Being human in Cloud Atlas
TORONTO—Cloud Atlas is a film unlike any other, and it will go down in history as a tremendous Hollywood risk that either paid off considerably or didn’t. As the story goes, the Wachowskis (Andy and his transgender sister, Lana, known as Larry during the Matrix era) and Tom Tykwer, of Run Lola Run fame, discovered the David Mitchell novel around the time the siblings were making V for Vendetta.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer embarked on an epic quest to film the novel, which was considered by most to be unfilmable, because they believed the story had something unique and essential to say about fate, free will, and the meaning of human lives.
In adapting the novel for the screen, the trio needed to invent, or reinvent, some cinematic conventions (this is par for the course for the Wachowskis, who famously invented new ways of capturing action sequences for The Matrix). As well as an encyclopedia of visual tricks, they found a way to tell the six intertwining stories that make up Cloud Atlas’s narrative, which ranges from the mid-19th century on a galleon in the South Pacific to the far future in a teeming technopolis called neo-Seoul.
Namely, all of the actors play multiple parts in order to express (one imagines) the journey of a soul over several lifetimes. In other words, any actor’s dream—a repertory-theatre effect that cast member Hugo Weaving described as unseen in any film before Cloud Atlas “except for maybe Peter Sellers playing three or so characters in Dr. Strangelove”.
Suffice it to say that Cloud Atlas (opening Friday [October 26]) is bankable only because of its stars—Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, among others—and the multiple roles they play. It’s quite a spectacle, too. For one story line, in the far future, Hanks and Berry speak in an entirely made up language (shades of Avatar).
In addition to the A-listers whose presence got the movie made, several other actors give charismatic performances that shouldn’t be overlooked—among them the Chinese actor-singer Xun Zhou, in her Hollywood debut, and Weaving, the Australian actor best known as the elf king Elrond in The Lord of the Rings series and as a Wachowski regular who appeared in The Matrix series (Agent Smith) and V for Vendetta.
One of Weaving’s characters is even imaginary: Old Georgie, an embodiment of fear in a Dickensian top hat who tries to force Tom Hanks to do very bad things in the far future.
“I kinda like the idea of playing an emotion—fear—rather than an embodied person,” Weaving said when the Georgia Straight caught up with him and costar Zhou at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. “I thought that character was probably the most interesting. When we’re afraid of something, we may not describe it visually; it’s more of a feeling that happens to us.”
There’s a lot in Cloud Atlas that only makes sense if you squint a little. The film is meant to describe how humans as a race are moving slowly, over generations, to a more just and fearless way of living. It’s a complicated idea that created special challenges for the actors charged with portraying these somewhat abstract ideas.
One of the characters Zhou plays is Yoona-939, a genetically modified, part-human clone whose act of rebellion (one tiny spoiler: it’s sex with Hugh Grant) is the kickoff to a chain of events that eventually leads to humanity’s salvation.
For Zhou, it was important that her character experience a moment of awakening that triggers an insight into her imprisonment—and, in the awareness, a first step toward freedom.
“She was asleep, and now, because of this human act, she is awake and she no longer wants to be ignorant to what is happening to her and around her,” Zhou said. “Something in her mind clicks, and she can liberate herself.”
Both actors consider Cloud Atlas to be a film that discusses universal themes in original ways; they acknowledge that the Wachowskis and Tykwer are trying to say something of crucial importance to humankind.
“I think films have a limited ability to change the world, but that doesn’t mean you don’t stop trying,” Weaving said. “You do what’s right for you, make the films you believe in, talk about the issues you believe in….The bigger the risk, the more chance you’re going to be crucified…but you have to execute your beliefs in any way you can.”
“In the end, [Cloud Atlas] has something to say about love and hope and believing in something,” Zhou added. “It wants to tell us that individual choices can come to mean something universal.”