An intense three-hour mental workout rewarded with a big emotional payoff, “Cloud Atlas” suggests that all human experience is connected in the pursuit of freedom, art and love. As inventive narratives go, there’s outside the box, and then there’s pioneering another dimension entirely, and this massive, independently financed collaboration among Tom Tykwer and Wachowski siblings Lana and Andy courageously attempts the latter, interlacing six seemingly unrelated stories in such a way that parallels erupt like cherry bombs in the imagination. The R-rated epic should find a substantial audience when Warner Bros. releases it Oct. 26, assuming critics don’t kill it in the cradle.
Based on David Mitchell’s novel — more like six novels really, with each one executed in a different genre, then split and wrapped around the next in a nested, “The Saragossa Manuscript”-style construction — this daunting adaptation rejects the book’s innovative, but overly literary format in favor or a more cinematic approach, opting to tell all half-dozen tales at once. Like juggling Ginsu blades, the tricky feat is part stunt, part skill, but undeniably entertaining to witness as half a millennium of world history unfolds, much of it set in centuries still to come.
Whereas the directors’ earlier films hook viewers from the opening scene, this one functions more like a symphony, laying out snatches of all six separate strands and gradually building toward grand movements in which these elements merge in different combinations. Playing to their respective strengths, the Wachowskis tackle the earliest and two future-set segments, while Tykwer manages the three more contempo episodes, including a comedic one featuring Jim Broadbent as Timothy Cavendish, a borderline-senile book editor set in present-day London.
Broadbent, like the rest of the multiculti cast, reappears in the other sections as well, fully reinventing himself as a briny sea captain and a world-famous composer, plus a couple other bit roles so cleverly disguised by makeup, auds might not recognize him on first viewing. Each of the stories involves some measure of romance, beginning in 1849, with American lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) separated from his beloved (Doona Bae) by seafaring adventures among the Pacific Islands, and extending to the year 2346, where a lowly goat-herder (Tom Hanks) falls for an emissary (Halle Berry) from the opposite end of the technological spectrum in post-apocalyptic Hawaii.
Berry also stars in her own thread, playing Luisa Rey, a San Francisco reporter circa 1973 investigating the imminent threat of a nuclear reactor meltdown, receiving key assistance from scientist Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), who might just be the same man seen in the Cambridge-set 1936 chapter, a touching same-sex love story involving an aspiring musician (Ben Whishaw) attempting to write what will become the film’s theme, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” a beautiful piece actually composed by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil.
The riskiest and most essential of the threads — the one on which the entire tapestry depends — takes place in NeoSeoul, 2144, a socially stratified “Blade Runner”-like city in which genetically cloned fabricants serve their consumerist masters. (By 2346, the middle class has been so ruthlessly eliminated that the world may as well be divided into cave-dwellers and astronauts.) Because the six segments naturally assume different styles, the division of labor among directors and their respective units complements rather than compromises the project’s overall success, with the makeup and visual effects departments each carrying off seemingly impossible feats of transformation.
In Mitchell’s novel, readers must draw their own connections between the tales, with only the recurring motif of a comet-shaped birthmark to suggest the continuity of a single soul across time. The film makes the congruities clearer, as Adam Ewing’s Pacific journal is read by Frobischer, whose epistolary correspondence with Sixsmith resurfaces in the Luisa Rey mystery, eventually published by Cavendish, whose own story is adapted to film and viewed as a futuristic recording much later by Sonmi-451 (Bae) in NeoSeoul. The final connection is best left for auds to discover, but suffice to say that common themes echo throughout the film, where the gesture of liberating a slave in 1849 reverberates through time, culminating in a paradigm-changing insurrection whose denouement occurs two centuries later.
Certain links are impossible to miss by virtue of the way the three writer-directors assemble the film, and yet, given the sheer scope of the source material, so much has been omitted that one’s attention must be engaged at all times as the mosaic triggers an infinite range of potentially profound personal responses.
No less exciting is the way “Cloud Atlas” challenges its actors to portray characters outside their race or gender. For instance Hugo Weaving plays villains in nearly every age, ranging from a heartless Korean consumerist to a Nurse Ratched-like ward master. Indeed, the filmmakers put the lie to the notion that casting — an inherently discriminatory art — cannot be adapted to a more enlightened standard of performance over mere appearance, reminding us why the craft is rightfully called “acting.”