Andy and Lana Wachowski are back in the directors' chairs, after a four year break following the underperformance of their Speed Racer movie. Their new project is Cloud Atlas, a venture co-directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume) and based on David Mitchell's celebrated novel. It's as ambitious an undertaking as the Wachowskis' Matrix trilogy, if not more so, given the nature of Mitchell's source material (more on that in a moment).
Cloud Atlas stars like Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant have spoken before about the difficult, but ultimately rewarding, experience that was their time working on the film - which, they hope, will fulfill its potential as a groundbreaking piece of cinematic storytelling.
Matrix star Hugo Weaving is among the big names appearing in Cloud Atlas - and plays six different roles in the film. For those unfamiliar: Mitchell's original novel is composed of six separate storylines, separated by time and geography (but linked thematically). One of the book's central concepts is that characters featured in each individual plot thread are, in fact, the same souls reincarnated - all working to not repeat the mistakes of their historical predecessors, but with limited success (if any).
That idea of physical transformation, but spiritual retention, is something Weaving feels resonated especially strong with Lana Wachowski (previously Larry, before she underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2009). As he told Heat Vision:
“I can’t speak for Lana, but it’s something that’s always interested her, and obviously at a very profound level... [The movie explores] the idea of being reborn and souls being reborn through time. What’s fascinating about the adaptation of the book was that sense that you get in the book about souls being reborn, a particular soul, and then they thought, 'What if we bring back actors to multiple roles in these stories?' So to take that idea and run with it actually kind of became one of the key propellers for the project.”
Spiritual rebirth was an important theme explored throughout the Wachowskis' Matrix trilogy, but Cloud Atlas presents a far greater challenge due to the sheer scope of the narrative. Mitchell's source material is widely critiqued as a rewarding reading experience overall, but one with flaws that cannot be ignored. Weaving, for his part, seems to agree with this writer's longtime assessment that the Cloud Atlas adaptation could turn out either great or terrible (due to its experimental design) - but there's good reason to be hopeful:
"So it’s a slightly dangerous adventure we embarked on, because to be honest you don’t know where it’s all heading, despite the wonderful preparation... [The] film’s told in a sort of mosaic way, where all six stories are told at once, at the beginning of the shoot you’d move from one character to another. But as the shoot progressed and it got towards the end, you were seeing more links between the characters. And indeed, there might be a cut from one of your characters to another character, so there’s a link between them.”
Weaving also touched on the similarities between his experience working on Cloud Atlas, and how the actual film unfolds, saying:
"You’re fulfilling a particular role, so the six characters I play have a similar thematic arc, similar role to play, and as the film progresses, you get a strong sense of playing one [character] rather than six separate ones. So initially you’re feeling the separateness of the characters but increasingly feeling like they’re facets of the same being.”
That idea raised by Weaving is one the Cloud Atlas film hopes to communicate, even as its cast tackle roles that cross ever-sensitive social barriers (race, class, and gender). If nothing else, Cloud Atlas will go down as an admirable attempt to imitate the best works of dramatic science-fiction - by offering a thoughtful and intelligent examination of issues that humanity will probably continue to confront throughout its existence. No big deal, right?
Cloud Atlas opens in U.S. theaters on October 26th, 2012.