It was inevitable, perhaps, that the one-of-a-kind drama “Cloud Atlas” would fall short of its ambitions, but only because those ambitions are so cosmically and insanely grand.
The writing-directing team of Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix” trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) gambles big in adapting David Mitchell’s novel, an epic story of reincarnated souls covering six settings across five centuries and deploying an ensemble cast tackling multiple roles. The results are strangely moving and endlessly fascinating.
The stories within the main story center on six people in moments of crisis. They are:
• Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a San Francisco lawyer in 1849, a passenger on a ship in the Pacific, who finds a runaway slave (David Gyasi) stowing away.
• Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), an aspiring writer of classical music in 1936 Britain, who leaves behind personal scandal to collaborate with a past-his-prime composer (Jim Broadbent).
• Luisa Ray (Halle Berry), a journalist in San Francisco in 1973, trying to expose the dangers of a nearby nuclear reactor.
• Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent again), a publisher in London in 2012, who finds himself trapped in an odd situation.
• Sonmi-451 (Korean star Doona Bae), a cloned servant (or “fabricant”) in New Seoul of 2144, who challenges her programming when inspired by a young revolutionary (played by Sturgess).
• Zachry (Tom Hanks), a goatherd in a post-apocalyptic 24th-century Hawaii, who must decide whether to trust his tribe’s future to a futuristic traveler (played by Berry) seeking passage to a forbidden mountain.
Familiar faces recur in the stories. Hanks appears as an archaeologist in 1849, a hotel clerk in 1936, a scientist in 1973 and a thuggish author in 2012. Berry shows up in each of the stories, once as an Indian woman and once as Caucasian. Whishaw is seen with a beard in 1973 and as a woman in 2012. Susan Sarandon appears as a minister’s wife in 1849, a spiritual leader after the apocalypse and other roles in between. Hugh Grant is a cad in nearly every era, and Hugo Weaving is usually a villain.
Other links connect through the six stories. Ewing’s diary becomes Frobisher’s inspirational reading, while Frobisher’s love letters to an old boyfriend (James D’Arcy) fall into Luisa’s hands, Luisa’s story becomes a manuscript submitted to Cavendish, and so on. And a telltale birthmark shows up repeatedly.
The filmmakers divide the labor according to their strengths, with Tykwer bringing grit to the 20th- and 21st-century tales, and the Wachowskis applying a dynamic sci-fi sheen to 2144 Seoul and period authenticity to the 1849 story and the post-apocalyptic world. They also pepper the stories with doses of comedy (in the 2012 story) and bombastic action (particularly in 2144 and the 24th century).
Not all the transitions are seamless over the movie’s nearly three hours, and recasting the same actors sometimes comes off not as cosmic commentary but as self-referential gimmick. (Poor Doona Bae, in her first English-language movie, fares quite poorly in this regard, particularly as she is saddled with a strange makeup job in the 1973 story.)
But the movie’s startling vision opens up wondrous possibilities of connectedness, of one life’s choices influencing the next. “From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present,” Sonmi-451 declares — and “Cloud Atlas” maps out that journey with powerful clarity.
Six lives over five centuries are connected in a startling and powerful epic drama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.
Running time • 172 minutes.