The Wachowski Siblings (of “The Matrix” fame) and German director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run,” “Perfume”) take on the thrilling, but also daunting, project of translating time-and-space twisting novel “Cloud Atlas” into a film. The end result is scattershot: Gorgeously produced and beautifully filmed, but suffering from baffling gaffes that include some utterly unconvincing makeup jobs and one or two cross-gender casting choices that just don’t work. (Yes, Hugo weaving is a formidable villain; no, stuffing him into a dress does not come over well.)
For all that, this three-hour opus possesses a verve and intensity that carries it through its running time and glosses over both assorted plot holes and the conventionality of its constituent parts. What the Wachowskis and Tykwer retain from Mitchell’s book is the theme of the rich variety of an individual human life, though writ large across centuries. There are six stories here, but this movie is not an anthology. It’s a study on how every choice a person makes echoes and re-echoes through time.
A 19th century lawyer undertakes a perilous sea journey, and keeps a journal aboard ship that eventually becomes a book in the library of the world’s greatest living composer. In the 1930s, that composer’s assistant discovers the book and escapes his life of servitude in its pages. The same-sex lover of that unhappy young amanuensis later becomes a scientist who, in the 1970s, involves a female investigative reporter in a vile corporate plot.
That reporter’s kid neighbor grows up to become a mystery writer in the present day; the writer’s publisher finds himself imprisoned in a nursing home by his vengeful brother. The publisher escapes, writes a book of his own, and sees his book adapted into a film. That film inspires revolt among cloned fast food workers in the mid-22nd century. Eventually, the humanist message of a clone-cum-prophetess replaces the gospel of consumerism (which had, in its day, replaced Christianity); this new religion persists into the far future, a post-apocalyptic age in which horse-mounted cannibalistic warriors prey on peaceful agrarian villagers in a radioactive valley.
Yes, cannibalistic warriors: This is what civilization comes to, but perhaps it’s less a sharp slide backwards than the unadorned nature of humanity coming to the fore once again. Cannibalism, whether metaphorical or literal, is a recurrent touchstone in “Cloud Atlas.” That 19th century lawyer, for instance, befriends a physician who makes extra money by digging up human teeth from the trash pits of ancient feasting sites where human victims were devoured. The lawyer himself is there to seal a contract between his father-in-law and a slave trader.
The present-day nursing home is the site of a slightly less savage form of exploitation; it’s run as a warehouse for ungrateful children wishing to stow their aging parents out of sight. During an abortive escape attempt, the publisher utters a too-relevant film quote, crying, “Soylent Green is people!” It’s a funny line, but also telling: the fast-food workers of 2144 themselves become a “cheap source of protein” at the end of their working lives.
The six stories that comprise the film each have their own plots and genres, and they are set in different centuries, but their linkages suggest the human race in its entirety is a unified organism carrying some sort of mega- (or meta-) life. How the past links to the present and then reaches into the future is one of the film’s most intriguing elements, and the Wachowskis and Tykwer add a twist of their own to help establish narrative comprehensibility: The film’s characters are the same people, or perhaps archetypes, living a succession of lives in which they repeatedly intersect and interact.
We are able to keep track of who’s who because the same actors play similar roles. Hugo Weaving plays the slave-trading father-in-law of our seafaring lawyer, as well as a Nazi visitor to the great composer in the 1930s, a sadistic nurse in the rest home, and a cannibal warrior. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry play a couple that flirt and fall in love at various points through time. Doona Bae plays forward-thinking women unafraid to challenge the conventions of any age; she and Jim Sturgess (who plays the lawyer) are another transmigrating couple, romantically linked again and again.
Ben Whishaw’s character takes on assorted dead-end careers in various lifetimes as “Cabin Boy,” “Store Clerk,” and, in his largest role, Robert Frobisher, the ill-fated amanuensis who provides the whole gang with their own soundtrack for the ages in the form of a monumental composition titled “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.”
And what better than a sextet to accompany these six self-contained, but interrelated, threads? Indeed, Frobisher’s male lover is called Rufus Sixsmith, and one might argue that the axis of this cosmic shebang, which starts in the age of sailing ships and ends in an era of star travel, can be traced to this once-banned form of love, with its own themes of romance and tragedy, and disgrace and courage, not to mention the handsome combination of James D’Arcy and Whishaw.
The film is cleverly constructed, and its transitions, while far from seamless, are often inventive. Drama, sci-fi action-adventure, romance, thriller, fantasy, comic caper… a half-dozen major genres jostle and swirl in this epic, propelled by broad identifying motifs. This is not just a movie, it’s a cinematic mural, and while its elements may sometimes clash a bit its overall form is really rather lovely. Then, too, there’s a certain element of added value: If film tickets cost ten bucks or more, then why not offer audiences the cinematic equivalent of a six-pack?