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In my travels to the best film festivals in…
On Wednesday, September 26, 2012 I attended a "Secret Screening" at Fantastic Fest 2012 in Austin, Texas. The festival did an excellent job keeping the identity of the title close to the vest. As the moment of truth finally arrived, legendary filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski appeared onstage to introduce their newest work. The audience was about to experience the U.S. Premiere of Cloud Atlas.
Based on the David Mitchell novel of the same name, Cloud Atlas boasts a triumvirate of writers and directors. German Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Paris, je t'aime, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) and the sibling team of Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix series) served as screenwriters, producers, and directors. Tykwer, an accomplished composer, also wrote original music for the movie along with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek (including the score's "Cloud Atlas Sextet" -- more about that later). There were two cinematographers, Frank Griebe and John Toll, and two editors, Alexander Berner and Claus Wehlisch. I don't normally list the production team at the top of a review but a project this massive requires a braintrust to match, and the credit due them cannot be understated.
It's incredibly challenging to write about this enigmatic film without giving anything away. While I still won't reveal spoilers by disclosing details of the plot or actions of the characters, Cloud Atlas cannot be reviewed without some discussion regarding what it's about, and that's no easy task.
Pigeonholing a film into a specific genre is something I generally frown upon. After all, it's Hollywood that loves catchy terms like romantic comedies, spy thrillers, and murder mysteries. In the indie world within which my sensibilities lie, movies mirror real life -- funny, sad, tragic, poignant, mysterious and puzzling and absurd, often within the same scene. That's the kind of authenticity that can set the heart racing.
Yet the human brain seeks to neatly classify what we see and hear anyway so, to some extent, it's unavoidable that I'll sit down to watch a movie and, especially if I plan to review it, try to label it. Little did I know the plight that would befall me.
Cloud Atlas unfolds as a historical narrative set in the 1800s. Suddenly it morphs into a 20th century period piece. It's at turns a pensive drama, detective potboiler, action/adventure flick, political thriller, dark comedy, and pure sci-fi. Then it cycles back again. The plot continually interweaves all the above -- six multiple storylines, all set in different eras with different characters. The only thing connecting these apparently disparate narratives is one curious conundrum that stares the viewer in the face, "What does it all mean?" We'll come back to that later.
The cast is an ensemble within an ensemble, with many stars playing multiple roles across various storylines. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, portraying three to four characters each, are clearly the names which dominate the scoreboard but every actor went well above and beyond for this production -- Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Keith David, James D'Arcy, and Xun Zhou -- most playing more than one role, even different sexes at times. This is the stuff of awards. But just mentioning what their roles are would reveal more than I already have, or am about to, so it will be left to the astute viewer to discover who's who. In fact, that's part of the fun of Cloud Atlas -- you'll discover drop after drop in an ocean of delights, thanks to the talented hair, makeup, and costume teams. As the Wachowskis told the audience after the premiere screening, even the actors themselves often didn't even realize who was in their own scenes.
The production values on this omnibus cinematic achievement are stellar. That this is an independent film (with funding from Germany, Hong Kong, and Singapore) and not a Hollywood movie is incredulous at times. Each of the half dozen narratives has its own lighting scheme to match the era and mood, with a color palette befitting their respective landscapes -- earth tones in the early pre-industrial periods, primary colors in the present-day segments, and grayscale in the future, back to earth tones again in the great beyond.
The camerawork is also story-dependent. Small wonder it "only" took two cinematographers, not six, to shoot this film. Frank Griebe and John Toll are staring Oscar in the face with this superior display of visual genius. Every possible photographic technique is used here, capturing extreme closeups and sweeping landscapes, often in the same shot, yet the work is never self-indulgent art for art's sake.
As literate as it is, the script doesn't take itself as seriously as many viewers will. While filled with platitudes and truisms, there's also quite a bit of comic relief at much-needed intervals. It's spooned out in generous helpings within a couple of the narratives, in particular, allowing the audience a collective sigh of relief from the gravitas of the larger picture.
Despite the multiple parallel narratives, each piece has its own distinct mood. Cloud Atlas is triumphant in its ability to integrate every inch of the emotional continuum. There are overt tonal changes across the storylines that, on paper, would appear to be an almost insurmountable task. Yet the filmmakers accomplished this by carefully sliding from comedy to dark comedy to drama to historical drama to mysterious present-day curiosity to scientific achievement leading to the wonders of the future and science fiction, cycling back again, never shocking with abrupt awkward transitions that would require some severe mental adjustment on the part of the viewer.
This subtle ebb and flow is not unlike the composition of a symphony, literally echoing that being written throughout the course of the movie itself -- the "Cloud Atlas Sextet" -- which, as mentioned earlier, also happens to form the basis of the soundtrack. It's an original piece composed for the film and its creation is the subtext for one of the storylines. Life imitating art imitating life. These movements, to continue with the musical metaphor, are accomplished by editors Frank Griebe and John Toll through long dissolves whenever possible, blending one narrative into another, a useful device that, again, relieves the viewer of having to put together the puzzle pieces ("Where are we now?"). This frees up the mind to contemplate the overall messages being imparted by the action instead of straining to understand the visuals (a la Inception).
Cloud Atlas is one of those films that you think you get...then you revise your thinking...again, and again, and again. It's about slavery! No, wait...it's about the Holocaust! Or is it both? Aha, it's about prejudice through the ages -- against dark-skinned people by whites, against Jews, homosexuals...that's it, yes. It's about discrimination, bigotry, racism. But wait, no...there are themes of past lives and reincarnation here. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. That's it! No, wait...what's going on here? Aha I get it now...it's about love! The next decision we make changes the future. You come to a fork in the road...do you build? Or destroy? Will your next act be of criminality or kindness? This choice can change mankind. Yes, that's the idea. Everything that occurs is the result of individual decisions. The ocean began with one drop. Is that what Cloud Atlas is about? In the end, the answer is...all the above. But it can all be summed up in two simple words: Eternal Recurrence. That's it. (Really, that's it.)
Mark my words -- 30 years from now film students will study Cloud Atlas the way my high school class looked at Battleship Potemkin or Un Chien Andalou or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Look up "epic" in the dictionary and you may see the poster for Cloud Atlas staring back at you. Quite possibly you'll also find it under "M" for "masterpiece."
NOTE: See my photos of the intro and Q&A with co-writers/directors/producers Andy and Lana Wachowski.
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…