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The Wachowskis’ ‘Cloud Atlas’ Wows Toronto International Film Festival

The ambitious, genre-hopping sci-fi epic from the Wachowskis premiered to an ecstatic 10-minute standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival. Chris Lee on one of the year’s biggest films.

09.09.12 12:55 PM ET

On Saturday night the Toronto International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Cloud Atlas, the genre-spanning sci-fi epic cum period-drama comedy-thriller reputed to be the most expensive independent film ever made.

But the screening also provided a kind of dual unveiling, ushering in the arrival of what is sure to become one of the year’s most important movies—an inescapable, immovable presence this awards season. And it gave a rare public forum to one of Hollywood’s most Wizard of Oz–like figures, codirector Lana Wachowski, who became a subject of fascination and conjecture after undergoing gender reassignment surgery in 2008 and giving up her birth name, Larry.

A writing-directing collaboration between German auteur Tom Tykwer (Perfume and Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings (responsible for the blockbuster Matrix trilogy), Cloud Atlas managed to live up to a great deal of its prescreening hype—no small feat considering how much chatter its trailer has been generating online for months—and within an hour of its debut, the movie was a trending on Twitter.

The film is a visual feast, a work of colossal ambition and massive scope that explodes boundaries even if it can, at times, try audience members’ patience with sensory overload. Chalk that up, in part, to Cloud Atlas’s whiplash crosscuttings between six intermingled plotlines and the deployment of nearly a dozen lead actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Keith David, Hugo Weaving, and South Korean newcomer Doona Bae among them) playing a bunch of different roles in a variety of outlandish prosthetic get-ups. Black people go white; Caucasians go Korean; Hanks wears a series of incredibly bad wigs. Adapted from David Mitchell’s bestselling 2004 novel, it all combines for a viscerally overwhelming experience, a grand meditation on human interconnectivity, that—love it or hate it—is quite unlike anything else in cinema.

Which made introductory remarks for the feature tricky. “We’ve never really introduced our films before, so we weren’t sure quite how to do it,” hulking, baldheaded codirector and co-writer Andy Wachowski said before the screening. “I said to go with ‘BEHOLD!’ But maybe my sister Lana has something better to say.”

On stage at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, Lana Wachowski looked like a petite punk-rock version of Raggedy Ann, hair done in pink dreadlocks and attired in a slate gray sleeveless dress.

For the notoriously reclusive directors—who inserted a “no press” clause in their Warner Bros. contract before the release of the first Matrix—it was a rare moment in the spotlight. And it was the first time Lana had appeared before assembled media since choosing to live as a woman.

“We tried to get this film produced for years and years,” Lana said. “It’s like a dream to be standing here ... It’s quite an experimental film in many ways. That’s why it was so hard to get funded.”

At issue, many people—including the author of the book, who is considered something like the modern James Joyce—thought Cloud Atlas to be unfilmable. It unfolds across a gigantic swath of time and space with chapters alternating the stories of a 19th-century American lawyer on a boat in the South Pacific, a Korean clone in the dystopian future, a bisexual classical-music composer in ‘30s Scotland, a tabloid journalist investigating a nuclear-power-plant scandal, and survivors living in a decimated version of Hawaii after a global apocalypse called “the Fall” has wiped out most life on the planet. Various leitmotifs, including a shooting-star shaped birthmark, crop up in all the stories, and the characters’ respective works—writing, music, movies, political philosophies—turn up across the centuries and around the globe in the least expected places.

The Wachowskis and Tykwer set to writing the screenplay in 2009 and spent years trying and failing to set up funding; after all, nothing like Cloud Atlas had ever been filmed, and Hollywood’s default setting is risk phobia. Outside investors were initially spooked by the movie’s “challenging” nature, and the studios were skittish about Cloud Atlas’s potential to become a costly flop à la Darren Aronofsky’s time- and genre-spanning The Fountain. But after landing a commitment from Hanks, the filmmakers secured a $100 million budget—a record for an independent production—even taking the unusual step of investing their own money.

To see the film is to understand Cloud Atlas as a true passion project realized. A revelatory recent profile of the Wachowskis in The New Yorker details how the siblings’ creative spark is deeply rooted in Lana’s preteen gender confusion. Ergo, their new film fairly shouts from the rooftops any number of inclusive, pro-social, deeply humanistic takeaways: how intolerance robs us of our humanity, how unjust social infrastructures exist to be shattered, how the human soul spans time’s continuum, how we are all connected as one.

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But far from being some bloodless, deadly serious exercise in sanctimony, the movie is constantly shifting between tones—dramatic, funny, and thrilling—and tackling any number of topical concerns, great and small, sublime and ridiculous. Cloud Atlas features hilarious scenes of senior-citizen anarchy, a thrilling hovercraft shootout, and gratuitous joint smoking while also shedding light on America’s slavery-abolition movement, the function of an amanuensis in classical music, machinations of corporate greed, and what tribal warfare may look like in the distant future.

And reaction to the film from an industry-heavy packed house was both ecstatic and curious. After Cloud Atlas’s final image had receded from the screen and the house lights were brought up, the audience at the Princess of Wales took to its feet for a 10-minute standing ovation. A heavy massing of the Creative Artists Agency’s most heavyweight agents could be seen beaming at the Wachowskis and Tykwer, and the movies stars—Hanks, Berry, et al.—turned in their seats to applaud the filmmakers.

But when the clapping stopped, almost everyone in the auditorium remained standing, transfixed by Lana in particular. They stood there, waiting for something to happen, instead of streaming for the exits as typically happens at the conclusion of even the most star-studded and glitzy premieres. The crowd waited for its cue from Lana, who began to receive well wishes from her cast. There was costar Jim Sturgess coming up to hug her, and there was Susan Sarandon giving the director a kiss on the cheek. For a few strange and unforgettable moments, Hollywood North stood awed by what it had just seen and unsure of what to do next.