Cloud Atlas is a cornily enthralling sci-fi kaleidoscope. Adapted from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, it tells six stories over the course of nearly three hours, and most of them would come off as fairly conventional on their own. But when you slice them up, swirl them around, and hold them up to the light, the design of what you’re seeing is hypnotic, and it wires you into the film. Codirected by Andy and Lana (née Larry) Wachowski, who haven’t made a good movie since The Matrix (1999), and Tom Tykwer, the one-hit art-house wonder who directed Run Lola Run (1998), Cloud Atlas is certainly out to be a ”visionary” mindbender, but the film’s secret is that it’s a nimbly entertaining and light-on-its-feet Hollywood contraption, with the actors cast in multiple roles as if playing a game of dress-up.
The whole movie is really a game, as each hero (or heroine) battles the brainwashing forces of corruption and oppression. It’s The Matrix times six, set in a variety of historical eras, with the rebels united across time. Cloud Atlas has been made with a channel-zapper consciousness — an invitation to go wherever the Wachowskis and Tykwer want to take you, with the trust that they know just what they’re doing. Each story writes its own rules and unfolds in its own madly detailed, self-contained world. A postapocalyptic episode in which Tom Hanks, as a nervous forest goatherd dotted with Maori-style tattoos, agrees to be the guide for a searcher (Halle Berry) who looks like she stepped out of Star Trek, draws you in through its odd, slangy patois. (You learn to decipher it, much like the droog-speak of A Clockwork Orange.) A fascist-future parable, set in a darkened Blade Runner version of Seoul, offers a mesmerizingly ominous vision of an all-synthetic existence. The drama of a stylish young gay Cambridge outcast (Ben Whishaw) who becomes the amanuensis — and hidden collaborator — of a dried-up old composer (Jim Broadbent) encodes the spark of human freedom in the violence of creativity.
The way the tales link up isn’t labored or obvious. It’s more like a stone skipping with surprising precision across the water, or a player moving from one videogame level to the next. The heroine of the Seoul segment is a wage-slave “fabricant” (played by the stoic but inwardly fiery Korean actress Doona Bae) who is spurred to revolt after watching a fragment of an old movie that features Hanks in the role of a beleaguered book editor. That same book editor gets a segment of his own, where he’s played by Broadbent as a frazzled literary twit who gets locked up in an old-age home. A political tale set in 1973 is where Tykwer and the Wachowskis come closest to rooting the film in a topical — and far from conventionally liberal — idea: that the possibilities for nuclear power and an energy-independent America were killed off by the oil companies. This story, too, teams Berry (as an investigative reporter) and Hanks (as a nerdy nuclear scientist) in a romantic connection that reverberates throughout.
The movie’s Big Idea is to wake us up to the ways that we’re all linked through time: The dream of one person passes to the next, finally erupting in revolution. What I liked about Cloud Atlas is that it brings this rather banal revelation to life through an inspired fusion of form and content. The stories bounce off one another in devious and intricate ways. And the multiple-role casting, and bravura makeup that renders it possible (not just flipped genders but switched races as well), is more than a gimmick — it’s like a burlesque of identity. Having Hugh Grant play a U.S. energy stooge in a wide Me Decade tie is fun…but Grant as a bloodthirsty primitive in savage skeletal war paint? Now, that’s casting against type. Hugo Weaving shows up as assorted villains (including a ghost-devil who slavers like a rotting leprechaun), and Hanks lends the film a glint of moral complexity by devotedly playing both noble (that goatherd) and evil (a shipboard doctor in the 1800s who tries to poison a fellow for his money; a squinty-eyed Cockney mobster who tosses a book critic off a balcony).
Cloud Atlas is like a gonzo miniseries that, at times, seems to be cramming the entire history of Hollywood genre films into one multi-tentacled parable of freedom and authoritarian control. You’ll catch echoes of a hundred other pop touchstones, from Roots to Guy Ritchie films to Soylent Green. I would never call Cloud Atlas profound — it’s more like a pulpy middlebrow head trip — but the hook of the movie is that Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer so clearly meant everything that they put in it. B+