Cloud Atlas: The Wachowskis Struggle in the Stratosphere

Andy and Lana team with Tom Tykwer on a wildly ambitious, oddly earthbound adaptation of the David Mitchell novel

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Jay Maidment/Warner Bros. Pictures

If you’re going to do something daring, do it big. That could be the motto of the Wachowski siblings: Andy, 44, and Lana, 47, who used to be Larry before a sex-change designation. The Matrix reimagined the “real” world as a video-game fantasy; Speed Racer broke with narrative and visual traditions to create an amazing sound-and-light show, a vivid syntho-world. Now the Wachowskis have teamed with German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) for their dizziest, most dizzying experiment. Cloud Atlas, an adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, tells six stories set in the past, present and future, with a core troupe of actors, including Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, playing different roles in each tale.

To trump their audacity, the writer-directors lured private investors to pony up $100 million — a huge amount for a knotty indie film. “The movie speaks a lot about courage,” said Lana Wachowski before the world premiere of Cloud Atlas last month at the Toronto Film Festival. “And the producers obviously had a lot of courage,” she continued, adding, with a smile, “or stupidness.” Big and daring; brave or reckless: all elements that are desperately needed in a timid time for movies.

(SEE: TIME’s exclusive look at the making of Cloud Atlas)

Cloud Atlas is hard to describe and even more difficult to live inside. Acing an amazing feat — to synopsize and clarify a meganarrative of a half-dozen separate stories — the filmmakers keep things bustling for nearly three hours. The performers, nothing if not game, don putty noses, fake teeth and tattoos in their many roles; they switch races and genders. The result is something strange to behold: exceptional in its reach and ordinary in its particulars — an impressive, messy sprawl, nearly three hours long and, in emotional impact, an inch deep.

(READ: Lev Grossman on the “unfilmable” Cloud Atlas by subscribing to TIME)

Mitchell’s novel, whose title is taken from the 19th century illustrated books that assigned names to different cloud formations, begins with the chronological telling of six stories. Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess in the film), an ailing American on a ship in the remote South Pacific in 1850, is being slowly poisoned by Dr. Henry Goose (Hanks). In Cambridge in the 1930s, composer Vyvyan Arys (Jim Broadbent) tangles with his young amanuensis Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) over authorship of a Frobisher symphony, the Cloud Atlas Sextet. In 1973 San Francisco, reporter Luisa Rey (Berry) finds her life threatened when she unearths corporate secrets. In today’s London, publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent again) is imprisoned in a retirement home. In the “Neo-Seoul” of the year 2144, the female “fabricant” Sonmi-451 (Korean actress Doona Bae) attempts to graduate from cyborg status to full humanity. Finally, centuries from now, after an apocalyptic “Big Fall” has blasted mankind back to primitive status, the tribesman Zachry (Hanks again) is contacted by Meronym (Berry again), one of the few survivors from the advanced, vanished civilization. The only common device in the stories: a birthmark sported by some of the characters.

(READ: Pico Iyer’s review of the David Mitchell Cloud Atlas novel)

These fables consume the first three-fifths of the novel, which then loops back in time to resolve each of the stories, with some time-travel basting to underline Mitchell’s theme of “eternal recurrence.” Frobisher reads Ewing’s diary; 40 years later, his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) meets Luisa … whose exposé is eventually published by Cavendish … whose retirement-home caper is made into a movie watched by Sonmi-451 … whose adventure becomes a video that is projected into the postapocalyptic future and seen by Zachry and Meronym. Got all that?

(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of The Matrix)

In the movie, the old-school Cavendish rants against the kind of modernism — “flashbacks and flash-forwards and all those trinxy gimmicks” — that is right up the alley of Tykwer, whose Run Lola Run told the same story three different ways, and the Wachowskis. Their clever scheme was to interweave the book’s stories instead of presenting them in sequence, in the process emphasizing both the distinctions and the similarities. Each tale dramatizes a rebellion against the system: a slave helps a master, a student confronts his mentor, a reporter bucks lethal corporate power, an old man plans a breakout from confinement, a fabricant rises up to confront the “pureborn,” a man’s quest estranges him from his tribe.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Run, Lola, Run)

Of course, nearly every story, from Oedipus Rex to Argo, portrays someone in revolt; that’s called fiction. The question here is twofold: whether any of the individual Cloud Atlas tales packs enough suspense to fascinate the viewer, and, lacking that, whether the various story snippets, in concert, form some grand symphony. In both cases, the reluctant verdict is Not Quite. Tykwer directed the three episodes set in the 20th and 21st centuries; the Wachowskis helmed the three in the 19th century and the future. The most satisfying are probably Tykwer’s segments on Frobisher (for the poignancy) and Rey (for the thriller tropes) and the Wachowskis’ on Sonmi-451 (for the spectacular sterility of its design — and Matrix fans, did you catch the Neo reference?). The entire movie is no chore to sit through, but the emotional momentum grinds to a halt in the final, tribal chapter, in part because the screenwriters remain faithful to the pidgin English dialect that Mitchell created, and which is much easier for the eye to translate than the ear.

(READ: Why David Mitchell was a member of the 2007 TIME 100)

What’s curious is that Tykwer and the Wachowskis, who wrote original scripts for their most notable movies — or, in the case of Speed Racer, transformed the Japanese TV cartoon source into vivid kinetic poetry — were determined to show such fidelity, make that fealty, to the Mitchell novel, which created its own rules and rhythms for the page. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which the directors cite as their inspiration for the sort of huge, demanding epic they wanted to make, could exist only as a film (though Kubrick’s co-author, Arthur C. Clarke, subsequently novelized the screenplay). The Cloud Atlas movie exists as an illustration, a video book, of the novel. And to cram into the running time all of Mitchell’s important incidents, the Wachowskis and Tykwer necessarily employ brisk storytelling shorthand. That makes this the most conventional film any of them has made. When it dashes through the plot points, the movie is fine. It’s when it pole-vaults into the metaphysical empyrean that the strain shows.

(READ: Corliss’s contrarian review of the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer)

The film’s least conventional aspect — the casting of its major actors in a different role for each episode — should be, at the very least, fun: an all-star repertory company alternating as stars and bit players, often under mountains of prosthetics. Back in 1963, John Huston’s The List of Adrian Messenger called on Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Tony Curtis to appear in cameo roles caked in pounds of putty. In that impish spirit, Cloud Atlas offers some novelty value in allowing the viewer to spot, say, Hugo Weaving, a villain in all six episodes, as a Nurse Ratched type in the Cavendish hospital, or Hanks as Dermot “Duster” Hoggins, author of the lumpen novel Knuckle Sandwich, who, in a fit of anger that may strike a chord with the Wachowskis, throws a critic off a high balcony. But the tactic rarely escapes stunt casting, and the actors seem corseted rather than liberated by some of their impersonations.

(READ: Corliss on Lana Wachowski’s coming-out party at the Cloud Atlas premiere)

What sustained the filmmakers through the six dogged years of planning, financing, shooting and editing? The belief that if the impossible can be attempted, then it must be — and never mind whether it should be. The feeling persists that Tykwer and the Wachowskis made the picture to prove they could. Most viewers are likely to be impressed more by the magnitude of the effort than by the intended magnificence of the effect. This is a Terry Gilliam movie without the kinks, a Matrix without the narrative propulsion, a time-and-space oddity that remains frustratingly earthbound. Put it another way: Cloud Atlas is no Speed Racer.