The Wachowskis relationship with Hollywood has been a somewhat complicated one since finishing The Matrix trilogy. Having wrote and produced the moderately successful V For Vendetta, they went on to make Speed Racer which failed to find an audience.
Never ones to shy away from a challenge their latest film is co-directed with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), and is an adaptation of the apparently unfilmable* Cloud Atlas, based on the book by David Mitchell**. Like films such as Babel, Magnolia and Crash it adopts a ‘network narrative’. That is, we follow six different sets of characters all around the world who at first seem completely unrelated.
Unlike those films, however, the characters are based in entirely different locations in entirely different time periods (past, present and future). In that way, it’s a little like The Fountain.
Also similar to The Fountain is the fact that the same actors play different characters in each narrative. So Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and others are depicted in varying levels of prosthetics depending on the time period they find themselves in.
Each of the stories almost occupies a different genre, whether that be a mystery thriller; comedy; sci-fi; or post-apocalyptic Shakespearian romance. What ties them together are the themes of morality, duplicity and the impact an individual can have, even beyond their lifetime.
Despite its philosophical leanings, and in direct contrast to films interested in similar questions like The Fountain and Tree of Life, it is a surprisingly easy film to watch. With a run-in clocking in at almost three hours, this is no mean feat. Like in The Matrix, the Wachowskis show themselves to be experts at fusing frenetic action with musings on the fundamental questions of our existence.
The comparison with The Matrix is especially apt when one realizes that each of the six protagonists are searching for some truth in order to escape the reality they have been fed by those around them.
This is not the only comparison to be made between the stories. One can also consider the differences in personalities between each character a particular actor portrays; the nature of history and whether humanity is progressing, regressing or simply changing; and of course whether there is something bigger guiding us and connecting us.
The many questions that the films begs are its greatest strength and also its greatest weakness. Since, once it ends, it is not clear what we have just witnessed. Is it something profound and important; or merely something that is different for the sake of being so?
This is perhaps why critics are so divided over the piece, it is not a film for which clarity was ever a goal. It is a messy, muddled piece of art which forces the viewer to ponder and work through what they have just witnessed. What could be better?
*I hate the term unfilmable. If you can imagine it, you can film it.
**The author, not the star of Peep Show.