By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 26, 2012 at 4:28PM
While "Cloud Atlas" is meeting mixed response, the three-hour epic was a delirious joyride for me. Truth is, except for the flat "V for Vendetta" and the final pixel-struck "Matrix" movie, I've admired all of the Wachowskis' output, even "Speed Racer." These filmmakers have it all: strong writing chops, an instinct for entertaining audiences, and compelling visual style. They know how to create characters you care about, to fashion an engrossing narrative that carries you along, and to make your eyes pop with stunning cinematography. What they saw in David Mitchell's novel "Cloud Atlas" was an opportunity to weave six seemingly disparate but related stories in vastly different time zones into a sumptuous cinematic feast.
Not surprisingly, the three pieces they directed are the most ambitious, with the biggest budgets--the future-set framing story, an action adventure tale with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, the stunning futuristic romance starring an Asian Jim Sturgess and Bae Doona, and the period naval odyssey are the strongest of the six--but I also liked the two Jim Broadbent pieces that their collaborator Tom Tykwer ("Run, Lola, Run") directed with humor and emotion. Broadbent should grab an Oscar nom for his comedic tour-de-force performance as nursing home escape artist Timothy Cavendish. The weakest link was the one set in the 70s starring Berry as an investigative journalist. The trio insist in our interview below that all three mind-melded throughout the long process of designing and structuring the film, running back and forth from each other's sets, and in the editing room. They had to wing it and throw out the sprawling shooting schedule when Berry busted her ankle during production. Twykwer took charge of the music.
Together, they do their job. Each story catches you up; you know exactly where you are as they unfold; and you root for the characters. While some critics have described this as a meandering 164-minute mess that does disservice to the novel, I was crystal clear on what was happening throughout, without having read the whole book (I gave up early on). And the way the actors don outrageous multiple roles--and ethnicities and sexes-- keeps things fun. Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant relish their villains.
The way the filmmakers cut between episodes, using visual and emotional cues, is exhilarating. I can't wait to see this again. This is a movie worth arguing about. And as expensive as it may be--the $100-million film was independently financed overseas with a $25 million infusion from Warner Bros. for North American rights--this movie could prove internationally commercial. ("Argo" may beat it this weekend.) Audiences tired of the same old same old will eagerly scarf up this embarrassment of riches. Would it have been better served as a sprawling HBO mini-series? Perhaps. Will the Wachowskis--accustomed to having as much studio money as they need to make their movies-- make back the gap financing that they used from mortgaging their homes? ("Help us," Lana Wachowski pleaded to more than one reporter at the junket.) Maybe not. But I want moviegoers to send Hollywood a loud message that they want to sample the unexpected.
If this movie bombs, the studios will only run away from taking such risks again.
As I sat down to interview Tykwer and Andy and red-wigged Lana (born Larry) Wachowski, Lana asked me if I intended to send her a message by wearing a seahorse pin. (She talks about her gender journey here.)
LW: With seahorses, the men carry babies and they actually switch genders.
AT: I had no idea, this I did not know… [Laughter] Did you consciously want to look like the heroine from Tom's "Run Lola Run"?
LW: I was under his spell, he hypnotized me. He's a Svengali.
AT: So is "Run Lola Run" the movie you saw that made you fall in love with that he did?
LW: It was one of those films, we've had a few times in our lives that we see the movie and we walk out the theater and we go buy a ticket and we go back in.
TT: And it came out in America actually in the same month as the first "Matrix," so we were kind of encountering our work at the same time. I had seen "Bound" so I was ahead of them… We started to send each other little love notes after we had seen each other's works, because, I mean there was a slightly inherent connection between the film. We only discovered this later, but there is obviously, you can see our sense and our interest in the mechanics of filmmaking, the whole way - the process of film, how it's being made. Being very very popular, at the same time touching philosophical and complex issues and bringing them together in a fun, joyful moment. And bringing that to the limit - how far can you go? Can you be as experimental and exciting at the same time? I have never met anyone who felt as similar as they do about it.
AT: Well, you were always pushing the boundaries inside the studio system in a real way-- sometimes you got away with it, sometimes you had extraordinary success with it, sometimes you didn't. And so, I think it makes perfect sense that this would be your first European film.
LW: "Bound" is kind of a European film.
AT: Yes, very much so.
LW: It was financed by Dino [De Laurentiis], who was in foreign sales. He sort of invented it in a way. [Tom's] sensibilities--when we had our first big date, we couldn't talk fast enough, about all the things you love, just to see. You could bring out all these marbles - 'do you love this one? do you love this one?' When we were describing or trying to share and compare things that had affected us, it was always a huge spectrum of American mainstream cinema and art house, European stuff. We would go into double features where you could see "The King of Hearts" and "Conan the Barbarian" in the same day, and that was great. The way you throw your arms around the breadth of cinema -- that was something where we were almost hugging each other.
TT: I don't think it's really fair to say it's more European or American, or even Asian, because I think there is Asian philosophy and Asian elements.
AT: Maybe it's global.