TORONTO — There are many things to love about this city’s international film festival. One thing you miss, though, compared to a festival like Cannes, is the jeering. You miss that moment, as the closing credits begin, where people start to whistle and boo and hoot. It says that a movie has achieved a singular sort of wretchedness, of embarrassment, of failure. It says, “God, you’re awful, but magnificently, grandly awful.”
If “Cloud Atlas” had premiered at Cannes, it would have been booed. As it was, when the house lights came up on Saturday night after nearly three hours and the names of the directors — Lana and Andy Wachowski, who made the “Matrix” movies, and Tom Tykwer, the innovative German still most famous for “Run Lola Run” — popped onto the screen, there was a kind of applause vacuum. In a packed 600-seat house, three people clapped. And you got the sense that they clapped to keep from crying. Headed out of the theater no one really knew what to do or to say — well, a friend of mine said to someone else that he was glad he read the book, David Mitchell’s immense saga of past lives and cosmic connections. He, at least, knew what to make of it.
But people who read books that become movies often assume people who haven’t read the book will be lost. In the case of “Cloud Atlas” the book was movie enough for me. Not enough for the Wachowskis and Tykwer, though. They’ve made a great big science-fiction epic about who we are, were, and will be. It’s heavy with big ideas, big production design, and big makeup. The cast features Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturges, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and Susan Sarandon, all of whom play multiple roles, between genders and across races. When Berry walks into a room as a Jewess named Jocasta, with her skin lightened, her nose flattened, her eyes a glassy blue, and her hair marcelled and golden, I didn’t know whether to gasp or laugh, so I did both and produced a very ugly sound.
The movie dances across time and space — a ship at sea in 1879, England in the early 1900s, San Francisco in 1973, London 2012, Korea in 2144, some jungled place called Big Isle “106 winters after the fall.” A composer writes a sextet. A book publisher tries to get out of debt. A journalist attempts to blow the lid off a big-energy coverup. A waitress undergoes a long interrogation. Hanks and Berry, covered in tribal tattoos and nodes, speak pidgin to each other. Something connects it all, something Larger Than Ourselves, something very “Star Trek.”
There is talk of corporatism and a god named San Mi and the shamanist anthropologist Carlos Castaneda (there’s also elaborate physical comedy and more elaborate, characteristically Wachowski, action sequences). On the one hand, it’s ear-splitting mumbo jumbo. On the other, it’s utterly sincere. That genuineness is what saves “Cloud Atlas.” It’s what turns a fiasco into something close to transcendent. This is the first film the Wachowskis have made since Larry Wachowski became Lana, and the movie’s themes of breaking free from prisons and slavery achieve a kind of force. You don’t need to know about Lana’s transsexuality to find those symbols compelling, but it helps.
“Cloud Atlas” rethinks what Mitchell’s ambiguous ideas of reincarnation or alternate lives might mean for a movie’s fraught racial past and present. Having Sturges and Weaving play Koreans evokes one absurd history, but having Berry play a whitish Jew or Doona Bae, who’s Korean, play a Mexican and a Southern belle, or Hanks be Scottish or having the future placed in the hands of a space crew that also looks like an Earth Wind & Fire cover band — all this is unprecedented in a Hollywood movie, one that cares more for rhythm and spirituality than action and plot, one that has commercial trappings but is powerfully noncommercial, one that sees race as so unfixed that, in switching races, the makeup department winds up inventing new ones.
Some people come here looking to fill out an Oscar scorecard. A movie like “Cloud Atlas” mocks that sport. Lots of movies do that this year. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is overtly great in all the ways that “Cloud Atlas” is an epic jumble. There will be more to say when it opens in a couple of weeks, but it’s a movie that feels as blasphemous to shoehorn into an Oscar race as the movie Tykwer and the Wachowskis have concocted.
That obsession with what the Academy might do in five months also obscures strong nonfiction filmmaking — like the “Central Park Five,” a devastating reexamination, by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah, and her husband, David McMahon, of the five men of color wrongly imprisoned for the rape of the so-called Central Park jogger. The Oscar filter is a lazy lens through which to admire the strange, human comedy and superb ensemble acting of David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook”: What will the academy do? To industry watchers, it matters, I suppose. But it corrupts the civilian moviegoing experience by fostering a meaningless standard of quality. That lens leaves little to say about “Cloud Atlas.”
Warner Bros., the movie’s distributor, wouldn’t object to the attention. But, despite the participation of so many Oscar winners, this isn’t a movie made for movie-industry prestige. It’s too personal, too esoteric, too shameless to seek awards. Yet it’s willing to risk jeers even though it’s jeer-proof. This is a movie that breaks through to the other side of its badness. You watch all its nonsense and ponderousness and you know that this is the mess its makers wanted: a testament to hope and progress and the idea that everybody eventually comes back as everybody else. Hating any of that would be like sending an angel to the electric chair.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@wesley_morris.