Cloud Atlas is as sweeping and awe-inspiring as it sounds, as its directors and star tell Drew Turney.
The Birth of a Nation. Lawrence of Arabia. Star Wars. Jurassic Park. Lord of the Rings. Every now and then a movie comes along that knows what to do with a movie screen, and the artists behind The Matrix films and Run Lola Run have joined up to make something that’s as epic as it is sweeping and as personal as it is warm.
Cloud Atlas is based on author David Mitchell’s best-selling novel, a book he told TimeOut even he considered ‘unfilmable’ before Lana (formerly Larry) and Andy Wachowski and Tom Twyker came along.
Cloud Atlas tells the story of a disparate group of souls and the lives they inhabit from colonial 1849 to the dystopian future of the 2300s (after a period enigmatically described in supertext as ‘The Fall’).
Step one was to throw the structure of Mitchell’s novel out the window. Before audiences see any credits or even the lyrical title card, we meet a grand cast of players. There’s a lawyer in the 19th century Pacific Islands who’ll understand the true meaning of freedom for the first time ever, a put-upon book publisher in the present day who’s wrongfully imprisoned in the strangest place possible and a post-industrial tribal goat-herder who helps an enigmatic outsider from another world, among others.
The tale(s) are so immersive and seamless that for the next 170 minutes only your bladder will feel the passage of time. Co-writer and director Twyker explains. “We had to connect the stories in more ways than just with the people. It wasn’t only about giving characters arcs but giving individual scenes arcs as well, making the cuts between them meaningful and seamless.”
The story is about individual souls evolving or devolving throughout the bodies they inhabit across a span of 500 years, often those of different races and genders (Hugo Weaving is as disturbing as he is funny playing a brutal nursing home matron). So the level of detail the Wachowskis and Twkyer invoke in the motifs and devices connecting each life and segment is quite staggering. Before the lights even come up afterward, you know it’s one you’re going to watch more than once and get something else out of on every viewing.
“We wanted each segment to have a distinct tone but for the entire movie to feel like a cohesive whole,” says Lana Wachowski. Taking the notion of reincarnated souls to an interesting conclusion, the filmmakers decided to cast actors to play the same soul throughout the film “We discussed the connections between characters and the way one person might fulfill what another began hundreds of years earlier,” Twyker explains. “So it made sense to have the same actor play several roles that represent a single being’s evolution.”
So as well as playing a Nurse Ratched-like retirement home matriarch, Weaving also plays a Hitler-esque arts patron, a corporate espionage killer-for-hire, a South Korean bureaucrat and the manifestation of the devil on one shoulder in all of us, appearing as a voodoo-like figure in a top hat named Old George.
Tom Hanks plays six roles in Cloud Atlas, something he loved about the film. “Each character is witnessing something that could change their life forever and they have to be heroes or cowards,” he says. “The film’s asking what history is but countless moments like that, all strung together? What’s the human condition but a series of decisions?”
The extended Cloud Atlas trailer that appeared online a few months back, the beautiful orchestral score, the astonishing vision and the lofty ideals of the story was enough to raise goosebumps. “We were instantly attracted to the scale of the ideas,” Lana Wachowski says. “We wanted to make something we’d never seen before but wanted it to feel like the kind of movies we watch over and over again.”
“We wanted a classic big screen movie that had a real sense of scope but which was relevant to normal life and the things we all worry about too,” says Twyker. All that was missing in their initial discussions. But as Andy Wachowski adds, “From the moment we all read the book, we knew it was the one.”