'Matrix' siblings warp time in 'Cloud Atlas'

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OCTOBER 24, 2012

First catechism: Honor thy consumer.” Sonmi-451, a fast-food server at a glitzy, underground food court, utters the sacred phrase in Neo Seoul in the year 2144. It seems that directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski (sibling directors otherwise known as the Wachowski Starship) took this first catechism to heart in the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel “Cloud Atlas.” The film, with an ensemble cast, stands not only as a faithful adaptation of a beloved book but also an exemplary piece of movie magic. It is the kind of production that reminds us that the film medium — and particularly the book-to-movie genre — is not dead.

The film opens in 1849 on a ship bound for San Francisco. It is aboard this ship that a young lawyer befriends a slave stowaway.

Jump to Cambridge, England in the 1930s. This is the story of a young amanuensis, Robert Frobisher. We are also introduced to Rufus Sixsmith — a science student and Frobisher’s lover.

Cut to San Francisco in the disco days of 1973.  An investigative journalist meets old Rufus Sixsmith, now a physicist and nuclear whistleblower, by a lucky stroke of misfortune (an elevator stops working). Then it’s 2012 and a 65-year-old vanity press publisher is under threat — he had “a run-in with the wrong sort” — and ends up in the most unlikely of prisons: a nursing home.

More than 100 years into the dystopian future, we listen to Sonmi-451 talk about her escape from enslavement. Finally, we meet a tribesman plagued by the whispers of his personal demon on the “Big Isle 106 winters after the fall” — whatever that means.

If you’re not scratching your head about how these seemingly disparate stories are interconnected — or even related at all, save the obvious inclusion of Rufus Sixsmith in two stories — you probably should be. It’s a dizzying plot setup. Any one of the stories could surely be lengthened into its own feature film.

And yet this is the format that Mitchell wrote (and the filmmakers tweaked for the silver screen), and with good reason: There is an interconnectedness, a relativity between the tales that speaks to the interdependence of humanity itself.

At the heart of this humanity is Sonmi-451, a “human” who was, ironically, “genomed,” or artificially engineered.

“From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. And by each crime and every kindness, we build our future,” she articulates in her characteristic, tranquil speech. The film claims that the consequences of an individual life ripple throughout eternity; the movie is ostensibly a recording of these ripples. All of this universality is expressed in the most eloquent of cinematic tongues with the visuals as stunning as anything offered in the era of digital special effects. With “The Matrix” and “V for Vendetta” under their belts, the Wachowskis are particularly adept at crafting worlds. The prosthetics in the film are impressive — each actor plays multiple characters, and part of the fun is trying to spot a familiar face in an unfamiliar body. Tom Hanks, for instance, transitions between seedy ship surgeon to an early 20th-century hotel manager to a soul-patched gangster. Sometimes the faces are unrecognizable, changing ethnicities and ages with remarkable smoothness and believability.

One of Sonmi’s mentors says, “All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended.” Indeed, “Cloud Atlas” is a convention-defying film, uniting worlds and proving that time and space are arbitrary, flimsy things.

I don’t believe it is a fluke that a film whose central theme is eternal, transcendent love could leave me so at peace and, yes, thoroughly in love with it.

Contact Natalia Reyes at 


MARCH 11, 2013

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