For a movie so jammed full of stuff—nearly three hours’ worth of it—Cloud Atlas feels oddly empty. Written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International), the picture is both madly ambitious and ultimately banal. Viewers unfamiliar with the 2004 David Mitchell novel on which it’s based may also find it baffling.
The movie interweaves six stories spread across 500 years—tales that intend to demonstrate for us the reincarnation of spirits, the persistence of love, and the timeless yearning for freedom. In his book, Mitchell firmly establishes each of these stories before moving on to the next and then circling back. Here, the narrative elements have been finely diced into what I suppose would have to be called a mosaic. And so we begin with Tom Hanks muttering by a post-apocalyptic campfire far in the future, and then abruptly jump to 1849, where a young attorney (Jim Sturgess), making his way among the Pacific islands, discovers the ugly realities of the world slave trade while being slowly poisoned by a skeezy doctor (Hanks again) aboard the ship on which he’s traveling. Before we can quite process this, we find ourselves in England in 1936, where a young composer named Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is taking leave of his boyfriend, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), before departing for Edinburgh, where he’s to become an amanuensis to a crabby older composer named Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). Frobisher is working on a beautiful piece of music called The Cloud Atlas Sextet, and as we eventually see, Ayrs wants to claim it as his own.
Before we can get too caught up in the Frobisher story, we’re whisked off to 1973 San Francisco, where an investigative reporter (Halle Berry) is looking into the sinister machinations of a nuclear-plant executive (Hugh Grant) with the help of a whistleblower—who turns out to be the older Rufus Sixsmith—and a plant employee (Hanks yet again) to whom Berry’s character seems strangely familiar. This element of the movie, with its gritty tone of ’70s-style high-level intrigue, is just taking hold when we’re suddenly transported to present-day London, where a tweedy publisher (Broadbent again) is appalled at a party when his best-selling author Dermot Hoggins (Hanks, with complicated chin hair and a honking Scottish accent) deals with a snotty critic by tossing him off a high balcony. (We don’t actually hear the Wachowskis chuckling here, but can perhaps be forgiven for sensing their approval.)
Before long we find ourselves in the year 2144, in the blazing Korean metropolis of Neo Seoul, where a genetically manufactured waitress called Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is feeling the first, forbidden stirrings of human consciousness. Soon she initiates a struggle for clone liberation, aided by a freedom fighter named Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess again, disconcertingly accessorized with epicanthic eyefolds). Meanwhile, back at the beginning, in the post-apocalyptic year of 2321, we find Hanks—who turns out to be a retro-primitive goat-herder—consulting with a village priestess (Susan Sarandon!) about the sayings of Sonmi—now revered as a goddess—and being drawn into the high-tech exploits of another freedom fighter, named Meronym (Berry again).
It should be said that Halle Berry has never looked lovelier than she does in this section of the film. Also that Ben Whishaw and Jim Sturgess are full-fledged stars, that Hanks proves himself game for anything (even the preposterous yob comedy of the London party scene), and that much of the movie is beautifully designed and shot. But its attempted epic sweep collapses into jarring narrative shards, and is further undone by its wildly clashing tones (sci-fi versus period adventure versus whatever) and by the distracting use of well-known actors in multiple roles. (Is that Hugo Weaving in drag? Look, there he is again! And again!) The proposition that we are all connected beyond the borders of time, and may dimly recognize earlier others as our soul-travels proceed, is hardly new. And any romantic charge that might have lent the film a unifying emotional lift is smothered by its disjointed structure. The movie’s clamoring complexity may justify its length. But by the time the ultra-silly conclusion heaves into view, some viewers may decide they’ve taken a very long trip to nowhere.