Thursday, October 25, 2012
It opens in the same way that, most likely, the very first story told for entertainment began, 100,000 years ago: with an elderly person wizened by wisdom speaking to an audience gathered ’round a campfire. I didn’t realize till Cloud Atlas was finished, a rousing and astonishingly quick three hours later, how thrilling an opening that is. For this is an uber story: It’s a story about story. It’s a story about why we tell one another stories, what stories mean to us, and how they affect us.
It’s bonkers how far across time and across the planet this insanely grand matrix of interconnected tales ranges, from 1849 to 1936 to 1973 to 2012 to 2144 to the far future; from Cambridge to San Francisco to the middle of the widest ocean to locations unnamed to us. The interconnections all come via stories told in diaries and novels and letters and manuscripts and movies and testimonies and even a symphony (which is a kind of story) passed down through time. The tales are, in themselves, gripping because they are all about the Big Important Things: truth and legend, love and betrayal, freedom and slavery. A lawyer on a sea voyage bearing a vital contract home becomes ill at sea; a journalist uncovers corporate malfeasance and becomes a target; a wannabe composer working with a renowned mentor believes he can surpass his boss’s genius; a once content slave worker in a dystopic future awakens to her plight and rebels. (That’s not an exhaustive list of the individual threads here.) But only we see how the past inspires the future via a narrative heritage inherited by the present. Well, no, that’s not quite true: of course the composer in 1936 knows he’s inexplicably gripped by the diary of the 1849 lawyer, who sees truths about the lawyer’s situation that the lawyer himself cannot see; of course the 1973 journalist knows she’s inexplicably gripped by the now faded and fragile romantic letters of the composer to his lover. But only we see the chain of inspiration that continues across countless generations, how the often seemingly mundane events of one life can nudge great things to happen in another.
A handful of actors play different characters across space and time, often intersecting in different ways than their apparent distant relations did. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, together again and reconnecting again over and over across human history, are an especial treat to watch, with their unexpected charm and chemistry together. But the whole cast is entirely enthralling, over and over again, sometimes changing race and gender: Ben Wishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, and Jim Sturgess in major roles; Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and James D’Arcy in smaller but still vital ones. These are wonderful actors – and makeup artists! – giving multifaceted tour-de-force performances.
As we watch these oh-so-human people, their stories past, present and future interacting with and feeding upon one another, something else extraordinary happens: Cloud Atlas ends up replicating the sort of experience we today have as we sit before our storytelling campfire of the television. Though it may sound contradictory, watching this wholly winning and completely cohesive movie is like flipping around the TV and happening upon all the Good Bits from half a dozen different and hugely awesome movies with each change of channel. Every sort of story is here: SF drama, post-apocalyptic action, codger comedy, twee British romance, historical mystery, ’70s conspiracy thriller. And we’re getting the highlights of funny, exciting, affecting examples of the various genres, the important scenes in which people learn fundamental truths about themselves and the world and are rocked by them and choose to act on them, for better or worse. Tom Tykwer and the sibling team of Lana and Andy Wachowski may have separately adapted (from David Mitchell’s novel) and directed the separate temporally dispersed tales, but those distinct stories come together in a way that sneakily injects itself directly into our media-savvy minds. Our stories today, the really influential ones that have real cultural impact and that create our cultural context, are ones that have started in film and reinforced their hegemony in our minds via repeated exposure on the small screen. Or they originated on TV in the first place. In some ways, too, then, Cloud Atlas is about how we tell ourselves stories right at this precise moment of human history
CLOUD ATLAS (4) • Directed by Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski • Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant • Rated R • 172 min • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.