*Cloud Atlas (R)
It opens in the same way that, most likely, the very first story told for entertainment began, 100,000 years ago, with an elderly wise person speaking to an audience gathered round a campfire. I didn't realize until Cloud Atlas was finished, an astonishingly quick three hours later, how thrilling an opening that is. For this is an über story. It's a story about story. It's a story about why we tell one another stories, what stories mean to us, and how they affect us.
It's bonkers how far across time and the planet this insanely grand matrix of interconnected tales ranges, from 1849 to the far future, from Cambridge to San Francisco to the middle of the widest ocean to locations unnamed. The interconnections all come via stories told in diaries and novels and letters and more passed down through time.
The tales are in themselves gripping because they are all about the Big Important Things: truth and legend, love and betrayal, freedom and slavery. A lawyer on a sea voyage bearing a vital contract home becomes ill at sea; a journalist uncovers corporate malfeasance and becomes a target; a wannabe composer working with a renowned mentor believes he can surpass his boss' genius; a once-content slave worker in a dystopic future awakens to her plight and rebels.
The composer in 1936 knows he's inexplicably gripped by the diary of the 1849 lawyer, and the 1973 journalist knows she's inexplicably gripped by the composer's letters. But only we see the chain of inspiration that continues across countless generations, how the seemingly mundane events of one life nudge great things in another.
A handful of actors play different characters across space and time. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, together again and reconnecting again over and over across human history, are a special treat to watch, with their unexpected charm and chemistry. But the whole cast is entirely enthralling, over and over again, sometimes changing race and gender: Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess in major roles; Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant and James D'Arcy in smaller but still vital ones. These are wonderful actors — and makeup artists — giving multifaceted, tour-de-force performances.
Cloud Atlas also ends up replicating the sort of experience we today have as we sit before our storytelling campfire of the television. It may sound contradictory, but watching this wholly winning and completely cohesive movie is like flipping around the TV and happening upon all the good bits from half a dozen different and hugely awesome movies with each change of channel.
Virtually every sort of story is here: sci-fi drama, post-apocalyptic action, codger comedy, twee British romance, historical mystery, '70s conspiracy thriller. And we're getting the highlights of funny, exciting, affecting examples of the various genres, the important scenes in which people learn fundamental truths and are rocked by them and choose to act on them, for better or worse.
Tom Tykwer and the sibling team of Lana and Andy Wachowski may have separately adapted (from David Mitchell's novel) and directed the temporally dispersed tales, but those distinct stories come together in a way that sneakily injects itself directly into our media-savvy minds. In some ways, too, then, Cloud Atlas is about how we tell ourselves stories, right at this precise moment of human history.