TORONTO -- Cloud Atlas, a mind-blowing film adapted from David Mitchell's best-selling 2004 novel and directed by Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski (the siblings responsible for The Matrix films) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), had its highly-anticipated world premiere last night at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film, which will be released theatrically by Warner Bros. on Oct. 26, was greeted with a loud and lengthy standing ovation throughout the portion of its credits that recognized the filmmakers and the members of the film's large ensemble cast, who each played multiple roles in multiple eras in the time-traveling film (and virtually all of whom were in attendance). They include Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent, plus Hugh Grant, James D'Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, Xun Zhou and Doona Bae.
Any film that attempted to tackle Mitchell's 500-plus page tomb -- a meditation on karma, past lives, and freedom that jumps across the centuries (past, present, and Twilight Zone-ish future) and genres (drama, comedy, sci-fi, and everything inbetween) -- would inherently be ambitious and daring. This one is that, to the extreme. It took years to come together. It was made on a budget of over $100 million, a portion of which was furnished by Warner Bros., but most of which was raised independently (making it the most expensive indie film of all-time). And it comes only six years after a similarly-structured film with a big budget, Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006), face-planted at the box-office. In Hollywood, people rarely venture into territory on which others have failed before, but -- as chronicled in a recent artlcle in The New Yorker -- there was no stopping these filmmakers after they encountered Mitchell's book.
There are positive and negative effects of jumping back-and-forth between an 1849 sea voyage, 1936 Cambridge, 1970s San Francisco, 2012 London, 2144 "Neo Seoul," and the 2300s. On the former count, it was very appealing to the actors to get to play so many different parts within a single film, and to the makeup artists who transformed them for each, changing their ages, races, and even genders (which is particularly interesting because, in real-life, Lana was, until recently, Larry).
On the latter side of things, however, it is headache-inducing to try to keep up with everything that's going on in each storyline, and, even if one can, it is hard to get terribly invested in any one of them because it's always usually just a matter of a few minutes before it is set aside for another one. (Then again, this might be the first film perfectly tailor-made for the ADD generation -- or merely the latest for those who partake in mind-altering recreational habits.)
Ultimately, connections between these stories, which initially seemed random and unrelated, become apparent. Without spoiling anything for a first-time viewer, I can say that thematically, at least, they are each about controlling and being controlled, and about the desire for freedom that rests in every soul.
Like The Matrix, this film's points are made with stunning visuals (though none as striking as the slow-mo bullets scenes in that film) and laugh-out-loud humor ("Official cause of accident: pussy," "You won't believe what people will pay to luck up their parents," and even a Soylent Green reference), if also a bit of politics (it goes after Big Oil, highlights the dangers of nuclear power, and subtly tweaks the media and Israel -- "the press is blaming the PLO") and heavy-handed philosophy ("All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended... if only one can conceive of doing so," "The weak are meat and the strong do eat," "From womb to tomb we are bound by others," "A single drop in an ocean? What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?").
I can't say that I loved the sum of its parts, but I was still blown away by many of the parts themselves -- the performances (although it's hard to single any one or two people out when everyone had so much to do), the editing (by master juggler Alexander Berner), art direction/production design (who must have felt like they were responsible for many movies), visual effects (coordinated by a team of over 100 people), especially the makeup (anyone that can make Hanks look like himself in Castaway, Mike Myers in Austin Powers, Russell Crowe in Gladiator, and Elton John, all in one film, deserves heaps of praise). I suspect that Oscar voters will feel similarly.