So last night I saw Cloud Atlas, the big new film directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly, beyond that it’s based on a widely respected and reputedly un-filmable novel and that I haven’t cared much for anything the Wachowskis have directed since the original Matrix. But, well, wow.
Cloud Atlas weaves together a set of stories set hundreds of years apart, using the same core cast of actors — including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, and Ben Whishaw — in different-but-related roles. If that sounds potentially unwieldy already, consider that many of the actors switch genders and races (to widely varying degrees of effectiveness) from story to story, and that in fact each story is really a completely different genre. There’s a Merchant Ivory-style tale about a nineteenth-century lawyer voyaging home from a slave-buying expedition, a farce that might as well have been an episode of that BBC sitcom about life in a retirement home, a mystery thriller set in the 1970s, a quest across a postapocalyptic wilderness, a tragedy about a miserable old-timey homosexual who’s composing a groundbreaking symphony in prewar Britain, and a Blade Runner-style science fiction action film.
All these films are intercut so as to highlight, with varying success, the overlaps and interconnections between their stories. The melody at the core of the symphony composed in prewar Britain recurrs in a San Francisco record shop in the 1970s, in the slums of futuristic Neo-Seoul, and among the ruins of nuclear war. In the farce, a bumbling old publisher writes a memoir which is adapted into a movie that inspires revolution centuries later. People are made captive, and set free; they help and hinder each other in their various quests. Multiple characters in multiple stories muse aloud about the interconnectedness of all people and the transmigration of souls, which is mostly unnecessary given how often we can see that, if the stories don’t quite repeat themselves, they unmistakably rhyme.
Whether or not you like Cloud Atlas will boil down to how well you think it weaves all these stories together — I came away almost entirely satisfied. I’m a sucker for big and ambitious and wide-ranging, and while there’s more than a few moments of fridge logic within the individual stories that comprise Cloud Atlas, I walked out of the theater looking forward to seeing it again.