There are a lot of things being said about Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer‘s film adaptation of Cloud Atlas: it’s the film adaptation of an unfilmable novel; it’s brilliant and visionary; it’s a muddy mess; it means well, but it’s too big for its britches.
All of these things are, to some extent, true. The film – which uses a core cast of actors to tell a half-dozen wildly different tales spanning genres and centuries – is staggeringly ambitious. It is also wildly uneven, the warp and weft of the various interweaving plot threads being at times gripping, at others touching, and at others cold-sweat clunky to the point where you fear it might unravel completely.
Halle Berry and Keith David
Not particularly surprising, given the sprawl that the three filmmakers have chosen to tackle: David Mitchell‘s source novel (which he himself considered “unfilmable”) is a massive, meta feverdream that attempts to encapsulate humanity’s overarching struggle for survival and advancement through a selection of carefully curated and vastly different tales.
One tells the story of an American plantation owner stricken with a tropical parasite who befriends a stowaway slave on a long and arduous boat trip back from New Zealand in the 1850s. Another tells the story of a young composer who offers his services to a reclusive genius, only to find his own artistic voice. A thrilling 1970’s set espionage mystery, a contemporary British caper about an escape from an old folks’ home, a futuristic parable about a sentient clone who becomes the figurehead for a revolution and a post-apocalyptic tale of tribal loyalties round out the array.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer – each of whom has tackled “big ideas” like fate, free will and revolution (the former in The Matrix Trilogy and V for Vendetta, the latter in films like Run Lola Run and Heaven) – present these vastly different tales as six variations on a theme (perhaps the young composer’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet”?), choosing to line up the acts and beats of each storyline accordingly and intercut rapidly amongst them.
The result is dizzying, but effective – and aided by the fact that they’ve also opted to employ a small central company in all of the tales, each actor playing different roles spanning a number of ages, races, and genders.
So, yes - Halle Berry plays a white woman and an Asian man (among many other characters), Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy both play Koreans, Doona Bae plays a Latina, a white woman and an Asian man, and Hugo Weaving plays a British woman. First off, it’s a testament to the makeup department that this doesn’t blow up in their latex-enhanced faces (I’m having horrible flashbacks to the old-age makeup in J. Edgar) – while some of the race- and gender-switched characters are undeniably odd looking, they are all fascinating in their own way. At times it’s difficult to identify the actor within the character, which is of course partly the point.
The point. That’s the problem that many people will have in processing Cloud Atlas. Because, unlike most $100 million, genre-smashing epics, the movie does have one. In fact, the point of Cloud Atlas is so essential to understanding the film that it almost supercedes the film itself: this is not a movie, it is a manifesto. A gonzo, breathtaking, deeply humane declaration of the belief that all people – regardless of class, race, gender, age, sexuality, and more – are deserving of the same level of respect. It’s the ultimate “outsider” film. It’s a film that celebrates the unrepresented and the subordinated, that hails the bold and revolutionary, that commends the whistleblower and the dissenter who refuse to comply with a majority in the wrong. It is a film that stresses the heroism of both he or she that chooses to help pull someone else up, and he or she who chooses to step up on his or her own.