David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories, set in various time periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth’s post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own, the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor, creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski’s (The Matrix) film adaptation, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book’s parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a movie of epic proportions.
Don’t be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930’s composer; a ’70s-era investigate journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451, a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense, but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than The Wachowski’s seminal sci-fi flick and the additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The trio directors are known for their visual prowess, but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft, the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members, an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping. Timothy Cavendish, the elderly publisher, could be musing on his need to escape, and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher, also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another, but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas, even when Tykwer and The Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the ’70s, a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul, and a foot race through the forests of future millenia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts, echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas‘ ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity, yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds, Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, and Susan Sarandon play the same game, taking on roles of different sexes, races, and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse, returning to his Priscilla, Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots, is mind-blowing.) The cast’s dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it’s Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer, but she’s never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves, they’re glowing with the film’s overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent’s wickedly funny modern segment, a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor, is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story, character, and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas is a polarizing film, dividing Toronto audiences down the middle. Some say it falls flat, others call it a triumphant piece of filmmaking (I fall in the latter category). But a majority of the TIFF audience walked away admitting that the pure ambition was present on screen, an attempt to use every element of moviemaking in an effort to tell a sweeping story about humanity. Like last year’s Oscar-nominated Tree of Life, Cloud Atlas aims to pose big questions, albeit with a larger scale than the 2011 indie. A slower moment or two may have helped The Wachowskis and Tykwer’s film to hit a powerful emotional chord, but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year, there won’t be a bigger movie than Cloud Atlas.