If the massive, vaultingly ambitious Cloud Atlas could be whittled down to one old-Hollywood concern, it might be this: At the end of the picture, do the guy and the girl get together? This is a tricky proposition in this case, because there are six guys and six girls, in six different times and places, all of whom, we are led to surmise, are the same guy and girl in different stages, and sometimes they don’t even meet each other for so much as a how-do-you-do. Cloud Atlas, based on a widely cherished cult novel by David Mitchell, spans centuries and the globe without breaking its stride, intercutting between each of its sextet of tales and arriving, finally, at its big takeaway: Love is good. Freedom is good. Truth is good. The opposites of those things are bad, and the pursuits of those things are the only constant in an ever-changing, ever-hostile world.
Well. Yes. It would take a preternaturally grumpy viewer to object too strongly to this life-medicine, though, because it’s administered so skillfully and passionately, with a complete disregard for the cynics in the balcony. I think the tipping point in Cloud Atlas determining whether you will love it or hoot at it is a top-hatted imaginary demon with greenish skin, exhorting a character to do vile things in the name of self-preservation. I grew to look forward to that fellow, and I sighed a little and became restless when the movie flicked over to the futuristic “Neo-Seoul” segments, which feel the most like a dystopian fantasia by the Wachowski siblings (of The Matrix). Sure enough, they directed those segments, as well as another futuristic story and one set in the 19th century, while Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) handled the ’30s, the ’70s, and 2012. Which shows, I guess, that Andy and Lana Wachowski are uncomfortable with present day, present reality, and Tykwer can work quite well without spaceships and laser blasts.
Taken all in one two-hour-and-52-minute lump, Cloud Atlas is never boring; I checked the time at one point, saw that we had about an hour to go, and settled back, relaxed and happy to get more. As pure cinema — a term I overuse, but can’t avoid when discussing this thing — the movie is a vast banquet table stretching to the vanishing point, though we’re never allowed to linger over any one tasty dish before it’s removed and replaced with an entirely dissimilar platter. Mitchell’s novel was structured symmetrically, or palindromically (it’s a word now), the first story leading into and appearing in the next, and so on, and then the narrative doubled back on itself. The movie shuffles the deck — the effect is simultaneity, not continuity. Each reality the film shows us — a notary on a ship, a rent boy working as an amanuensis to a composer, a journalist uncovering shenanigans at a nuclear power plant, a publisher trapped in a nursing home, a clone seeking freedom in futuristic Korea, a post-apocalyptic tribesman in Hawaii — unfolds, for us, at the same “movie time,” in apparently different dimensions.
The fun part, despite clucking from the politically correct, is watching the same actors — Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant — appearing as different characters of sometimes different races. Hanks gets to be heroic (or at least morally conflicted) in some segments and diabolical in others; my favorite of his incarnations was “Dermot Hoggins,” a pugnacious Irish writer who chucks his least favorite literary critic off a roof. Hanks and Halle Berry appear to be destined for love — the “guy and the girl” who get together at the end of the picture — though in a couple of the stories they make no more than a nodding acquaintance, perhaps because in those realities Hanks isn’t worthy of love yet. Karma seems to be one of the many ideas bubbling to the surface here. In his six identities, Hanks starts out rotten, becomes merely sleazy, then conflicted, then violent, then an inadvertent motivator of freedom fighters, and then, after many visitations from Hugo Weaving as the aforementioned top-hat demon, finally a hero deserving of Halle Berry’s hand.
Again, most of this is shuffled together so smoothly that it never confuses and nearly always engages. As photographed by Frank Griebe and John Toll, it’s a gift for the eyes, and though Cloud Atlas is perhaps not the intellectual/emotional one-two punch it seems to want to be, it’s nonetheless made for endless replaying on Blu-ray and at midnight screenings (the few still extant). In isolated bits it feels major; other bits force us to agree to go along with them (the makeup department kept very busy here, and sometimes it’s like playing spot-the-actor in something like The List of Adrian Messenger). The cast and the filmmakers are committed at the highest level, and good old Hugo Weaving gets to chew scenery as a variety of evildoers, including a forbidding nurse (yes, a female nurse). Given that this is the first major film co-directed by a transgendered woman (Lana Wachowski), it ends its gay love story less cheerily than some will like, while others will shrug and blame it on the repressive time period. The Magical Negro trope pops up in a couple of the segments, too, which may, for all I know, reflect as much on the book as on the filmmakers. Cloud Atlas is too earnest and overarching to be perfect in any way — the literal-minded will gather dozens of flaws to cackle over. But in such a timid time for entertainment in general and movies in particular, I have to respect the beauty of the attempt. It isn’t a masterpiece but it sure has masterful pieces.