You will get lost. You will get bored. Yet, amid a running time of 172 minutes, it’s inevitable that you will occasionally grasp some of the dots that Cloud Atlas promises in its tagline, “Everything is connected.” Matrix maestros Andy and Lana Wachowski along with Run Lola Run’s Tom Tykwer orchestrate this film of a novel widely assumed to be unfilmable, which comprises six stories spanning centuries that allegedly neatly serve up ideas about the power of the person, linked souls, freedom, the continuance of life after death, and similarly lofty topics. Onscreen, however, it mostly comes across as a collection of inconsequential tangents and incomprehensible hot air.
The directors use the same actors in each of the chapters, so you get more Tom Hanks than you’ll ever need. He opens the film as an ancient-looking man in an unspecified time (we later find out it’s the far future) telling tales around a campfire, remarking how the universe’s stories essentially offer “all the voices tied up into one.” The film then jumps through time, from 1849 to 1936 to 1973 to 2012 to 2144 to “106 winters after the Fall,” a dystopian period in which Hanks, as Zachry, wears rags, sees a top-hat-wearing devil (Hugo Weaving), and reluctantly forms an alliance with Meronym (Halle Berry), a white-donning woman of unclear stature from a still-technologically advanced civilization who visits Zachry’s forested island on a fancy boat. Zachry resents Meronym and her people; what exactly they eventually try to achieve together is somewhat of a mystery, but it involves Minority Report-like computers and a giant transmission device. They speak in a minorly pidgin English, switching from language practically identical to ours to using weird phrases such as “That’s the true-true.”
The other stories are more straightforward but rarely more engrossing. Readers of Cloud Atlas will likely find themselves more easily absorbed by the material, whereas newcomers will struggle to grasp the gists of each offering, thanks to the constant hop-scotching of their presentations (you get about 10 minutes before it’s onto the next) along with dialogue that too often throws you in the middle of a plot instead of building up to one. Among the storylines are a young, gay musician (Ben Whishaw) aiding a famous composer (Jim Broadbent) who blackmails him; a, er, random guy (Jim Sturgess) who in the 1849 chapter helps a stowaway slave on a ship, gets sick, and is poisoned by his doctor (Hanks); a reporter (Berry) whose life is endangered when she chases a story about nuclear power; a publisher (Broadbent) who gets himself deep in debt and ends up committed in an old folks’ home; and a Korean clone (Doona Bae) in “Neo-Seoul” who is interviewed about her day-to-day as a restaurant waitress under a totalitarian regime and her eventual involvement in a fight against said autocracy.
Tykwer and the Wachowskis reportedly used the same actors to help boost the feeling of the stories’ interconnectedness, but instead of thinking, “Whoa, these spirits are traveling through time,” you’re more likely to note, “Whoa, Hanks sure wears a lot of bad toupees here.” Berry is a less distracting and therefore more effective presence; she’s especially strong in her role as a tough, ethical journalist. But it’s Broadbent who offers the most engagement, with nearly all of his characters skewing comic, particularly in the nursing-home story (though that gets a tad too wacky). Between these rare compelling moments are too many questions: Why does dystopian Hanks see the devil? (And that’s once you figure out who the top-hatter is.) Who are the black-masked gunmen chasing the clone and her apparent savior? Who on earth thought it was a good idea to have Hanks play a thuggish Brit author with a gold chain and weird facial hair?
Most important: How, exactly, is everything connected? The strongest thread is about people standing up against oppression, but that sure ain’t satisfying enough to justify nearly three hours of self-serious blather and confusing storytelling. And that’s the true-true.