If Jupiter Ascending was the $200 million flop that broke the proverbial animal’s back, the Wachowskis’ previous effort had already hobbled the camel. 2012’s Cloud Atlas was a risky proposition, even by the Matrix directors' standards; an R-rated, three-hour pop epic set in past, present, and future, and based on a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel about the reincarnation of human souls. Financiers including Warner Bros. would need to see real returns to justify investing in it. They didn't.
Essentially an anthology movie of six simultaneously unfolding chapters, capable of transporting us within minutes from a Pacific island in 1849 to 1973 San Francisco to a wasteland 2311 Hawaii, Cloud Atlas was so complicated it took a six-minute trailer just to explain to audiences what it was. Less predictable, however, was the response from critics, who at the time couldn’t decide whether the movie was artistically success or failure. There’s still no consensus now.
It took three filmmakers just to realize this beast of a story: the two Wachowskis, Lana and Lilly, along with Perfume director Tom Tykwer (who’s also responsible for the film’s majestic theme music). And Cloud Atlas was always going to take time to unpack. It’s an art-house concept executed with blockbuster flair, an experiment in genre that shifts from farcical comedy to political thriller to dystopian science fiction and back for 171 minutes. It’s one of the most movies ever made, a Big Bang of ideas that only just manages to coalesce, thanks in large part to the decision to have the same cast members appear in every chapter of the bigger story.
Emphasizing its themes of destiny and oneness in bold capital letters, Cloud Atlas has its actors playing multiple roles—often of a recurring type, like the villain or the oracle—across its many timelines. Some fare better than others. Tom Hanks, accomplished as he is at playing Tom Hanks, proves incapable of stretching himself from Irish gangster to Scottish hotelier, while antagonist Hugh Grant proves an unlikely chameleon, convincing as whatever the Wachowskis throw at him: American slaver, Michael Caine-alike pensioner, post-apocalyptic cannibal chieftain and, most unlikely of all, 22nd-century Korean businessman.
Ben Whishaw plays a middle-aged housewife. Susan Sarandon shows up as a male, Indian physicist. Halle Berry literally disappears into the part of a white German-Jewish emigre. Rarely have actors been so aggressively cast against type. It’s this decision to abandon logic and have actors play genders and especially races other than their own that threatens to both date Cloud Atlas, a film released just six years ago, and make it arguably timelier than ever.
Nobody wants a return to casual race-swapping in the movies, but in a divided 2018 it’s also heartening to see a film, the brainchild of two trans siblings, earnestly argue that we’re all the same underneath our individual wrapping. Is the point obvious and inelegantly made? Yes, but when there are white supremacists in the White House and tales of female subjugation make headlines daily, an obvious and inelegantly made pitch for universal equality will still do.
This isn’t to say Cloud Atlas is a movie about race or gender. The film is so dense, a War and Peace-sized thesis could be written on all that it’s actually ‘about.’ Roger Ebert, who gave the film top marks, breathlessly embraced it as a film about everything. Other critics thought it “hokum.” Maybe both sides have a point. Because Cloud Atlas isn’t supposed to be one thing to everyone, but lots of things to lots of different people. It’s Schrödinger's blockbuster, at once crap and great, a rare big budget movie that was designed to actually divide its audience and inspire debate.
However you ultimately feel about the movie, Cloud Atlas will always be fascinating for at least one reason: love it or not, in spite of all odds, it exists. Behold, because nothing like it will ever be made again.
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