The big release of this week (albeit on rather fewer screens than you might expect) is also one of the most ambitious of the year -- The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's "Cloud Atlas." An adaptation of a novel by David Mitchell that some had deemed unfilmable, it's a near-three-hour tale that interlinks multiple narratives from the 1800s to the end of time, with its starry cast taking on multiple roles, often buried behind make-up that lets them change gender and even race.
At its center, though, the Wachowskis are tapping into an increasingly popular cinematic theme; the idea of connections and links between people separated by time and space, making the universe a giant web of parallels. Some films have been more literal with this theme -- the thread of coincidence in "Magnolia" or the domino effect of the narrative in something like "Traffic" or "Crash." But ahead of the release of a film which, love it or hate it, is one of the boldest pieces of cinema of 2012, we've picked out five (or technically six) films that are more in the spirit of the metaphysical mayhem of "Cloud Atlas." Movies that started to appear in the run up to, and aftermath of, the year 2000, presumably reflecting millennial anxieties and, increasingly, the age of the Internet where we're all connected by only a few mouse clicks. Read on below for more, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
As a filmmaker whose work is often led by theme first, and as the man behind "The Dekalog" and the "Three Colors" trilogy, it's not surprising that the fatefully interconnected nature of human lives was a strong current running through the movies made from Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. This fascination came to the fore in a pair of films (both starring Irene Jacob -- though curiously, Andie MacDowell was the director's first choice for “Red”) reflecting on the subconscious links, parallels and connections, missed or otherwise, that unite us all, wherever in the world we are (chance encounters always playing a big part thematically as well). The first picture, "The Double Life of Veronique," details a pair of doppelgangers: young Polish singer Veronika and Parisian schoolteacher Veronique (both Jacob), whose interlapping (but not simultaneous) storylines share all kinds of DNA, from recurring musical motifs to their love lives. The second film, “Red,” the last part of Kieslowski’s trilogy (and his final film) dealing with the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity -- focusing on the latter -- again tracks unseen and barely known links with the model Valentine (Jacob), whose life is, unbeknownst to her, delicately interwoven with retired judged Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant, seen this year again in "Amour"), and at the conclusion, also with the characters from "Three Colors: White" and "Three Colors: Blue." Kieslowski's poetic visuals and profound composition (watch the way that the separation of characters reflects the just-missed connections of "Red") find their finest outlet in a pair of deeply moving, melancholic and spiritual pictures that somehow never feel like its interlinks come from New Age mysticism or something a stoned philosophy grad might spout. In fact, they are deep, soulful meditations on the enigmatic nature of the universe and the solidarity of the human spirit, and the pair might be his two finest films altogether.
A direct forerunner to "Cloud Atlas," both thematically and structurally, Darren Aronofsky's cult favorite is perhaps more intimate in scale, and yet manages to be just as ambitious in its on-the-surface themes of reincarnation, love and mortality, with its cross-cutting structure in retrospect looking like a direct influence on the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. Originally intended as a much bigger-budget project with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, scrapped and re-envisioned on a smaller scale after Pitt pulled out at the last minute and re-mounted almost half-a-decade later, the film tells three stories, each starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. The first is in 1500 AD, where a conquistador journeys to Central America to search for the Tree of Life for Queen Isabella of Spain, who will marry him when he returns. The second sees Jackman as a present-day neuroscientist battling to find a cure for his wife's brain tumor. And the last sees him in the far future, as the lone inhabitant of a spaceship accompanying the dying Tree of Life on a mission to the distant nebula of Xibalba. Ultimately, it's really one story, of a man fighting against and eventually coming to accept the death of the person he loves. And its rare sincerity and willingness to deal with grand, universal themes saw it attacked by critics at the time (its stature has grown a fair bit in the past six years). The budgetary shortfalls sometimes show, but for the most part Aronofsky comes up with some stunning visuals, as well as drawing a career-best turn from Jackman, and a fine one from his then-partner Weisz. It might not be an unqualified success, but by striving to tickle not just the brain and the heart, but the soul too, the director again demonstrated himself to be a filmmaker of rare ambition.