I saw a screening of CLOUD ATLAS. I wanted to read the book first but when I tried to get it at one of my bookstore signings, it was sold out. Funny, there were all those Arnold books left on the shelf. I could have gotten it somewhere else, but before I knew it the screening date came and I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to hear the three writer-directors speak about this unusual project.
The Wachowski brothers wrote and directed The Matrix together, one of my favorite films. Along the way, one of the brothers became a sister and changed her name to Lana. She’s attractive and funny and actually the most interesting and articulate one of the bunch. The evolution of this major project started because the Wachowskis admired the work of Run, Lola, Run director Tom Tykwer and tried to meet him in Germany. After a few misses, they connected and felt like kindred spirits. So they went in search of a film they could shoot together. The book came their way and they felt the unusual structure would allow for multiple directors. They planned to shoot with two units, the Wachowskis directing scenes together, as they typically do, while Tykwer was also filming other scenes.
They worked on the screenplay adaptation for FOUR years. That is an incredibly long time, but the unusual structure of the book was a challenge. They got top actors on board like Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry and Susan Sarandon, as well as Hugo Weaving, James Broadbent and others. Even with this package, they could not get a studio to sign off on it so they had to get a large number of investors (I think 30). Then Warners picked up the North American distribution. They had snags with foreign sales, and could not sell it to England or France.
The budget was one hundred million dollars, huge for what is essentially an independent film. The production values look it look even higher. Since the actors play multiple roles in different centuries, the makeup and period settings added to the budget.
Like the book, there are six storylines set in various times from the past to the future and the film-makers wisely chose not to follow the structure of the book which has 60 pages of one story, then another, etc. because it would mean introducing new characters 100 minutes into the film (the running time is roughly 3 hours). Instead, there is extensive editing and jumping around. Your mind has to work overtime to make the connections just to follow each storyline. The language used in the future is hard to understand at times, and that adds another layer of difficulty. I am one of those viewers who loves a challenge, but I can see where some of the general public may not feel the same way.
The enthusiasm that the directors have for this project does make you want to forgive any elements of the film that don’t quite work. For a three-hour film, you are not bored, and that is saying a lot. You may not believe all of the stories, and some stories may feel more fresh than others, but it is easy to find elements to love. I particularly liked the two future stories (a fabricant and Zachry after the fall, both mainly directed by the Wachowskis), as well as the deeply emotional composer’s story (directed by Tykwer).
One of the devices that tie together the book is that each story is revealed to be read or seen by the main character in the next segment. This element is tossed into the stories in ways that are not particularly clear or satisfying. My overall disappointment in this film is that there is no major revelation for the audience, an aha moment where you feel all that you’ve witnessed adds up to a greater whole. Words that worked on the page to unify disparate elements have less weight when heard in this context. The project is ambitious, and the passion of the filmmakers commands admiration, but it could have been so much more.
The filmmakers stated they wanted this film to be viewed as a piece of art rather than a product. They are aware that the tone changes are an issue (they worked to smooth those out). They also make no apologies for any prosthetics that weren’t believable. The three want the viewer to accept juxtapositions that may not make sense in a traditional film. In that regard, they succeeded. Your mind will be exercised and challenged to find the connections they’ve set up by casting the same actors as different characters in different time periods, set in entwining stories of contrasting tones. Go into the film with this mindset, and enjoy what you see.
Beautiful quotes from Cloud Atlas the novel here.
The author, David Mitchell, on the film here.