Heads in the Cloud

Cloud Atlas

SFX attempts to deconstruct the sweeping visual drama that is Cloud Atlas

Even bestselling author David Mitchell described his sweeping, history-spanning novel as ‘unfilmable’.

But when it came to the story of a disparate group of people and the reincarnated lives they live between 1849 and the 2300s, writer/directors Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run, Perfume) thought differently.

For one thing, they threw the structure of Mitchell’s novel out. Before any credits or even the title have appeared we’re introduced to a grand cast of characters and the worlds they inhabit, from an attorney and an eccentric naturalist in the 19th century Pacific Islands to a crusading journalist in the early 1970s, and a put-upon book publisher of the present day to a post-industrial tribal man who helps an outsider from another world.

The audience spends the next 172 minutes leaping across time and space from one story to another, and while that might sound episodic, Twyker and the Wachowskis take as much care with the middling details as they do with the characters. “We had to connect the stories in more ways than just with the people,” Twyker explains, “so it wasn’t only about giving characters arcs but giving individual scenes arcs as well, making the cuts between them meaningful and seamless.”

The level of thematic and visual detail the directing trio plumb is quite breathtaking. Because Cloud Atlas is about individual souls evolving (or not) during more than one life throughout history, countless motifs and devices connect each segment. A 1936 character reads the journal of an 1849 character. The big story the journalist in 1973 breaks becomes a book submitted to the publisher in 2012. The publisher’s bristling against a denial of his rights inspires a genetically engineered being 150 years later, plants the seeds of revolutionary leadership and becomes a religion. Before you’ve even made it through the first viewing, you know Cloud Atlas is one you’re going to watch again and time again to catch every nuance.

As Lana Wachowski says, “We wanted each segment to have a distinct tone, palette and mood, but for the entire movie to feel like a cohesive whole.” Indeed, the tightly scripted story and at-times stunning visuals mean your bladder might be the only thing conscious of the running time.

And because the same souls show up in each historical epoch of the story, it made sense to cast the actors to play them throughout the film. “We discussed the connective tissue between characters over time and the way one person fulfills what another began sometimes hundreds of years earlier,” Twyker explains. “So it made sense to have the same actor play several roles that represent the evolution of a single being.”

The result is the arresting sight of – for example – Aussie actor Hugo Weaving playing a Nazi-like arts patron, a ruthless freelance assassin, a cruel, Nurse Ratched-like retirement home matriarch, a cold South Korean government official and the embodiment of the Satan-like voice of temptation, a green-skinned, top-hatted, voodoo-esque figure called Old George.

It’s what Tom Hanks, who plays no less than six roles, loved about the project. “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 trailer that appeared online a few months ago was electric. The score, the visuals, the lofty ideas and the apparently-profound nature of the story was enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck before the flowing cursive revealed a title as beautiful and far-reaching as it was weighty. As Lana Wachowski explains, “We were instantly attracted to the scale of the ideas. We wanted to make something we’d never seen before but that felt like the kind of movies you 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,” adds Twyker. Much of the discussion with the trio centres around knowing they wanted something lofty that would fill a cinema screen. All they were missing was the project. But as Andy adds, “From the moment we all read the book, we knew it was the one.”

In the stars

Watch carefully amid the talismans and leitmotifs and you’ll see a comet-shaped birthmark that recurs across the centuries. It’s not simply born to new bodies of the same soul, but has a deeper meaning between people whose paths keep crossing. As author David Mitchell explains, “It’s a great visual thing, I went into it more in the book but in the film it’s wonderfully subtle.”

In the mix

Twyker and the Wachowskis followed Mitchell’s lead by giving each segment a different genre. There’s a 70s-style political thriller, a breakneck sci-fi spaceship chase and sex scene in far future Neo-Seoul, and the almost Carry-On camp of a befuddled elderly Brit trying to escape from a nursing home. “Why keep genres separate?” Andy Wachowski asks.

Cloud music

Twyker composed the music for the film along with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek a full two months before production, giving Cloud Atlas a unique, pre-planned rhythm. He and the Wachowskis then split directing duties among each segment, shooting in parallel in Germany, Spain and the UK while the actors shuttled between sets to play vastly different characters.

Picture this

To get an idea of the kind of film Cloud Atlas aspires to be, look no further than the poster art. The mosaic structure of faces, bodies, places, landscapes and visuals from the movie bring to mind the timeless works of poster artist Drew Struzan. You might not know his name, but his iconic imagery for the Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Back to the Future (and many more) films perfectly conveys the sense of scope and fun cinema can evoke but so rarely does.