On ‘Cloud Atlas’ Nine

Ambition is in short supply in today’s Hollywood. Yes, some might consider Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman to be a bit on the grand side, but he’s also dealing with material that is decidedly outsized. That he keeps his comic book characters grounded in a sense of reality and humanity is about as far as his vision goes. No, unless it’s micromanaged down to a specific niche demo and accompanying formula, unless it’s made to maximize receipts both here and (more importantly) abroad, Tinseltown tends to steer clear. Perhaps that’s why the web has been buzzing over the first trailer from the seemingly epic effort from The Matrix‘s Wachowskis in collaboration with Run Lola Run‘s Tom Tykwer. In scope and storytelling span alone, the October release of Cloud Atlas appears destined to stir passions and fuel aesthetic debate.

When you consider the background of the artists involved, such schisms would be hard to deny. Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) made a massive splash with their philosophical sci-fi take on virtual reality. To this day, fanboys are either celebrating their trilogy as one of the best, or lamenting its placement in the law of diminishing sequel returns. As for Tykwer, he’s been out of the loop since Franka Potente turned a goal of saving her misguided boyfriend into a three part exercise in gamer grandstanding. Sure, he’s made five films since then (and a few before), but outside of Perfume: The Story of a Murder he’s not been part of the practiced industry conversation. In fact, outside The International, few recent audiences would know who he is.

So the coming together of this trio to make something akin to a generation spanning meditation on how past lives affect present (and perhaps future) events is cause for some kind of celebration. In an accompanying “commentary” on the trailer, the filmmakers make it very clear that, in their mind, this is a major risk. Therefore, they claim that it is, basically, an independently financed film. Sure, it will fly under the Warner Brothers logo, but it’s a distribution deal, pure and simple. No, the writers/directors are gambling that malnourished film fans, eager to break out of the monotony known as the typical motion picture, will embrace their near three hour spectacle. Considering what we see in the trailer, Cloud Atlas will either be one of the most amazing, awe-inspiring, and complicated entertainments to come out in 2012, or it will be criticized for being maudlin, cloying, and incomprehensible.

The source suggests a combination of both. David Mitchell’s novel, winner of several prestigious awards, gets its range from a collection of six separately nested stories. We travel from 1850 (and a voyage to New Zealand), to 1931 (Belgium), then to 1975 (and trouble at a nuclear power plant), the beginning of the 21 century (where there are gangsters), a dystopian Korea, and finally, Hawaii, in a primitive post-apocalyptic world. There are elements of reincarnation, of cosmic interconnectivity and shared human experience. But there’s also hints at bigger, more universal themes. Love seems to play a major role in the narrative, as does unfinished business and space/time displacement. Of course, all of this could be celluloid smoke and mirrors, filmmakers trying to find a way to interest audiences without giving away the entire movie’s motivation.

Even the cast seems surreptitiously hidden, with the exception of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. They provide the main link to the other elusive elements. Among the intriguing ensemble are Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, James D’Arcy, Ben Whishaw, and Susan Sarandon. There’s porcelain Asian imagery, vast expanses of future shock techno landscapes and the occasional CG animal. Layered and legitimately moving, the trailer does a terrific job of getting to the heart of what the Wachowskis and Tykwer are trying to achieve. They want a movie that transcends type, that takes the obvious tropes of speculative fiction or dramatic romance and reconfigures them as something other, something special.

Equally interesting is the connected commentary. Lana, for one, hasn’t made such an out appearance since the decision regarding her gender identification. As a matter of fact, her own personal experience may translate into some poignant material within the film itself, especially since the book appears to center on people with problems ‘identifying’ who they are to themselves and the world. We know the trio can handle action, and all three have vision vastly superior to those within their similar cinematic status. And what’s better still, they talk a really good game. They make you want to see the end result to experience what they are so passionate about and so eager to have you witness.

Of course, hype is hype, and the Wachowskis last outing behind the lens was the critically bashed flop Speed Racer (which was/is actually so ahead of its time that it’s waiting for the appropriate era to arrive before it’s embraced). Since then ,they’ve overseen the work of former first AD James McTeague (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) and skirted the spotlight as much as possible. While their next project promises something even more spectacular (Jupiter Ascending), Cloud Atlas hopes to reintroduce them to commercial credibility. The real wild card here though is Tykwer. He’s wanted to work with the duo ever since he read the book and realized they held the right. He is comfortable with collaboration, having worked with other filmmakers for the anthology films Paris, je t’aime and Deutschland 09.

Thanks to the mystery and promises from the filmmakers themselves, Cloud Atlas has already started to feel like an event. It will be interesting to see how it is marketed beyond this initial drop. Some will argue for a more explanatory trailer, but directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Field have found success with a more non-linear, enigmatic approach. More importantly, the minds behind said campaign will have to find a comfortable balance between out and out ballyhoo and remedial to realistic expectations. Perhaps the best part about all of this is, if properly kept in the spotlight, Cloud Atlas could become a social network talking point, a passionate experiment that many embrace as proudly anti-Establishment. No matter the final outcome, here’s hoping that ambition is duly rewarded. After all, it’s a rare commodity in today’s popular culture.

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