Cloud Atlas, Lana & Andy Wachowski Score Standing Ovation At Secret Fantastic Fest Debut

Wachowskis shoot 'Jupiter Ascending' in 3D

What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?” The affecting spirit of Cloud Atlas was palpable last night as Fantastic Fest unveiled its second Secret Screening — the ambitious sci-fi adaptation — with Lana and Andy Wachowski (“Formerly the Wachowski brothers, now Wachowski Starship,” quipped Andy) making a rare public appearance.

The Wachowskis, who wrote and directed the ensemble epic with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), are notoriously press shy. But Cloud Atlas, adapted from David Mitchell’s novel about humanity, interconnectivity, transformation and free will, is much more a personal mission statement than their last few Matrix hits and the typically daring Fantastic Fest crowd made for a perfect fit, anointing Cloud Atlas with an also-rare post-screening standing ovation.

Following an unprecedented structure, Cloud Atlas flits back and forth between six disparate stories of characters in different eras and lands, each story connected by a thread — a journal, a piece of music, a collection of handwritten letters, an oral history — the same actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy, Xun Yhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, and Susan Sarandon) playing multiple characters throughout.

In any given minute Cloud Atlas may jump from a mercantile ship circa 1849 to 1936 Europe, 1973 San Francisco, futuristic Neo Seoul, present-day England, or a remote village "106 winters after The Fall." Lana, speaking after the screening, described the story's structure akin to skipping stones — "only it's a narrative structure that skipped pieces." In today's world of self-inflicted multimedia ADD, as we divide our attentions between cell phones and texts and television and the constant din, however, doing a bit of brain-juggling to sort it all out should only be easier.

Still, the cumulative effect may prove disorienting to some viewers, particularly since some characters' motivation can get lost in the sprawl. (The original script ran 275 pages, according to Andy Wachowski: "The book is so rich that we had a lot of dead babies in the end.") But where Cloud Atlas soars is in its emotional richness and stirring sentimentality; it's a challenging film that asks a lot of its audience but wears its heart on its sleeve, swelling with genuine humanity and a deceptively simple provocation: Will you allow yourself to be changed by the love and kindness of another?

The Wachowskis and Tykwer add to Mitchell's text the use of multiple actors in multiple roles, often obscured via makeup and prosthetics, and frequently (controversially) transformed into other races and ethnicities. Hanks's alter egos as a British thug with a terrible accent and later (or rather, earlier) a ginger-haired, knob-nosed 19th century doctor test the limits of believability. But Sturgess, transformed via prosthetics as a 22nd century Korean freedom fighter, is actually quite wonderful; disappearing into the role beneath his "Asian" face, Sturgess does some of his finest work to date and "transforms" into a bona fide action star in the Neo Seoul segment's Matrix-esque action sequences.

The race issue is just the opposite in Cloud Atlas — whites plays Asian, Asians play latina, men play women (and when it's Hugo Weaving as a Nurse Ratched type, boy, whatta woman). And it's not just exterior boundaries that get toyed with; Cloud Atlas's movie stars play background parts in various segments, too. That Korean actress Doona Bae — a force to be reckoned with as the futuristic "fabricant" Sonmi-451, a clone with soul and a Joan of Arc haircut — steals so much of the film is an acting coup and a stroke of meta-storytelling genius.

Cloud Atlas also soars on its hauntingly evocative score by Twyker, who wrote the film's music and key themes before filming began. The Wachowskis' minds were blown by the process, and they described it as akin to discovering the world was not, in fact, flat. "We'll never go back," they said. "[Now] we're round-earthers."

Read more on Cloud Atlas, in theaters October 26.
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