Cloud Atlas

Beyond The Matrix

The Wachowskis travel to even more mind-bending realms.

In the spring of 2005, Lana and Andy Wachowski were at Babelsberg running the second unit for the director James McTeigue’s “V for Vendetta,” which they also wrote and co-produced. Between scenes, Lana noticed that Natalie Portman, the star, was engrossed in a copy of “Cloud Atlas.” Portman raved about the book, so Lana began reading it, too. She and Andy, who is two and a half years younger, have retained a childhood habit of sharing books, and soon both of them were obsessively parsing the novel and calling friends to insist that they read it. David Mitchell’s 2004 best-selling novel is not a simple read, with its interlocking stories and a multitude of characters, distributed across centuries and continents.

Each story line has a different central character: Adam Ewing, a young American who sails home after a visit to an island in the South Pacific, in the mid-nineteenth century; Robert Frobisher, a feckless but talented Englishman, who becomes the amanuensis to a genius composer in Flanders, in the nineteen-thirties; Luisa Rey, a gossip-rag journalist who rakes the muck of the energy industry in nineteen-seventies California; Timothy Cavendish, a vanity-press publisher who finds himself held captive in a nursing home in present-day England; Sonmi~451, a genetically modified clone who gains her humanity in a futuristic Korea, ravaged by consumerism; and Zachry, a Pacific Islander who struggles to survive in the even more distant future, after “the Fall,” which seems to have endangered the planet and eradicated much of humankind.

These characters are connected by an intricate network of leitmotifs—a comet–shaped birthmark crops up frequently, for instance—and by their ability to somehow escape the fate that has been prepared for them. The book’s dizzying plot twists are infused with lush linguistic imagination. For the Zachry sections, Mitchell constructed post-apocalyptic mutations of the English language, which effectively force readers to translate as they go. The Wachowskis found themselves instantly, and profoundly, attracted to the idea of adapting the book for the screen. They were drawn to the scale of its ideas, to its lack of cynicism, and to the dramatic possibilities inherent in the book’s recurring moments of hope.

 

In the Wachowskis’ work, the forces of evil are often overwhelmingly powerful, inflicting misery on humans, who maintain their faith until they’re saved by an unexpected miracle.


The story of “Cloud Atlas” fits this narrative trajectory pretty well.

 

Kemo D. 7

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