target audience, by any means. I can imagine that for those who are, this movie is a dream come true. A prophecy fulfilled, one might say.
And yet, even for the resistant such as myself, Cloud Atlas is a heart-thumping, if occasionally silly, entertainment. It is Big Moviemaking, and there’s no spectacle like it. I’m telling everyone to see it, and definitely on the big screen. The visuals are incredible, and some—such as the communications station/temple/planetarium in the mountains—astonishingly lovely. And if the Wachowskis ever do market their knitwear on the side, I’ll be the first in line.