Here the Wachowskis have turned to the novel Cloud Atlas (2004) by British writer David Mitchell. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in its year (although did not win) and has been called a masterpiece. A copy of the book was apparently given to The Wachowskis by Natalie Portman on the set of V for Vendetta and they immediately became fans and solicited a $140 million budget to conduct an adaptation. For the film version, the Wachowskis have teamed up with German director Tom Tykwer who has made the likes of Run Lola Run (1998), The Princess and the Warrior (2000), Heaven (2002), Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006), The International (2009) and A Hologram for the King (2016), which sounds like it should be a science-fiction film but isnt. Tykwer and the Wackowskis divide the film between them they shooting the futuristic segments and the Pacific Islands story, while Tykwer handles the 20th Century and contemporary stories. The film was principally shot in Germany (as well as several international locations) with all three directors filming simultaneously with actors moving between sets to play different roles in the various stories.
With Cloud Atlas, The Wachowskis have attempted to make an epic film that deals with the meaning of it all. They have never been ones to settle for chewing off anything less than a massive bite tackling the nature of reality and reinventing the action film (The Matrix), taking modern society and the US to task politically (V for Vendetta), reinventing childrens anime as art (Speed Racer), reinventing the ninja film (Ninja Assassin). It seems mandatory for films seeking to be epic to have a script that covers multiple epochs of history, something that began with D.W. Griffiths Intolerance (1916). The most famous of these, which the Wachowskis have acknowledged a direct debt of inspiration to, was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Cloud Atlas copies much of Stanley Kubricks structure multiple stories in different periods of time that only seem to tangentially overlap, before everything is tied together in an ending that grasps at cosmic-sized answers to it all. Although perhaps the film that Cloud Atlas resembles more than 2001 is The Fountain (2006) and its overlapping cross-historical story where the same actors played different roles in each era and each of the stories was connected in terms of symbols and mirrorings. Another comparison might be to Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritus non-genre Babel (2006) and its multiple story strands where aspects from one story influence the other without the characters being aware of it.
Rather than an epic journey into transcendental space a la 2001, the Wachowskis end the film on a utopian upsurge where they draw their stories together and attempt to make a statement on the meaning of it all that love is the most important thing there is; that we are all connected; the Eastern sense of there being a pattern to life; the slight suggestion that there is an afterlife; and returning to their political leanings in favour of defying the social norm and standing up for what is right no matter the cost. The shuffling of the actors between roles is seen as a single souls evolution and journey representing the defiance of an unjust system across the ages.
Cloud Atlas must have been one of those films that studio publicists hate. Not unexpectedly, as the Wachowskis recount, the film proved a nightmare in terms of financingwith many US studios backing off and they eventually finding the money independently with a large part of budget coming from the German Federal Fund even so they were forced to defer their directors fees and sink their own money into the production. For the greater part of its running time, this is a film that doesnt seem to clearly be about anything. You can use abstract descriptions a canvas of stories that covers different eras, connected themes about life, the evolution of the soul but the connections are not always clear and are certainly not the easy pigeonholes that the studios like to push things into. This may well be why the Wachowskis broke their usual veil of secrecy their unwillingness to be interviewed and a contractually stipulated refusal to engage in any of the publicity for their films with they and Tom Tykwer making a three-minute interview clip where they tried to explain what the film was.
Cloud Atlas is being seen as epical but more than anything it feels like an uneven film that is propelled by its determination that people perceive it as an epic. Down on an individual level not all of the stories are that interesting. I look at each story and wonder how they would have stood up as individual films on their own. Equally, you look at the bigger picture and question whether the overarching structure of the story is strong enough to make the film work. (I suspect not, although the screenplay does wind things nicely together in soaring monologue by Doona Bae at the end). The film is at its most fun during Tom Tykwers segments the 1931 segment and the present-day one which are give life by Jim Broadbents irascible playing. The 1973 story with a depressed-looking Halle Berry fails to find anything exciting in its thriller plot. It feels like a whistleblower/corporate cover-up story that has been more substantially covered by other films. The South Pacific scenes are okay but one feels that what is going on on board the ship especially when it comes to the character of Tom Hanks avaricious doctor needed a longer running time to tell it. There is also the aspect about the birthmark, which in the book is meant to signify that the protagonists in each of the stories is the reincarnation of the other, but this is not made clear in the film.
Then there are the Wachowskis two segments that fall into science-fiction. The first of these (at least in terms of the films internal chronology) is the one set in Neo Seoul. This sets in with a blinding series of casually layered social assumptions that immediately make it seem a compulsively brilliant piece of science-fiction the idea of people created as clones to serve in a McDonalds-styled corporate franchise of the future; seeing them treated as a sub-species; the idea of the fabricants being supplied a corporate religion akin to Logans Run (1976) where they are pacified by ideas of an afterlife to disguise the fact that they are being disposed of. The Wachowskis have fun littering tiny pieces of technology throughout hover vehicles that ride on roads of light, portable insta-bridges, cubicle apartments with remote control furniture and window scapes and so on. The disappointment of the segment is that soon after creating a fascinating world with so many ideas woven into it, The Wachowskis do nothing except conduct a standard story about lovers fleeing from a harsh authoritarian system. This is a story arc that has been done by too many dystopian works, while the latter half of the segment seems to only be an array of action and shootout scenes. Moreover, when the film ventures aboveground, the scenes of the city of the future would be impressive if the entire look had not been more impressively beaten out by Total Recall (2012) two months earlier.
The sequence set 106 Years After the Fall is not much better. Here the Wachowskis have made the interesting choice of writing the entire segment in a future argot that is a decayed version of English. While this may be interesting, the upshot, like the science-fiction works of writer Jack Womack, feels like a story that takes place in a foreign language without the benefit of subtitles. Unlike the other stories, this segment never seems to build to much it is never made clear what the purpose of the all-important journey to and the activation of the observatory on the top of the mountain serves.
One of the other features of the film is that actors turn up playing different characters in each of the segments. I am not sure if this serves any particular point other than allowing a curious game of spot the face behind the makeup. That said, some of the makeups on the actors are highly uneven. In particular, the makeup on some of the actors cast as Asians in the Neo-Seoul segment harkens back to the bad effect of Caucasians attempting to look like Asians that we had in the day of Charlie Chan movies. The actors and all the roles they play throughout are highlighted over the end credits and it surprises the audience seeing the number of guises, many of which you would not have guessed. The most fun transformation is seeing Tom Hanks in the contemporary segment playing a pugnacious British gangster seemingly stepped out of a Guy Ritchie film with abrasive Cockney accent to match.
Cloud Atlas met with extremely mixed reviews worldwide and was considered a box-office flop. Next up for the Wackowskis was the science-fiction film Jupiter Ascending (2015). The Wachoskis and Tom Tykwer subsquently worked together on the tv series Sense8 (2015-8), which had a very similar storyline about the psychic link between eight different individuals around the world and the interconnectedness of each of their stories.
(Nominee for Best Production Design at this sites Best of 2012 Awards).