September 13, 2012
It isn’t often that one needs to invoke Intolerance to describe a current film, but Cloud Atlas, which was unveiled at the Toronto Film Festival, demands it. Like D.W. Griffith’s epic, it intercuts between stories taking place across hundreds of years of human experience–in this case, from the 19th to the 23rd centuries–in order to tell a larger, inspirational story about destiny and freedom. Although one would hesitate at comparing Andy and (now-)Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer to Griffith, they share a focus on combining innovative forms of narrative with technical invention. And both films, while memorably compelling and often thrilling, suffer from similar excesses of sentimentality and ponderousness.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer, though, add an additional layer of gamesmanship to their sagas: their ensemble cast, which includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant and Doona Bae, each appears in multiple roles in several, sometimes all, of the chapters, changing their appearance and often their race and/or gender all-but-unrecognizably with the help of conventional and digital make-up effects. This, too, tells part of the movie’s overall story, as incidents and character types repeat and morph over the centuries.
Cloud Atlas, based on a novel by David Mitchell and adapted by the directors, is in broad terms concerned with forms of slavery and insurrections against it, and with the importance of individual acts of redemption, sacrifice and heroism. Its stories include everything from a tale of a rescued slave in 1849 to post-apocalyptic warfare many generations later, and it’s a tribute to the filmmakers and also to editor Alexander Berner that it’s seldom difficult to figure out where and when we are. Clever motifs of music and dialogue recur as signposts throughout.
Some of the stories, naturally, are more compelling than others. A modern day tale of Broadbent being imprisoned against his will in an old age home (with a particularly outre role for Weaving) is a delight, while a 1970s thriller with Berry as an investigative reporter going after nuclear power baddie Grant with help from scientist Hanks is a terrific piece of pastiche. The sci-fi episodes tend to be overly explicit in their mythologizing, although the Wachowskis stage a great chase scene in one involving a robot geisha (Bae) and her interrogator (Sturgess).
The film is technically remarkable, with designs (by Hugh Bateup and Uli Hanisch) and cinematography (by John Toll and John Griebe) that have to cover all manner of civilizations and eras, and a beautiful score (by Tykwer, Reinhold Hell and Johnny Klimek) to unite them all.
Cloud Atlas is imperfect, but it has to be seen–it has a kind of go-for-broke audaciousness and intense artistic commitment on a grand scale that’s almost never seen in the current movie era. The last section of the picturealone, in which all 6 stories come to simultaneous, rousing climax, is such an achievement that the film’s shortcomings seem minor in comparison. Filmmakers who aim this high–Griffith was another–often come up short, and yet even their imperfections can be wonders to behold. Cloud Atlas reaches for the stars.[…]