Screen Gems

Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy play star-crossed lovers in a movie unlike any other

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Unparalleled: Cloud Atlas

Audiences didn’t know what to think of this 2012 opus, directed by transgender auteurs Lily & Lana Wachowski, as well as their frequent collaborator Tom Tykwer (director of Run Lola Run). A movie that cast actors in multiple roles across the racial and gender spectrum? Six different stories set in six different time periods in six different genres? What kind of movie does that?

The answer is, a magnificent one. The format of Cloud Atlas makes it difficult to summarize. In the 1840s, an American doctor (Jim Sturgess) develops a relationship with an enslaved man (David Gyasi) and becomes an ardent abolitionist. In the 1930s, a gay composer (Ben Whishaw) pens a quintet as an ode to his boyfriend (James D’Arcy), only to have it stolen by another composer. In the 1970s, the composer’s lover helps an investigative reporter (Halle Berry) expose eco-terrorism. In the present, an aging author (Jim Broadbent) involuntarily committed to a nursing home plots his escape. In the distant future, an anti-totalitarian rebel (Sturgess, again) kidnaps a cloned fast-food worker (Doona Bae). In the even more distant future, a tribesman (Tom Hanks) guides a scientist (Berry, again) to an abandoned communication station in hopes of escaping a dying Earth.

You got all that?

Understanding the plot (or plots) of Cloud Atlas does very little in the way of explaining the film itself, or its deeper meaning. The film meditates on how lives interconnect over time, and posits that true love guides us toward one another in lifetime after lifetime. Some critics have charged that the film is racist, which is simply not true: the film actually argues that gender, race and sexuality have no real meaning by using its cast in multiple roles regardless of race or gender. Casting Doona Bae as a white woman, Susan Sarandon as a man, or Hugo Weaving as a woman simply underlines the point that while our souls can take many physical forms, something deeper and intangible connects us. Cloud Atlas makes the radical statement that love is love, and moreover, love will save us all in the end. It’s a film unlike any other ever made–one that explores the fluidity of sexuality and gender–and a thrilling cinematic experience.

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