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Monday, Oct. 29, 2012

Cloud Atlas

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Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings were the hottest things in cinema at the end of the last century. Tykwer’s Run Lola Run was an adrenaline-pounding indie breakout and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix is still being imitated today. The new century has been less triumphal, with Tykwer directing underappreciated art house films (Heaven) and capable thrillers (The International). As for the Wachowskis, their Matrix trilogy ran out of gas by the middle of episode three and Speed Racer sputtered on empty. Their most significant contribution was the screenplay of V for Vendetta, whose overthrow message appears prescient at a time when Guy Fawkes masks are in fashion.

And so, the Tykwer-Wachowski collaboration Cloud Atlas arrives with uncertain expectations. Based on the labyrinthine David Mitchell novel many have pronounced unfilmable, and with a marathon three-hour running time, Cloud Atlas has already been dismissed as an epic failure. And so it would seem to linear-minded critics and audiences demanding conventional stories told conventionally. Ambitious thematically as well as stylistically, Cloud Atlas’ subject is nothing less than the nature of reality, quantum connectivity and the basis for leading a moral life amidst the persistence of bad ideology and the defects of human nature. Cloud Atlas almost justifies its prodigious length as it cuts back and forth in time between a half dozen stories, gradually building momentum as the links across them become clear.

Tykwer-Wachowski hedged against box-office indifference by recruiting a raft of bankable stars—and then cast some of them not only against type, but also in virtually unrecognizable guises. In the opening scene, an aged Tom Hanks—gray bearded, covered in tattoos and with a drooping eyelid—murmurs to himself over a crackling fire in a curious but not incomprehensible dialect. And in other scenes, Hanks plays a 19th-century physician, slowly poisoning a passenger aboard a schooner crossing the Pacific. In the former, Hanks inhabits a post-apocalyptic Earth; in the latter, he’s a Social Darwinist implementing his strong-eat-the-weak philosophy in order to steal a fortune.

The multiple characters played by the actors—Halle Berry is an investigative reporter in 1970s America as well as a 1930s German-Jewish refugee and a denizen of Hanks’ future world—helps bind together the seemingly disparate stories from separate centuries. More than the cast links the various plots; recurring themes and analogous situations thread through them all. The 19th century story is concerned with the enslavement of the darker races and one of the two future stories focuses on “fabricants,” women manufactured to serve consumers. In both centuries, the slaves harbor the desire to revolt. Sentient beings deserve respect and dignity but freedom is never easy in any of Cloud Atlas’ time zones.

Smoothly edited and beautifully shot, Cloud Atlas alludes to a host of earlier films in many genres from Soylent Green through Blade Runner, Shaft, The Parallax View and, yes, The Matrix. With each period established through plausible dialogue and settings, overlapping characters and documents handed down through time connect the six stories, as well historical memory or distortions of that memory (which can sometimes serve worthwhile ends). There is a suggestion of reincarnation—or perhaps it’s more a matter of humanity’s shared DNA as well as thousands of years of social and cultural development. The aged, tattooed Hanks appears to be haunted by a ghost in a top hat; apparitions or not, the dead are never entirely gone. “From womb to tomb we are all bound to each other, past and present,” says Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), the rebel fabricant. And she should add: the future as well. In Cloud Atlas, every decision by everyone sends ripples across time.


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