We’ve finally got a chance to see footage from Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski‘s genre-hopping and centuries-spanning epic Cloud Atlas. If you just want to watch the footage, hit the jump now. But once you’ve seen that, I expect those who haven’t read the book might be wondering just what the hell is going on.

Because some people don’t start paying attention to a movie until the trailer is out (which makes total sense) let’s recap quickly: the film is based on David Mitchell‘s novel that is structured as a series of six vaguely interrelated stories, presented in an unusual structure. In the novel, you get half the first story, which jumps to the first half of the second, and so on until the entire sixth story plays out at the center of the novel, and then things work back out to the opening, so the end of the book is the second half of the first tale.

The trailer suggests that the film plays up the interconnectedness between stories perhaps even more than the book does. In part that’s because some of the key characters in various tales are played by the same actors. So, as the trailer shows, Tom Hanks and Halle Berry play characters in at least two or three chapters. (And does the trailer reveal too much for one of Berry’s characters? Maybe, but it’s not the worst choice.)

That’s just the beginning. What’s with the shots that look like they’re right out of Amistad? What’s all the futuristic stuff about? Below we’ll use some shots from the film to illustrate what’s going on with the film, in as spoiler-free a manner as possible.

First, here’s the trailer, via Apple., which also has a two-minute commentary/intro from the directors. Since we don’t often see anything from the Wachowskis, that’s pretty great. We’ll embed that as soon as possible.

There’s a lot going on there. It seems like Tykwer and the Wachowskis have made some of the novel’s underlying thematic ideas into full-on text. Which isn’t really a surprise; while the novel isn’t what I’d call subtle, it does leave some of the linkages between stories unspoken, and the film seems to go for the much more explicit route. Which is what a film this big has to do, or so some would say.

Here’s a bit of what’s going on.

OK, kicking things off, the “first” story is ‘The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,’ pictured above, which takes place in the mid 1800s. (It’s the first in the novel, at least, but we don’t know just how the film will structure things.) Tom Hanks features as a doctor who encounters a few unusual souls in the remote Chatham Islands, east of New Zealand, before journeying away by ship. Hugo Weaving‘s character talking about the “natural order to this world” factors in here. A diary chronicling that journey ends up in the next story.

The next is ‘Letters from Zedelghem,’ in 1931, in which Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a broke young English musician, takes a gig transcribing the work of a composer (Jim Broadbent, looking more friendly than I’d pictured him in the novel) living in Belgium. There’s a plotline with the composer’s wife, too, which is left mostly un-shown in the trailer. Seems like she’s also played by Berry. Letters from Frobisher to his perhaps-lover Rufus Sixsmith end up in the next story.


Then we bounce forward a half century to 1975, for ‘Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,’ in which, as the trailer shows, Halle Berry plays the title character. She’s a journalist investigating corruption at a nuclear power plant run by Hugh Grant. This is a pretty straightforward thriller story, but it does have some big elements that reverberate throughout the entire piece.

Her story is told as a novel manuscript which lands in the hands of Jim Broadbent’s title character in ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,’ which is the closest thing to a story set in our present day. (Halle Berry is in this one, too, which is the shot of her at the bar in the trailer, and Susan Sarandon shows up, too.) Cavendish is a vanity press publisher in trouble with the mob, who ends up stuck in a nursing home. This is almost a Twilight Zone sort of story — despite the wild fantasies of some of the other tales, this one might be the weirdest of the set. Cavendish’s story is told as a film within the novel, that is watched by a character in the next story.


Here’s the futuristic stuff: the corporate-controlled future South Korea of ‘An Orison of Sonmi~451.’ The title character here is a food service clone played by Bae Doona, who develops a bit more intelligence and emotional consciousness than she is meant to. That leads to problems in her totalitarian society, and as the action-oriented shots in the trailer show, this is the most obvious Wachowski aspect of the film.

Finally, the sixth story at the center of it all is ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,’ in which Zachry (Tom Hanks) lives in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where he encounters Meronym (Berry), a member of the last remnants of technologically-advanced civilization. They embark upon a journey that reveals some things about how all these stories and characters tie together.

That’s enough for now, I think — enough, I hope, to give everyone an idea of where a lot of the trailer’s big beats fit in without actually giving anything significant away.

Now we get to the question: does this look like it works? I really can’t tell.

There is a great visual replication of the book going on here, or so it seems. The movie is gorgeous. But as I’ve opined many times before, that doesn’t always make for a good movie. And in making some of the themes and connections more obvious, I’m afraid that the movie may be way too on the nose. That was always one of the big dangers here, and the trailer doesn’t convince me that Tykwer and the Wachowskis have totally sidestepped it. Is this just going to end up looking like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but with sci-fi and adventure leanings? There are genuinely wonderful moments in the trailer, and I still can’t wait to see how the film plays, but I’m not yet convinced that they’ve made it all truly work.

Cloud Atlas opens on October 26.

 

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