They say that a great film is one that seems impossible to make, but that rule-of-thumb takes a beating from a new release with no less than three credited directors. As unusual as that number is – and, apart from their number, there are a few other interesting factors about that group – the collected efforts of these filmmaking musketeers ends up with a good film. While it certainly seems impossible to make, and in that way is greater than the sum of its parts, Cloud Atlas comes shoddily from the hyperkinetic efforts of German director Tom Tykwer and brother-sister duo Andy and Lana Wachowski.
This trio serves as the film’s directors, central producers, and writers, working from the perennial bestseller by David Mitchell. Mitchell, who has a small cameo here (let’s suppose, for good measure, that this stands in for an author’s blessing of someone retelling his story), crafted his novel about six chronologically distinct but biologically interwoven stories. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have co-opted all six, and using astoundingly well timed editing, have mixed and matched them all to create one time-independent whopper of a story. To cap off this elaborate oral and visual history lesson, the central actors all participate in the different storylines, crossing race, gender, and age willy-nilly.
This next paragraph won’t contain spoilers, but it will give some description, and this is a film that values its surprising elements greatly. Nonetheless, we’ll go by chronology: a slave-trading American doctor (Jim Sturgess), on a preparatory journey to the Pacific Islands in 1849, crosses paths with a dangerous rapscallion (Tom Hanks) and a stowaway tribesman (David Gyasi). In pre-World War II England, a brilliant but frenetic young musician (Ben Whishaw) abandons his wealthy lover (James D’Arcy) to become the apprentice to a curmudgeonly, forgetful composer (Jim Broadbent). Forty years later, intrepid San Francisco reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigates a creepy nuclear plant owner (Hugh Grant) and his crooked energy policies.
Bridging the gap between these segments, each more dramatic and thrilling as the next, is one set in the present, in which a stuffy English publisher (Broadbent again) is forced into a retirement home run by a Ratched-like nurse named Noakes. Broadbent’s performance in this thread fuels a pratfall-filled comedy piece that completely disrupts the tense equilibrium of the other stories, including those that depart from modern day. In the future city of Neo-Seoul, a food-serving human clone (Doona Bae) is called upon to head a revolution for clone’s rights. And on an island suspended in the frozen animation of its hunter-gatherer tribal beliefs, a futuristic woman (Berry) seeks the help and refuge of Zachry (Hanks), a village leader troubled by mild schizophrenia (personified by a ghoulish Weaving) and a cannibalistic enemy (Grant).
Phew. With all those strands in mind, Tykwer and the Wachowskis begin crafting action sequence after sequence, ratcheting the tension between the dystopian futures and emotional pasts to fascinating effect. While not technically an anthology film or one with a unified whole, Cloud Atlas breaks the conventions of generic positioning without sacrificing its ability to move, and touch, and impress. The link between these stories is philosophical, rendering ephemeral questions about fate, interconnectivity, love and death the actual content of the film. Thematic unification under the ideal that, yes, a kind act in the 19th century can change the world order in the 22nd is a tactic that distinguishes this from, essentially, any other film in history
But without total alignment to Mitchell’s (whose conceptualization and structure have been changed, but hardly his plots or themes) agnostic philosophies, this particularly long work makes it difficult to focus. Intended as a play on persona, the multiple roles of the actors is sometimes more artificial and distracting than separate role-playing (names preserved) might have been. When Tom Hanks appears as an island-bound tribesman, speaking what Kevin Robinson terms, “Future Appalachian”, he is simply unbelievable in the character compared to, say, his role as a San Franciscan nuclear physicist. The transmutation of gender and race, too, seems a bit humiliating, taking Broadbent from buccaneer pirate to blind neo-Korean musician and Whishaw from hipster disc-jockey to the wife of a Cockney businessman..That lack of focus, integral to a three-hour film, strikes down the individualism that otherwise makes this must-see cinema.
Speaking of film history, much – but not enough – has been made of the Wachowskis’ involvement, the first project completed under the credit of “Lana” Wachowski. Formerly “Larry”, Lana’s presence behind the camera marks what is easily the most significant, most expensive, widest seen work of art ever craft by a transgender person. While that sexual label has no bearing on her craftsmanship, it remains extraordinarily important to the legacy of the film that a figure outside the heteronormative (in this case, straight, young-to-middle aged Caucasian male) film director trope sculpted, in part, a blockbuster. As a critic, it’s a pleasure to be moving forward in time, even if Cloud Atlas itself does not fully make it