Skip to main content

TIFF 2012: The Radical, Magnificent Cloud Atlas

Technically, we've already reviewed Cloud Atlas here in Toronto, thanks to Sean's excellent writeup about the response to the film's premiere on Saturday. But after finally seeing it for myself this morning, I'm having a hard time getting anything done until I get Cloud Atlas-- my most anticipated film of the festival by far-- out of my brain. So here we go.

This big, ambitious, gorgeous, glorious film demands that its audience walk in as open-hearted as it is; it's going to take you to some hippy-dippy, love-is-all-around-you places, and skeptics who choose to reject that will be in for a long two and a half hours. But directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer also make the choice to run along with it an easy one, filling the screen with gorgeous locations and effects, casting a huge slate of fantastic actors in some almost absurdly challenging parts, and even expanding and reshaping David Mitchell's original novel into a tale that's about, well, nearly everything. Some of it is the dreamy philosophy you might be expecting-- love is the most important thing, we are all connected-- but much of it is surprisingly incisive and even radical. By abandoning the nested structure of Mitchell's novel, in which each story was told in two individual sections, and layering them on top of each other instead, the Wachowskis and Tykwer have created a moving synchronicity between all of them, powerfully making the case for common pursuits and motivations and desires among humans over time.

They also accomplish this, as you might have heard, by casting all the actors in multiple roles, some of them playing a lot of big parts-- Tom Hanks and Halle Berry loom largest-- and others, like Ben Whishaw and Doona Bae, playing one major role and popping up in the margins of other stories. It makes for a fun kind of Where's Waldo? game, as you scrutinize each new character's face to figure out which actor has returned, but it resonates with the many themes of how humanity both improves and repeats its own mistakes across the centuries. It's moving to see Tom Hanks start history as the devious Dr. Goose in the 19th century then become the striving survivor Zachry in the distant future, or Halle Berry struggle with discrimination against Jews as a composer's wife in the 1930s and women as Luisa Rey in the 1970s, then in the furthest future become the enlightened leader Meronym who helps rescue humanity. But then there's Hugo Weaving, who plays a racist in one era, a hitman in another, and eventually the embodiment of the devil himself-- sometimes that struggle to get better just doesn't pan out.

In Mitchell's novel each story was distinguished from the next not just by a different setting and characters, but a different literary genre and style of writing. There's no real cinematic cognate for that, and the Wachowskis and Tykwer use it as a reason to link the stories even closer, one commenting on the other as sound and music cues overlap eras, characters learning from each other in no more than a well-placed edit (the editing, by Alexander Berner and Claus Wehlisch, is by far the film's most incredible accomplishment). The layering of the stories may feel chaotic, or even on-the-nose in the way they relate, but the multitude of thematic connections and resonances are a thrill to sort through, and deeply emotional by the end. Why does this all feel grand and meaningful instead of like a cloying long distance commercial? I honestly don't know-- and I can't promise it won't feel that way for you. But Cloud Atlas is made with such skill and honest intentions that it demands to be taken seriously, and if you can take that small step up alongside the directors, the rewards are so, so worth it.

I know I've barely scratched the surface of what there is to say about Cloud Atlas, about the ideas and emotions it inspired in me, about the best scenes, or even about how Korean actress Doona Bae runs rings around every Hollywood actor in the movie with her performance as the defiant clone Sonmi-451. It's also very moving to think of this movie about transformation and revealing true selves in the context of Lana Wachowski's transition into becoming a woman while making the film. With Cloud Atlas coming to theaters in October, I'll have plenty of time to write about all that. For now, here in Toronto, Cloud Atlas and its ambition and its enormous heart are still jangling through my veins, almost too close to quite understand just yet. I can't wait for you all to see it so we can talk about it some more.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend