Comprising six related but rarely overlapping stories spread across centuries, if not millennia, David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas seems, if not an impossible choice for adaptation, at least a profoundly unwise one. And indeed, the movie, co-written and -directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, courts foolishness at every turn, most recklessly by casting such historically inflexible actors as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant across lines of nationality, race and gender. But if you can suppress a titter when Hanks shows up as a Cockney roustabout, or Grant as a savage tribesman, the choices grow palatable and occasionally even inspired.
The film’s audacity, should one choose to view it as such, is in keeping with the novel’s sprawling fusion of squishy-headed New Age-isms with the eternal and unending struggle for self- (or selves-) determination. Cloud Atlas is a movie of big ideas, and only some of them are terrible. Instead of using the novel’s pyramidal structure, Tykwer and the Wachowskis opt to intercut their tales, which begin with the era of seafaring exploration and end with the human race nearing the end of its time on Earth. They also abandon the novel’s sixfold pastiche, opting for a more uniform visual style, even declining to specify which stories were directed by whom. (One slam-dunk: The segment set in a futuristic diner staffed by cloned automatons and decorated with cartoon holograms is an obvious descendant of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer.)
There’s some predictable juicing of the storyline, including a superfluous battle in the skies above a dystopian future Seoul — forgivable, given the tremendous risk in mounting a production so elaborate and risky — and, less tolerably, an ultimate turn toward canned optimism that undercuts the air of metaphysical mystery. But, for all its flaws, Cloud Atlas is a thrilling high-wire act, even more so when it stumbles and gets its footing back.