The big release of this week (albeit on rather fewer screens than you might expect) is also one of the most ambitious of the year — The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's "Cloud Atlas." An adaptation of a novel by David Mitchell that some had deemed unfilmable, it's a near-three-hour tale that interlinks multiple narratives from the 1800s to the end of time, with its starry cast taking on multiple roles, often buried behind make-up that lets them change gender and even race.
At its center, though, the Wachowskis are tapping into an increasingly popular cinematic theme; the idea of connections and links between people separated by time and space, making the universe a giant web of parallels. Some films have been more literal with this theme — the thread of coincidence in "Magnolia" or the domino effect of the narrative in something like "Traffic" or "Crash." But ahead of the release of a film which, love it or hate it, is one of the boldest pieces of cinema of 2012, we've picked out five (or technically six) films that are more in the spirit of the metaphysical mayhem of "Cloud Atlas." Movies that started to appear in the run up to, and aftermath of, the year 2000, presumably reflecting millennial anxieties and, increasingly, the age of the Internet where we're all connected by only a few mouse clicks. Read on below for more, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
"The Double Life of Veronique" (1991) & "Three Colors: Red" (1994)
As a filmmaker whose work is often led by theme first, and as the man behind "The Dekalog" and the "Three Colors" trilogy, it's not surprising that the fatefully interconnected nature of human lives was a strong current running through the movies made from Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. This fascination came to the fore in a pair of films (both starring Irene Jacob — though curiously, Andie MacDowell was the director's first choice for “Red”) reflecting on the subconscious links, parallels and connections, missed or otherwise, that unite us all, wherever in the world we are (chance encounters always playing a big part thematically as well). The first picture, "The Double Life of Veronique," details a pair of doppelgangers: young Polish singer Veronika and Parisian schoolteacher Veronique (both Jacob), whose interlapping (but not simultaneous) storylines share all kinds of DNA, from recurring musical motifs to their love lives. The second film, “Red,” the last part of Kieslowski’s trilogy (and his final film) dealing with the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity — focusing on the latter — again tracks unseen and barely known links with the model Valentine (Jacob), whose life is, unbeknownst to her, delicately interwoven with retired judged Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant, seen this year again in "Amour"), and at the conclusion, also with the characters from "Three Colors: White" and "Three Colors: Blue." Kieslowski's poetic visuals and profound composition (watch the way that the separation of characters reflects the just-missed connections of "Red") find their finest outlet in a pair of deeply moving, melancholic and spiritual pictures that somehow never feel like its interlinks come from New Age mysticism or something a stoned philosophy grad might spout. In fact, they are deep, soulful meditations on the enigmatic nature of the universe and the solidarity of the human spirit, and the pair might be his two finest films altogether.
"The Fountain" (2006)
A direct forerunner to "Cloud Atlas," both thematically and structurally, Darren Aronofsky's cult favorite is perhaps more intimate in scale, and yet manages to be just as ambitious in its on-the-surface themes of reincarnation, love and mortality, with its cross-cutting structure in retrospect looking like a direct influence on the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. Originally intended as a much bigger-budget project with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, scrapped and re-envisioned on a smaller scale after Pitt pulled out at the last minute and re-mounted almost half-a-decade later, the film tells three stories, each starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. The first is in 1500 AD, where a conquistador journeys to Central America to search for the Tree of Life for Queen Isabella of Spain, who will marry him when he returns. The second sees Jackman as a present-day neuroscientist battling to find a cure for his wife's brain tumor. And the last sees him in the far future, as the lone inhabitant of a spaceship accompanying the dying Tree of Life on a mission to the distant nebula of Xibalba. Ultimately, it's really one story, of a man fighting against and eventually coming to accept the death of the person he loves. And its rare sincerity and willingness to deal with grand, universal themes saw it attacked by critics at the time (its stature has grown a fair bit in the past six years). The budgetary shortfalls sometimes show, but for the most part Aronofsky comes up with some stunning visuals, as well as drawing a career-best turn from Jackman, and a fine one from his then-partner Weisz. It might not be an unqualified success, but by striving to tickle not just the brain and the heart, but the soul too, the director again demonstrated himself to be a filmmaker of rare ambition.
"The Nines" (2007)
A latecomer to the post-"Matrix"/"Donnie Darko" is-the-world-real sub-genre that sprung up around the turn of millennium, "The Nines" is about as ambitious a directorial debut as you could ask for without busting a budget. But in the hands of veteran screenwriter John August ("Go," "Big Fish"), stepping behind the camera for the first time, it's a film that, while rough around the edges and sometimes infuriating, is a pretty nifty little mindbender, and one that anticipates "Cloud Atlas" in its use of multiple roles and parallel worlds. As with "The Fountain," three storylines are followed, sharing a cast. In the first ("The Prisoner"), a burnout actor (Ryan Reynolds) under house arrest finds himself endlessly coming across the number 9. In the next ("Reality Television"), Reynolds plays a TV writer trying to cast his friend (Melissa McCarthy, as herself) in his new show, who may or may not be in a reality TV programme. And in the third ("Knowing"), Reynolds is a video game designer told by a mysterious woman (Hope Davis) that he's a god-like being with the power to undo the universe. Told sequentially rather than intercut, it nevertheless enables the cast (which also includes Octavia Spencer and Elle Fanning; August certainly has a keen eye for casting) to stretch themselves. And though the storytelling can lean towards frustratingly vague rather than intriguingly cryptic in places, it certainly brings a fresh take to material that had seemingly been done to death thanks to a loose, playful approach and the non-alienating and authentic inside baseball elements. It's like a version of "Southland Tales" that isn't a trainwreck.
“Mr. Nobody” (2009)
A warning: “Mr. Nobody” is not a good movie. At all. But in terms of films ambitiously swinging for centuries spanning connectivity, Jaco Van Dormael’s effort is certainly one of the few at least taking a shot. Jared Leto stars at the titular Mr. Nobody, aka Nemo, a 120-year-old man who wakes up in 2092 to find out he’s the last mortal person on Earth, where death no longer occurs. A nosy reporter breaks into his hospital room where he is being confined, and thus the film begins as Nemo — whose memory is fading — tries his best to recount his life. What emerges are three different timelines as “Mr. Nobody” takes us through the different lives he might have lived, depending on which female classmate he would have taken up with as a child. Mixing string theory (the film features a staggering four monologues about this), some cornball stuff about angels and a concept that Dormael never gets a handle on, the result is a bit of a muddled mess of ideas. It certainly doesn’t help that the women in the film are one-dimensional and each seemingly saddled with some particular baggage that either makes them unlikeable or unengaging. Also, if you can’t stand Jared Leto, this pretentious film won’t help. But for those taken with the butterfly effect musings of “Cloud Atlas,” “Mr. Nobody” might make an interesting follow-up at home, as some of similar thematic terrain is definitely broached. But don’t say we didn’t warn you.
"Wings of Desire" (1987)
The idea of interconnected lives across time and space, as we said, seems to be a more modern one; you don't really find anything from the first half-century of cinema dealing with similar subject matter. Wim Wenders' magic-realist masterpiece "Wings of Desire" isn't quite in the same wheelhouse as "Cloud Atlas" or its other forebearers, but you can certainly see the 1987 film as an early seed from which others grew. Set in a Fritz Lang-ish contemporary West Berlin (just before, unbeknownst to anyone, it was all about to come crumbling down), it follows a pair of angels who've been in the city before it was a city, one of whom, Damiel (Bruno Ganz), falls in love with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), the other, Cassiel (Otto Sander), tries to save a young man from suicide. Meanwhile, Peter Falk, as himself (Der Filmstar as it is in the credits), is in Berlin too, and as it turns out, used to be an angel himself. A love letter to its setting, its history and its people, shot gloriously by the great Henri Alekan (behind Cocteau's "La Belle et la bete"), it's a sprawling tone poem dedicated to Tarkovsky, Ozu and Truffaut, and the least narratively inclined of these five films, but one whose ambitions aren't dissimilar to what The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer were going for. If "Cloud Atlas" leaves you thirsty for something as bold and cinematic, this could well be a good place to start.