This cinematic lollapalooza from Run Lola Run’s Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis of Matrix fame is ambitious beyond any film in recent memory. Sprawling over three hours, Cloud Atlas tells six stories, spanning hundreds of years, simultaneously. The same actors appear in all six stories, playing reincarnated iterations of their characters that vary by gender, age, ethnicity and race. It’s an absolutely loony undertaking that, improbably, works. (Wait until you see Hugo Weaving as the meanest female caregiver since Nurse Ratched.) There are, occasionally, wince-inducing moments and casting choices that seem slightly off, but on a scale this monumental these amount to quibbles. Once Cloud Atlas gets going, about half an hour in, it’s ridiculously entertaining.
Reportedly, David Mitchell’s award-winning source novel presents the six stories discretely; the decision to tell them all at once, relentlessly cutting from one to another based on the parallel dramatic arcs of each tale, was brilliant. Even though they’re cut to pieces and presented like puzzle pieces, each story retains its own distinct mood: the relentless tedium of a ship sailing the Pacific in the 19th century, where a sly doctor (Tom Hanks) is slowly poisoning a rich lawyer (Jim Sturgess); the restless, emotionally explosive tragedy of a reckless young composer (Ben Whishaw) in 1930s London; the dangerous inquiries of an investigative journalist (Halle Berry) in paranoid 1970s San Francisco; the black comedy of a publisher (Jim Broadbent) imprisoned by his brother in an old-age home in contemporary England; the horrific, menial life of a clone-slave (Doona Bae) in 22nd century Korea; and a hundreds-of-years distant, dying Earth where the weak are prey, and superstition is a threat to the few remaining technically savvy humans.
The sappy but sincere heart of the film is grounded in the idea of achieving perfection—or descending, through greater acts of evil, into more degraded existences—across multiple lifetimes. It’s not exactly a spoiler to point out that the Oscar winners, Hanks and Berry, work their way from evil to good, while the clever English actors, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving, plays souls traveling in the other direction. (Grant is particularly fun, playing six shades of evil from a smug, silver-tongued colonial minister presiding over a plantation and slaves in the 19th century to a grunting cannibal chief in the post-apocalyptic wastes.) But the film does provide some detours along the way; in the comical saga of the publisher, Hanks amusingly plays an English thug-turned-writer with a harsh method of silencing his critics. And for every heartwarming moment of triumph, there’s a corresponding moment of cruelty or loss.
I wouldn’t exactly call Cloud Atlas subtle; and yet, the ambitious technique transcends the platitudinous world view. Tykwer delivers the three most straightforward tales, and Whishaw (as the doomed composer); Berry (as the journalist) and Broadbent (as the hapless publisher) make of the most of their showy parts. The Wachowskis’ cold, vicious 22nd century has all the sheen and silky evil they brought to The Matrix, and the action sequences are remarkably restrained.
The ending is touchingly ridiculous; connoisseurs of bad sci-fi sequels may be reminded of the final scene in Battle for the Planet of the Apes. (Remember the bit with John Huston’s ape and the mix of ape and human children?) There’s so much that’s beguiling and intriguing about Cloud Atlas, don’t be surprised if, after you stop laughing, you find yourself wanting to watch it all over again.