David Mitchell's 2004 novel “Cloud Atlas” was ambitious, sometimes confounding, and absolutely riveting. Viewers are likely to find the film “Cloud Atlas” — written and directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix”) — even more ambitious, possibly more confounding, and very nearly as riveting.
It's more ambitious because the structure of the book, its trademark peculiarity, simply wouldn't work onscreen. It comprises six stories, each within a different genre, set in a different time and place, with a different group of characters. The stories are presented in what has been called a “nesting doll” order: With the exception of the central tale, their first halves are presented in chronological order, followed by their second halves in reverse order. Designated by year, it would look like this: 1849 (I), 1937 (I), 1973 (I), 2012 (I), 2144 (I), a post-apocalyptic adventure in its entirety, 2144 (II), 2012 (II), 1973 (II), 1937 (II), 1849 (II).
The five split stories are a sea yarn, a melodrama, a mystery, a comedy and a science fiction piece, loosely interrelated only by a recurring comet-shaped birthmark and a thread of nested connections — i.e., the hero of the post-apocalyptic tale watches a holographic record that is the 2144 story; the heroine of that story is affected by a film version of the 2012 story; and so on, back to the 1937 guy reading the journal of the 1849 sea voyage.
That each of the first five sections only tells half of its story is one of the reasons readers are driven to keep going. The film's writer/directors knew that this simply wouldn't work on screen, so they decided to splinter all six stories and intercut them. This also helps underline the book's fuzzy thematic subtext — all things are connected, all moments and places are part of the fabric of existence — and other notions that, depending on your mood and beliefs, are either Buddhist wisdom or shallow New Age nonsense.
Does this make the material more confusing? Hard for me to say. I had no problem because I'd read the book a couple of years ago and already knew how each plot would unfold.
It doesn't help matters that the filmmakers decided to have all the stars and some non-stars appear as different characters in each time frame. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Hugh Grant appear in all the stories; Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, Susan Sarandon and James D'Arcy appear in four or five. Some of the casting is amusingly cross-gender, cross-ethnicity and cross-type. I've waited for decades to see Hanks play a full-on villain; and, in one section, he finally does, clearly delighted at a chance to chew the scenery. He's not his usual Mr. Nice Guy in at least two other sections, as well.
Luckily, in most incarnations, the players are buried in so much makeup or appear so briefly in the background that the confusion isn't as bad as it might have been. The protagonist of each story is played by a different actor, the rest becoming supporting players; their roles sometimes are significant, but often are no more than placeholders in a single shot.
This makes the game “Who is Hanks [or whomever] playing this time?” a lot more challenging; it'll be great fun to play when the home video release comes out. But right now, to the extent that it's irresistible, it damages one's absorption in the film's worlds. In your head, you're likelier to think not of Dr. Goose or Isaac Sachs, but of “the Tom Hanks character.”
The casting strategy may be justified as an extension of the film's themes, but that doesn't make it any less disruptive to a viewer's attention. Anyone old enough to remember John Huston's “The List of Adrian Messenger” (1963) probably thinks of it as “that gimmick movie where you had to identify five big stars doing cameos under thick makeup”; people were so busy with this task that few had time to notice what a very good thriller it was.
If you have no trouble distinguishing the different stories, “Cloud Atlas” is almost always absorbing. Despite the direction having been divvied up between Tykwer (the 1937, 1973 and 2012 material) and the Wachowskis (1849, 2144 and post-apocalypse), the style is remarkably consistent. The design and cinematography are top-drawer, but due to the nature of the project, it's the editing which grabs the most attention. Transitions between stories are cleverly designed to underline thematic resonances. And it is assembled so that the pace quickens as it goes on; like the first two hours of “Magnolia,” there is a sense of relentless forward motion.
That, and the narrative complexity, makes “Cloud Atlas” require more than usual attentiveness; and, at 2 hours and 43 minutes (not counting the closing credits), this may prove exhausting for some viewers. But it's worth signing up for, as long as you remember that it's an ocean voyage, not a ride to Catalina.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun