“There is a method to this madness,” a character says directly into the camera, as if addressing the viewer, near the beginning of Cloud Atlas. The line is essentially a plea from directors Tom Tykwer ( Run Lola Run) and Lana and Andy Wachowski ( The Matrix) to be patient and trust them. They know they have gone way outside the box with this dazzling pop fantasia that skips through six stories spanning 500 years, with the same actors playing different characters in each tale, disguised by wigs and prosthetic makeup.
In his best-selling novel, David Mitchell told the stories one at a time, nestling them into each other like Russian dolls. The movie gives them to you all at once. Cloud Atlas can spend 60 seconds in 1973, when a reporter (Hally Berry) is investigating the threat of a nuclear reactor meltdown, then hurtle back to 1846, when an American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) falls ill while sailing home from the Pacific Islands.
A futuristic adventure in 2144, when a genetically cloned woman (Doona Bae) defies her creators and runs away to live among real people, segues into a 1936 tragedy involving a young musician (Ben Whishaw) in an illicit gay affair. Those two narratives — the sci-fi directed by the Wachowskis, the romance by Tykwer — are the best storylines in Cloud Atlas, albeit for entirely different reasons. The Wachowskis create a gleaming, meticulously rendered future-world where every tiny detail fascinates, from the colors of a restaurant menu to the design of police spacecraft, and where the thunderous action is staged in the style of old-fashioned cliffhangers, with narrow escapes and relentless chases.
Tykwer opts for a slower, gentler pace, using the piece of music his character composes, entitled The Cloud Atlas Sextet, as a theme that recurs through the movie’s score, and ending his story with the single most moving moment in the film — the only time, really, when this enormous movie achieves any emotional intimacy and touches the heart.
The two worst narratives in Cloud Atlas are a present-day story of a London book publisher (Jim Broadbent) confined against his will to a retirement home ruled by a Nurse Ratched-type (played by Hugo Weaving in distracting drag) and a post-apocalyptic tale in Hawaii that plays like a Game of Thrones episode featuring guest appearances by Tom Hanks as a meek goat herder and Hugh Grant as a bloodthirsty tribal lord. The former is played for farcical laughs that never come; the latter is a mish-mash of Braveheart-style action and weak-tea sci-fi.
Editor Alexander Berner has been tasked with the daunting task of intertwining all these disparate storylines, looking for natural overlaps and recurring themes to connect the tales into a single, enormous tapestry. He doesn’t succeed. As a whole, Cloud Atlas doesn’t hang together — it’s a Frankenstein monster of a movie, stitched from disparate parts — and at its worst, it sinks into the kind of philosophical navel-gazing that plagued the two Matrix sequels (sample dialogue: “To see is to perceive and so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of others.”)
And yet: Even at nearly three hours, Cloud Atlas never sags, because the film doesn’t spend enough time on the bad stories to derail the good ones (it’s like surfing through six different TV channels). And as distracting as the makeup jobs can be, the stunt of casting famous actors in various roles sometimes pays off. Hanks is terrific in the 1846 tale as a doctor pretending to tend to a sick man while he’s actually poisoning him, and he’s even better in a brief appearance in the London story as a thuggish author who exacts radical revenge on a critic who panned his book. Berry’s best work is her turn as the investigative reporter who may be nosing into dangerous corners, and she even pulls off the small role of a white Jewish woman in the 1936 strand (the makeup work is so effective, she’s almost unrecognizable).
Fans of Mitchell’s novel, who are protective of the book and had been fretting about its fate as a movie, can relax. Cloud Atlas is more of a spin-off on the original text — a kind of bonus supplement — than a true adaptation. The film departs so radically from Mitchell, it stands alone as its own thing. Visually, the movie is beautiful ( Almost Famous’ John Toll and Perfume’s Frank Griebe are the cinematographers), with each plotline sporting a distinct look and lighting scheme. Considering the density and breadth of the movie, the potential for confusion was great. But Cloud Atlas is clear and easy to follow, and the constant intercutting and juxtaposing create a kind of momentum that serves as a sort of unique hyper-narrative. I wish the filmmakers had come up with better ways other than shared birthmarks and handed-down letters to tie the whole picture together. But if you’re interested in the sheer craft of moviemaking, Cloud Atlas is required viewing – a rare example of a movie getting by entirely on technique and creative bravado..