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TORONTO — Cloud Atlas, a mind-blowing film adapted from David Mitchell‘s best-selling 2004 novel and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski (the siblings responsible for The Matrix films) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), had its highly anticipated world premiere Saturday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film, which will be released theatrically by Warner Bros. on Oct. 26, was greeted with a loud and lengthy standing ovation throughout the portion of its credits that recognized the filmmakers and the members of the film’s large ensemble cast, each of whom played multiple roles in multiple eras in the time-traveling film (and nearly all of whom were in attendance). They include Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent, plus Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, Xun Zhou and Doona Bae.
Any film that attempted to tackle Mitchell’s 500-plus page tome — a meditation on karma, past lives and freedom that jumps across the centuries (past, present and Twilight Zone-ish future) and genres (drama, comedy, sci-fi and everything in between) — inherently would be ambitious and daring. This one is that, to the extreme. It took years to come together. It was made on a budget of more than $100 million, a portion of which was furnished by Warner Bros. but most of which was raised independently, making it the most expensive indie film of all time. And it comes only six years after a similarly structured film with a big budget, Darren Aronofsky‘s The Fountain (2006), face-planted at the box office. In Hollywood, people rarely venture into territory on which others have failed before, but — as chronicled in a recent article in The New Yorker — there was no stopping these filmmakers after they encountered Mitchell’s book.
There are positive and negative effects of jumping back and forth between an 1849 sea voyage, 1936 Cambridge, 1970s San Francisco, 2012 London, 2144 “Neo Seoul” and the 2300s. As for positives, it was very appealing to the actors to get to play so many different parts within a single film and to the makeup artists who changed their ages, races and even genders (which is particularly interesting because Lana Wachowski was, until recently, Larry).
On the negative side, however, it is headache-inducing to try to keep up with everything that’s going on in each storyline — and even if one can, it is hard to get terribly invested in any one of them because it’s always usually just a matter of a few minutes before it is set aside for another one. Then again, this might be the first film perfectly tailor-made for the ADD generation — or merely the latest for those who recreationally partake in mind-altering activities.
Ultimately, connections between these stories, which initially seemed random and unrelated, become apparent. Without spoiling anything, I can say that thematically, at least, they all are about controlling and being controlled and about the desire for freedom that rests in every soul.
Like The Matrix, this film’s points are made with stunning visuals, though none as striking as the slo-mo-bullet scenes in that film, and laugh-out-loud humor (“Official cause of accident: pussy”; “You won’t believe what people will pay to lock up their parents”; there’s even a Soylent Green reference). There’s also a bit of politics as it goes after Big Oil, highlights the dangers of nuclear power and subtly tweaks the media and Israel (“The press is blaming the PLO”) and heavy-handed philosophy, to wit: “All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended — if only one can conceive of doing so”; “The weak are meat and the strong do eat”; “From womb to tomb, we are bound by others”; “A single drop in an ocean? What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”
I can’t say that I loved the sum of its parts, but I was still blown away by many of the parts themselves: the performances, though it’s hard to single out any one or two actors when everyone had so much to do; the editing by master juggler Alexander Berner; art direction/production designers, who must have felt like they were responsible for many movies; visual effects, coordinated by a team of more than 100; and especially the makeup — anyone who can make Hanks look like himself in Castaway, Mike Myers in Austin Powers, Russell Crowe in Gladiator and Elton John all in one film, deserves heaps of praise. I suspect that Oscar voters will feel similarly.
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