Eager to entertain and suffused with nervous energy, Cloud Atlas spans many continents and about half a millennia of human history. As faithful to David Mitchell’s novel as any $100 million enterprise could be, it’s the most daring, thrilling, satisfying, swiftly churning engine of big screen adventure to come along in some time. It even works in a halfway decent Soylent Green joke, which one would imagine wasn’t possible anymore. And oh yes, Hugh Grant plays a bloodthirsty cannibal.
Buried beneath hyperactive plotting and deft interweaving of six storylines, the film’s organizing principle seems to be a squishy-hippie-ish belief in the interconnectedness of all things and the ironclad bindings of karma. This possibility emerges at the start, via a mumbled introduction by a tribal shaman played by Tom Hanks: “All voices are tied up into one.” From there, even if it also offers a caustic dig at Carlos Castaneda and past-life New Ageiness, Cloud Atlas nevertheless carries a scent of patchouli.
This helps maintain connections, however illusory, among the many plots and extra-textual references assembled by filmmakers Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, a structure that sometimes feels like a getaway car dodging oncoming traffic. Starting on a Pacific island plantation in 1849, the film follows a wealthy businessman’s son (Jim Sturgess), who has an attack of conscience about the slave trade, then slips into romantic melodrama in 1936, where a young con artist (Ben Whishaw) works as the amanuensis for a faded composer (Jim Broadbent) and so becomes trapped in a web of his own conniving. In 1973, an investigative reporter (Halle Berry) finds herself in deadly trouble when she pursues a story on a Bay Area nuclear power plant, and in 2012, a down-at-mouth publisher (Broadbent again) gets a taste of success and suffers for it. The future settings include some Blade Runner-like thrills in 2144, when a “fabricant” (Doona Bae) escapes her slave-like “employment” and becomes an unwitting tool of revolt, and a post-apocalyptic 24th-century tale about an indigenous tribesman (Hanks, whose sing-song dialogue sounds like a nod to Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker) who struggles to survive.
Mostly, the stories are linked by clues and hints. A tattoo or birthmark on one person’s shoulder looks exactly like one from another’s back centuries previous. Everyone keeps hearing the same piece of music (composed by Tykwer) echoing back and forth over the years. Amid the back-and-forthing, two stories seem especially connected, thrumming with a sense of romantic longing and disenchantment and linked by a series of letters written by someone in 1936 and discovered by another in 1973.
Hugo Weaving keeps showing up to ruin everybody’s fun, whether as a slavemaster, corporate assassin or trickster, wreaking as much mental havoc as Gollum’s badly behaved alter-ego. The other actors also play different characters, frequently switching genders and races, moving from starring roles to blink-and-you-miss-them cameos and back again. Though this casting trick can be distracting (especially with our attention drawn to heavy and obvious prosthetics), it introduces vexing karmic possibilities, as we see assorted individuals change or stay the same across time. Some shift from villainous to heroic, others keep within their original orientation (Susan Sarandon is a font of wisdom in any age).
As these stories come together and all apart, Cloud Atlas returns to themes of revolution and oppression, themes hinted at in Tykwer’s earlier films (Run Lola Run shows hints, and Heaven and The International) and expressed explicitly — sometimes bluntly — in the Wachowskis’ work, the Matrix movies and V for Vendetta most obviously. (Even Bound might be read as a demand for acceptance by individuals feeling alienated and abused.) Cloud Atlas makes its politics plain, bounding from issues as big as abolition and racism to comparatively smaller (but still daunting) concerns, like the senior citizen shunted against his will into a nursing home.
The common factor in all these threads is a fight for freedom, a fight that is both abstract and utterly concrete. Cloud Atlas reveres this fight for an idea so premised on conflict, so emblematic of the imbalance of power and so crucial to individual dignity. This grand theme grants the filmmakers plenty of excuses to showcase big, fast action scenes, chases and battles.
This vividly kinetic sensibility emerges in the movie’s shuffling together of the storylines instead of playing them out in full one after the other, as Mitchell does in the novel , the Wachowskis and Tykwer achieve a remarkable sense of building tension over their film’s roughly three-hour running time. As a result, Cloud Atlas explodes in crescendo after crescendo. This not only brings the movie (and those watching it) close to dramatic exhaustion at several points, but also allows for a slightly overdone coda, one that doesn’t exist in the book but does provide conclusive punctuation for a film that’s nothing but high-flying dependent clauses until then. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have to end this thing somewhere, at the very least so we might exit the theater. But we’re left with the likelihood that the film is still spinning off into the future and the past simultaneously in some alternate universe, continually detonating with terror and glee.