Cloud Atlas

By Christopher Redmond

Mailed on September 10, 2012

Stamp image Priority

Dear Glynn Henderson
Safety Consultant

Dear Glynn,

I'm so glad nobody listened to you. _Cloud Atlas _is unbelievably ambitious, unusually paced and virtually indescribable. The story gleefully spans centuries but snubs chronology, relentlessly repurposes actors, mixes genres and genders, and seems to basically disregard everything we've seen before about how to make an epic. Hollywood filmmaking until this point might one day be referred to as B.C.A. (Before Cloud Atlas). Whatever advice you provided for playing it safe clearly fell on deaf ears. This might be the most dangerous film ever made.

The challenges you faced seem endless. The earliest story in the film occurs about 200 years ago, with additional tales taking place throughout the 20th century and into unspecified futures. Characters are put in a smorgasbord of dangers all over the world, from climbing mountains to crossing futuristic skyways, and all the risks look tangibly possible. We might not always follow everything, but we can certainly feel it.

The stunt coordinators, at least, heeded your advice and staged much of the climactic action in the secure confines of a studio. The producers, however, defied the studio system altogether for the financing. Their only precaution against creating a big budget flop was to cast Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon and some up-and-coming international talent. But as Battlefield Earth taught us, stars alone won't guarantee success. So even though giving these types of warnings may have been outside your job description, your responsibility should actually have been to embody all facets of safety. This is, after all, a film where everyone plays many roles in an attempt to uncover their eternal character and true purpose.

But what is the purpose of this film? In a word: revolution. And revolution, by its very nature, cannot be safe. All the characters in this story are rising up against the systems that control them. That same spirit to confidently defy conventions is embraced by the filmmaking approach, and reflects the philosophy of the filmmakers themselves (with Lana Wachowski, for example, going public about her transforming from Larry). Thematically, that rebellious through-line carries over nicely from the The Matrix _films, even if this story is based on David Mitchell's novel. In _Cloud Atlas, the connection is clearest in the Neo Korea storyline, but can certainly be found throughout - on a slave-stowing ship crossing the Pacific, in the homosexual trysts of a pre-WW2 musical virtuoso, in a bold journalist digging up dirt in the 70s, in a kooky book publisher trying to plead for his sanity, and in a robotic Geisha finding her humanity. It just seems to be in everyone's DNA to disregard any advice about doing something simply for their own well-being.

Aside from the writers, directors and producers, the make-up team may be the most brazen department to work without a net. There was a time when doing black-face was considered racist, but I guess that was way back in the year 1 B.C.A (2011 AD). Now, in the Wachowski and Tykwer "post-racial" world, whites can play Asians, Asians can play whites, and Halle Berry can tease us with Jewish nudity. For at least half the film, it's often as distracting as it sounds, even when the story is not mixing races. Tom Hanks alone performs a career's worth of characters, from the unintelligible to the hilarious. Yet by the end, there's obviously some sense to be made of it all. That said, I couldn't spoil the plot if I tried.

The unmistakable tonal shifts between the film's three directors risks turning the whole experiment into a series of sideshows, but instead sets us up for some unpredictable turns. The audience at the world premiere screening in Toronto went from cheering on a charming triumph to absolute shock from the brutality of the next scene. The contrasts certainly earn the film an R-rating, using language, violence and nudity that can kill a blockbuster. But when a film is already bound to be so divisive, challenging and hard to promote, why not go all the way?

Well, congratulations. Against all advice, you went there. To a place we didn't even know existed. Without standard plotting or pacing, we get a film we often can't follow, and yet, cannot turn away. What survives is truly a triumph of the medium. At one point, a character is told "one may transcend any convention if only one can dream of doing so." Indeed

Dangerously yours,


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