I arrived in Toronto on Monday, five days into the festival, and with this festival that’s so late it can feel like showing up for Thanksgiving dinner around the time dessert is being served. Most of the major, high-profile movies had already been consumed and buzzed about (not to say that some smaller, unheralded gems weren’t waiting to be discovered), and this meant that I’d probably read or heard a thing or two about them, which isn’t the way I like to roll here, but whatever. I bring all this up only because I’d taken in bits and pieces of the divided reactions to Cloud Atlas, the new film by Andy and Lana Wachowski (they co-directed it with Tom Tykwer, the one-hit art-house wonder who made Run Lola Run). And I can honestly say that virtually everything I heard about the movie made me think that I wouldn’t like it at all. A time-tripping multiple-storyline phantasmagorical science-fiction hodgepodge. (It sounded like homework.) Actors like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry playing half a dozen characters apiece. (It sounded like a labored stunt.) Tell-tale comparisons to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. (Sorry, but that’s not the comparison you want to hear.) Nearly three hours long. All derived from a novel that even the filmmakers considered nearly unadaptable. It sounded like a pile-up of pretension, a hyper-mystical jumble – and, frankly, coming from the Wachowskis, it sounded like the worst “cosmic” aspects of the two Matrix sequels compounded and inflated.
So the first thing I want to say about Cloud Atlas is that it’s a nimbly entertaining and light-on-its-feet movie. Adapting the 2004 novel by British author David Mitchell, the Wachowskis tell half a dozen stories at once, but that doesn’t mean the film is a mish-mash. It’s more like a gonzo mini-series made with a sophisticated channel-zapper consciousness – an invitation to go wherever the Wachowskis want to take you, with the trust that they know just what they’re doing. Each of the stories writes its own rules and unfolds in its own madly detailed and organic world. And as the movie goes on, the worlds fuse across time. Cloud Atlas isn’t a chaos; it’s more like the history of movies crammed into a single, emotionally transporting parable of freedom and authoritarian control.
Different elements draw us into the different tales. A post-apocalyptic episode, in which Hanks, as a primitive forest dweller dotted with Maori-style tattoos, reluctantly agrees to be the guide for a searcher (Berry) who looks like she stepped out of Star Trek, draws you in through its odd, slangy language – you learn to decipher it, as you do when you read the novel of A Clockwork Orange – while a fascist-future parable, set in a darkened Blade Runner version of Seoul, is a mesmerizingly ominous vision of a synthetic digitized existence. The way that the tales link up across the centuries isn’t labored or obvious – it’s more like a stone skipping across the water, from one videogame level to the next. Thus, the heroine of the Seoul segment is a fast-food wage slave, played by the outwardly stoic, inwardly perky Doona Bae, who’s living the life of an automaton until she’s spurred to rebel and escape by watching a fragment from an old Hollywood movie, which features Hanks in the heroic role of a beleaguered book publisher, who is played for real in another segment by Jim Broadbent as a desperate British twit who gets locked up in an old age home. He wants to rebel and escape too, and that’s the reigning arc of the film: Everyone is fighting the power, but in each case, it’s something you can’t see. The movie’s Big Idea – and its inspired fusion of form and content – is to wake us up to how all of us are linked through time, through history, self-destiny, and the grand karma of being human.
The multiple-role casting, and the bravura makeup that makes it possible (it includes not just flipped genders but switched racial roles), is so clever and imaginative that it’s more than a gimmick – it’s closer to a burlesque of identity. Casting Hugh Grant as an early-’70s U.S. energy-company stooge in a wide tie is fun…but Grant, in the post-apocalyptic story, as a bloodthirsty “native” in savage skeletal war paint? Now that’s casting against type. That ’70s segment is the place where Tykwer (who directed it) and the Wachowskis come closest to putting forth a timely and specific – and far from conventionally liberal – environmental conspiracy theory: namely, that the possibilities for nuclear power, and therefore for an energy-independent America, were killed off not by the anti-nuke movement but by the oil companies. This segment, too, teams Berry (as an investigative reporter) and Hanks (as a nerdish nuclear scientist) in a romantic connection that reverberates throughout the movie.
Cloud Atlas is an original vision, but in a funny way it’s also a wildly overstuffed smorgasbord that seems to be wearing the entire history of Hollywood genre movies on its sleeve. You’ll catch echoes of a hundred previous pieces of pop culture, from Total Recall to Roots to Soylent Green. I wouldn’t say that Cloud Atlas is profound – it’s more like a pulpy middlebrow head trip – but the hook of this movie is that Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer so clearly meant everything that they put in it. I predict that for a very big audience, it will prove to be one of the must-see movies of the year.
* * * *
Going into Brian De Palma’s Passion (surely it should have been called Brian De Palma’s Passion – or maybe Brian De Palma’s Hot and Bothered Tracking Shot), I knew nothing about the movie apart from the fact that it starred Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. These days, that’s quite an A-list cast for De Palma, so I was intrigued by the prospect of his having made a marquee-name version of one of his voluptuously heightened and even more voluptuously ludicrous operatic killer-thrillers-with-lipstick-lesbian-overtones. But the presence of these two famous and gifted actresses seems to have rooted De Palma. At least, for a while.
Passion, a remake of a French thriller by director Alain Corneau that came out just two years ago, starts off as a reasonably contained and earthbound satire of office politics. McAdams, as an executive at a media-technology company, employs her brightly sexy billboard smile and crisp, emphatic delivery to do an expert take-off on the kind of fake controlled corporate manner that turns the most casual command into a hidden power play. She nails a certain type of troublemaker of a boss who embeds her aggression in a pert, borderline mocking “sincerity.” And Rapace, as her protégé and sort-of friend, who seems like the tremulous, servile one but may, in certain ways, be even more of a competitive head case, keeps you guessing in every scene. When McAdams steals the credit for her subordinate’s innovative ad-campaign concept, that’s the first tip-off that their bond will end in treachery, and the second one is the fact that the mousy-on-the-surface Rapace is having an affair with McAdams’ boyfriend.
The third tip-off is that De Palma, after keeping his infantile gliding-camera “Hitchcockian” impulses under submission for close to an hour, suddenly gives into them like a recovering alcoholic reaching for a shot of Wild Turkey. Why, for five minutes, are we watching a split-screen sequence in which one-half of the sceen is devoted to McAdams wandering through her house, followed by a camera that looks less Hitchcockian than Halloween-ian, and the other half of the screen depicts the ballet performamance of The Afternoon of a Faun that Rapace is attending? The ostensible reason is that the ballet will prove to be Rapace’s alibi.
But the real reason is that De Palma desperately wanted to split the screen and choreograph an entire sequence to Debussy’s music for The Afternoon of a Faun (which sounds like Bernard Herrmann on uppers and downers at the same time). Passion turns into vintage De Palma – which is to say, it makes very little sense and is almost logistical in its absurdity. By the end, I realized that I no longer had any idea of what the movie’s title referred to. Is is true love? Bloodlust? Corporate backstabbing? The lesbian overtones? (Yes, they’re there.) Or is it De Palma’s own passion for turning whatever he touches into one more attraction in the Brian De Palma formalist funhouse? One thing’s for sure: The passion of the audience is bound to be a distant shadow of the film’s passion for itself.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman