The Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas at Toronto: Unique and Earthbound

The new film from the 'Matrix' team bustles through six stories spanning hundreds of years, but its achievements rarely match its vaulting ambition

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Warner Bros. Pictures

The Princess of Wales Theatre hosted the season’s jolliest coming-out party Saturday evening, as the directors of Cloud Atlas stepped on stage: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and, in pinky-purple dreadlocks and a slinky, sleeveless dress, Andy’s sister Lana, formerly known as Larry. The sibling makers of the 1999 sci-fi classic The Matrix, who insist on no-press, no-photo clauses in their contracts, are the most reclusive auteurs this side of Terrence Malick. And for Lana, 47, who had claimed transgender designation a decade ago but continued to sanction the “Wachowski Brothers” credit on their movies, it surely took some nerve to join her 44-year-old brother before an audience of 2,000 at the Toronto Film Festival’s world premiere of their new film.

If you’re going to do something daring, do it big. That could be the Wachowskis’ motto for the Matrix trilogy, for their criminally underappreciated Speed Racer and for their new adventure — an adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel — that tells six stories set in the past, present and future, with a core troupe of actors, including Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, playing different roles in each tale. Bold and Big could also apply to Lana’s decision to go public. Last week the Wachowskis and Tykwer appeared in a Cloud Atlas promo video, and The New Yorker published Aleksandar Hemon’s 7,000-word profile, in which Lana said, “I chose to change my exteriority to bring it closer into alignment with my interiority. … I know that many people are dying to know if I have a surgically constructed vagina or not, but I prefer to keep this information between my wife and me.” (Larry and his first wife filed for divorce in 2002; under the new identity Lana married another woman.)

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Matrix)

At a TIFF press conference attended by the directors and 13 members of their cast, journalists waited 21 mins. before popping the big question to Lana. (“You knew this was coming,” Hanks stage-whispered.) The elder Wachowski was poised and prepared. “I did feel some responsibility to LGBT people,” Lana said, “and a lot of people have been asking me to be more public. But we love anonymity, we love our privacy, we don’t really think celebrity does much to improve your life, we think it actually worsens your life. So it was a big decision, it took a long time, it took a lot of years. … And this movie, which is about transcending our fear of ‘other’ in so many ways, and transcending the boundaries of ‘other’ — it seemed quite natural to do it now.”

Lana seemed perfectly natural, in fact bubbly, at the Princess of Wales premiere: the most animated figure on the crowded stage, applauding seal-style at the arrival of each new cast member and hugging everyone within reach. “The movie speaks a lot about courage,” she said of the $100-million indie epic, “and the producers obviously had a lot of courage,” adding, with a smile, “or stupidness.” Lana acted as the effervescent mistress of ceremonies, while codirector Tykwer, whose signature film Run, Lola, Run opened in the U.S. just three months after The Matrix, added a few words. And Larry — always, in their rare interviews, the quieter Wachowski — contented himself by introducing Cloud Atlas with a simple “Behold!”

(READ: Corliss’s review of Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run)

Sharp-eyed or impatient readers will have noticed 500 words of sensational filler material so far, and no judicial ruling on the movie under review. That’s because the movie is hard to describe and even more difficult to live inside. Acing an amazing feat — to synopsize and clarify a meganarrative of a half-dozen separate stories — the filmmakers keep things bustling. The performers, nothing if not game, don putty noses, fake teeth and tattoos in their many roles; they switch races and genders. The result is something strange to behold: exceptional in its reach and ordinary in its particulars — an impressive, messy sprawl, nearly three hours long and, in emotional impact, an inch deep.

David Mitchell’s novel, whose title is taken from the 19th-century illustrated books that assigned names to different cloud formations, begins with the chronological telling of six stories. Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess in the film), an ailing American on a ship in the remote South Pacific in 1850, is being slowly poisoned by Dr. Henry Goose (Hanks). In Cambridge in the 1930s, composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) tangles with his young amanuensis Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) over authorship of a Frobisher symphony, the Cloud Atlas Sextet. In 1973 San Francisco, reporter Luisa Rey (Berry) finds her life threatened when she unearths corporate secrets. In today’s London, publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent again) is imprisoned in a retirement home. In the “Neo Seoul” of 2144 century, the female “fabricant” Sonmi-451 (Korean actress Doona Bae) attempts to graduate from cyborg status to full humanity. Finally, centuries from now, after an apocalyptic “Big Fall” has blasted mankind back to primitive status, the tribesman Zachry (Hanks again) is contacted by Meronym (Berry again), one of the few survivors from the advanced, vanished civilization. The only common device in the stories: a birthmark sported by some of the characters.

(READ: Pico Iyer’s review of the David Mitchell Cloud Atlas novel)

These fables consume the first three-fifths of the novel, which then loops back in time to resolve each of the stories, with some time-travel basting to underline Mitchell’s theme of “eternal recurrence.” Frobisher reads the Ewing’s diary; 40 years later his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) meets Luisa… whose exposé is eventually published by Cavendish… whose retirement-home caper is made in to a movie watched by Sonmi-451… whose own adventure becomes a movie that is projected into the post-apocalyptic future and seen by Zachry and Meronym. Got all that? Or would you like me to return to the subject of Larry/Lana Wachowski’s morphing sexuality?

In the movie, the old-school Cavendish rants against the kind of modernism — “flashbacks and flash-forwards and all those trinxy gimmicks” — that is right up the alley of Tykwer, whose Run, Lola, Run told the same story three different ways, and the Wachowskis. Their clever scheme was to interweave the book’s stories instead of presenting them in sequence, in the process emphasizing both the distinctions and the similarities. Each tale dramatizes a rebellion against the system: a slave helps a master, a student confronts his mentor, a reporter bucks lethal corporate power, an old man plans a break-out from confinement, a fabricant rises up to confront the “pureborn,” a man’s quest estranges him from his tribe.

(READ: Pico Iyer’s tribute to David Mitchell as a member of the 2007 TIME 100)

Of course, nearly every story, from Oedipus Rex to The Dark Knight Rises, portrays someone in revolt; that’s called fiction. The question here is twofold: whether any of the individual Cloud Atlas tales packs enough suspense to fascinate the viewer; and, lacking that, whether the various story snippets, in concert, form some grand symphony. In both cases, the reluctant verdict is Not Quite. Tykwer directed the three episodes set in the 20th and 21st centuries, the Wachowskis the three in the 19th century and the future. The most satisfying are probably Tykwer’s segments on Frobisher (for the poignancy) and Luisa (for the thriller tropes) and the Wachowskis’ on Sonmi (for the spectacular sterility of its design — and, Matrix fans, did you catch the Neo reference?). The entire movie is no chore to sit through, but the emotional momentum grinds to a halt in the final, tribal chapter, in part because the siblings remain faithful to the Pidgin English dialect that Mitchell created, and which is much easier for the eye to translate than the ear.

What’s curious is that Tykwer and the Wachowskis, who wrote original scripts for their most notable movies — or, in the case of Speed Racer, transformed the Japanese TV-cartoon source into vivid kinetic poetry — were determined to show such fidelity, make that fealty, to the Mitchell novel, which created its own rules and rhythms for the page. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which the directors cite as their inspiration for the sort of huge, demanding epic they wanted to make, could exist only as a film (though Kubrick’s coauthor, Arthur C. Clarke, subsequently novelized the screenplay). The Cloud Atlas movie exists as an illustration, a video book, of the novel. And to cram into the running time all of Mitchell’s important incidents, the Wachowskis and Tykwer necessarily employ brisk storytelling shorthand. That makes this the most conventional film any of them has made. When it dashes through the plot points, the movie is fine. It’s when it pole-vaults into the metaphysical empyrean that the strain shows.

(READ: Corliss’s contrarian review of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer)

The film’s least conventional aspect, the casting of its major actors in a different role for each episode, should be, at the very least, fun: an all-star repertory company alternating as stars and bit players, often under mountains of prosthetics. Back in 1963, John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger called on Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Tony Curtis to appear in cameo roles caked in pounds of putty. In that impish spirit, Cloud Atlas offers some novelty value in allowing the viewer to spot, say, Hugo Weaving, a villain in all six episodes, as a Nurse Ratched type in the Cavendish hospital; or Hanks as Dermot “Duster” Hoggins, author of the lumpen novel Knuckle Sandwich, who, in a fit of anger that may strike a chord with the Wachowskis, throws a critic off a high balcony. But the tactic rarely escapes stunt casting, and the actors seem corseted rather than liberated by some of their impersonations.

What sustained the filmmakers through the six dogged years of planning, financing, shooting and editing? The belief that if the impossible can be attempted, then it must be — and never mind whether it should be. The feeling persists that Tykwer and the Wachowskis made the picture to prove they could. Most viewers are likely to be impressed more by the magnitude of the effort than the magnificence of the effect. Cloud Atlas is a Terry Gilliam movie without the kinks, a Wong Kar-wai film without the smoky dreamscape, a time-and-Space Oddity that remains frustratingly earthbound. Put it another way: this is no Speed Racer. And it never achieves the weird wonder of Lana Wachowski’s enthusiasm for the movie in the moments before we saw it.