Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry. Written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Lana and Andy Wachowski. 14A. 172 min. Opens Oct. 26.
A cunning literary puzzle made up of six narratives whose disparate settings and styles range from a 19th-century seafaring adventure to two slices of dystopic sci-fi, David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas would initially seem highly resistant to any efforts at screen adaptation. Yet the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer wrestle it into a three-hour submission hold, refashioning Mitchell’s mash-up into a movie epic whose most admirable intentions and smartest moves are undermined by its bombastic methods.
The team’s efforts are also marred by decisions that might’ve seemed sound in theory but have unintended consequences in practice. For instance, while the idea of using the same actors in multiple roles succeeds in creating a sense of continuity between the movie’s often wildly different components, it threatens to turn it into a tutorial on modern makeup techniques as the performers switch up their ages, genders, and races with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Equally problematic is the directors’ all-consuming terror that they will bore the viewer. Having constructed the movie as a relentless series of climaxes, they leave precious little room for wonderment, mystery, or genuine feeling. It’s no surprise that the source material’s most thriller-like segments—with Halle Berry as a crusading journalist who uncovers a nuclear power-plant scandal in the 1970s and Tom Hanks as a desperate tribesman in a post-apocalyptic Earth—yield the most compelling storylines here.
Despite these flaws, it’s hard not to feel awed by Cloud Atlas and its oversized, unfashionable sense of ambition. Rare is the movie that dares to contain multitudes—rarer still is one that requires Tom Hanks to wear three increasingly ridiculous beards.