There is something new going on in 21st century movies — a strain of films attempting to convey the entire experience of life in a single movie. Alejandro Inarritu has tried this, with lesser (“Babel”) and greater (“Biutiful”) success, and so has Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life”). “Cloud Atlas,” more successful than most, is the biggest effort yet in this new vein — enormous in length and scope, a film whose purpose doesn’t even begin to come into focus until two hours in.
Directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings (Lana and Andy), and based on the novel by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” is unlike any other movie, so a little description is in order. It takes place in six different periods of history — the mid-19th century, the 1930s, 1973, 2012, 2144 and the distant future. There are six different stories, with different characters, and from the very beginning, the stories are intercut. One scene follows the next in no particular order, and sometimes a scene will last no longer than a minute before a shift in time and location.
There is no apparent logic to these shifts, except, perhaps, an unconscious or cinematic one. A movement or a gesture in one era will connect with a similar movement in another. At times, you might hear someone talking in voice over, while a scene from another era is shown onscreen. Likewise, there is little or no link between the stories, except, as one comes to realize, a moral one. “Cloud Atlas” attempts to depict endless cycles of recurrence, the moral patterns of human existence.
If that sounds ambitious and challenging, it is. The filmmakers are betting on audiences being both willing to pay close attention, as underlying connections emerge, and willing to go along for a ride, without a clue as to the destination. The filmmakers are gambling, in fact, on the intelligence and patience of the sci-fi action audience. Let’s wish them luck.
They hedge their bets by casting familiar faces — Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant — and having them turn up in a variety of roles over the course of time. Implicit in the casting is the notion that these are the same souls in different incarnations, but that’s the weakest idea in the movie, and it doesn’t hold up. There is no real point of contact between the characters each actor plays.
A movie with this kind of jagged, one-thing-after-another structure, can only hold an audience’s interest if each individual story is so compelling that each shift, from one to the next, becomes welcome. This is almost, but not completely, the case with “Cloud Atlas.”
The 19th century section, directed by the Wachowskis, about a young man (Jim Sturgess) who helps a stowaway slave, is of moderate interest though it grows over time. The 20th century stories, directed by Tykwer, are better: Ben Whishaw as a young composer of genius working for a cantankerous has-been composer (Jim Broadbent) in the 1930s; Halle Berry, as a crusading reporter risking her life to uncover a scandal, in the 1970s; and Broadbent as a man trying to escape imprisonment in a nursing home, in the current time.
The Wachowskis directed the two future segments, with mixed results. The story of a young replicant (Doona Bae) in Seoul, Korea, who ends up leading a revolution in 2144, is tense and moving, one of the film’s highlights. But the section set in the distant future, in which Halle Berry and Tom Hanks wear animal skins and talk in a ridiculous future language, is almost unwatchable. It’s this story, always a drag to come back to, that keeps “Cloud Atlas” this side of greatness.
Still, despite some weaknesses, a sense gradually emerges in this film — not just an idea, but a strong feeling mixed with an idea — about the dance of good and evil over time. It’s a grown-up person’s vision: When you’re young, it’s possible to believe that evil can be vanquished. As you get older, you realize that evil never stops changing shapes and faces. In “Cloud Atlas,” the monster can be beaten, but always comes back. There can never be a happy ending, but there can be a mature consolation that, in itself, has grandeur and is the opposite of despair.