Clouds are identified by a pictorial key known as a cloud atlas. In David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel of the same name, the term refers to a “sextet with overlapping soloists,” a musical composition of fetching beauty whose sheet music contains notes that convey the movement of clouds soaring, gliding, tumbling across skies. Now an epic film by Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski, Cloud Atlas is entwined from a cacophonous series of plot strands: Its ideas are paralleled, its themes twinned, sometimes breathlessly, sometimes fatuously, into what may be described as a 164-minute pop song of seemingly infinite verses, choruses, and bridges. Perhaps expectedly, it soars as often as it thuds.
The film is presented as an incantation by an old tribesman, Zachry (Tom Hanks), who sits by a fire and speaks of “all the voices tied up into one,” turning his face to reveal a scar whose origins we’ll understand, like the birthmarks and familiar traumas that unite characters across each of the film’s six stories, as an inheritance. Each story engages with unique social conditions from our human history and foreseeable future, though all are connected by the idea that the lives of its characters, citizens of places as far-flung as late-19th-century San Francisco and a primitive, post-apocalyptic Hawaii, aren’t their own. Cloud Atlas is more spiritual than religious, and its belief system hinges on the notion that humanity is in a constant state of reincarnation, recycling its triumphs along with its follies.
An ambitious conflation of the personal and mythic, the film has the groove of a not-so-little jam session, a menacing, euphoric, sometimes absurd valley of highs and lows weaved from riffs on familiar storytelling modes and sutured with equally bold and inane transitional devices. The individual pieces feel loose-limbed, almost improvisatory, spiraling forebodingly toward unknown catharsis, and though their strange fusion exhibits a sometimes uncanny pop savvy, the stories don’t lack for torpor or sham existentialism, big but undigested pronouncements about our mortal coil and history repeating the worst of itself that suggest the rants of a street preacher.
Cloud Atlas is a symphony of arias, some devious and thrilling, others drab and inert, and which is which becomes obvious when the mind unbraids them. The worst of them build to stock, righteous epiphanies or engage banally with genre norms. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” full of grime and scant complexity, tells the story of a notary (Jim Sturgess) on a long ocean journey who shuns the riches of the slave trade for the moral rectitude of the abolitionist movement. A copy of the man’s journals glibly appears beneath the foot of a bed in “Letters from Zedelghem,” a stilted chamber drama during which penniless and queer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), so obviously meant for a different time, composes “Cloud Atlas Sextet” as an amanuensis to a Belgium composer (Jim Broadbent) he accidentally shoots in a moment of rage before turning the gun on himself. And in the China Syndrome-lite “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” Robert’s physicist lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), helps a journalist (Halle Berry) blow the lid off a major nuclear scandal.
The wiliest, most self-contained of the film’s parts, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” about a book publisher (Broadbent) confined to a nursing home against his will, engages with all of Cloud Atlas’s overriding themes—freedom, greed, oppression, redemption—without sounding like a sermon. It’s Girl Interrupted as Miramaxcial Brit comedy, though one with teeth. When the author (Hanks) of Knuckle Sandwich foists his harshest critic to his death, the book becomes a smash. Violence begets success, which begets Timothy Cavendish’s greed and stirs his brother’s vengeance, a daisy chain of human folly that culminates with Timothy’s compassion and sense of regret being roused from what seemed like permanent slumber. And somewhere between a cat wreaking havoc on young Timothy’s family jewels and the older Timothy fighting an orderly charged with returning the old coot to his nursing-home prison, there’s an unexpected reference to Soylent Green of all things—the wriest means by which the film addresses its obsession with an egomaniacal humanity’s struggle to suppress the cannibal within.
Throughout Cloud Atlas, a star here becomes a supporting player there, a means of superficially drawing links between the film’s six stories. It’s telling that, if only of his flair for drama, Hugo Weaving, whether playing man or woman, is always the goon, and a ridiculous one as a devil with Leprechaun DNA who tries to get Hanks’s Zachry to always do wrong in the Wachowskis’ cringingly atonal “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” a muddled future vision that suggests an antebellum homage to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. But sometimes the faces and voices that carry between the film’s intertwined stories are haunting, as when Doona Bae, playing a clone hungry for self-actualization in the Wachowskis’ perfectly chilly, often dazzling “An Orison of Sonmi~451,” meets her doom and crops up, in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” as the notary’s wife, looking toward enlightenment with eyes that have literally seen the future.
Cloud Atlas is a rare film that’s greater than the sum of its often innocuous parts. A gene splice of Blade Runner, Amadeus, Amistad, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Three Days of the Condor, and Game of Thrones, it transparently, sometimes naïvely, draws parallels between the pains and ecstasies of characters scattered across a vast human timeline, pondering the terrible things humans have done to themselves (and will do to themselves) with the witlessness of a failed poli-sci major. But there’s an undeniable earnestness to its philosophical fixations, and as maximalist collage, in which a door opens in one story only to open in another, a character from a recognizable yesteryear appears to converse with another from an imagined tomorrow, and the sounds of telecommunications, violence, and commerce, from the ringing of phones to the chugging of trains, it’s close to fabulous, its boundaries managing to transcend convention.