WITH a three-hour-long narrative that spans multiple storylines and a few centuries, and action that takes place in different locations and dimensions on planet earth and beyond, Cloud Atlas is a complex, unconventional movie that aims for the stars but never achieves those heights. It is one long cinematic journey - or six short mind trips - that entertains at times but ultimately fails to deliver on its initial premise.
And what an ambitious premise it is. The film, based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell and written and directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski, explores how the lives of individuals from the past, present and future are inexorably linked across time and space.
To emphasise the point, each story features the same set of actors, portraying entirely different characters. It's an interesting but somewhat distracting device as I sometimes lost sight of the big picture while scanning the screen in search of familiar faces behind heavy prosthetics and thick make-up. Tom Hanks is instantly recognisable in every story - thanks to a combination of weird hairdos, bad facial hair and even worse accents - but others, like Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant, are harder to spot.
Hanks is ubiquitous throughout Cloud Atlas, showing up in the opening and closing scenes as a wizened old storyteller in a post-apocalyptic world, babbling in pidgin English about the natural order and the mysteries of the universe. In between are six yarns of varying tone and quality about people with interconnecting destinies. Directorial duties are divided equally between Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International) and the Wachowskis (the Matrix series).
The intercutting stories begin with the Pacific Ocean voyage of a 19th-century lawyer (Jim Sturgess) who contends with a stowaway (David Gyasi) on his journey home as well as the evil doings of an onboard doctor (Hanks). Then we're transported to 1930s Britain and a young composer (Ben Whishaw) with a musical masterpiece in his head, before moving on to San Francisco in 1973, where a journalist (Halle Berry) is on the trail of an unscrupulous industrialist (Grant).
The narrative morphs into a current-day London, where a publisher (Jim Broadbent) is tricked by his brother (Grant again) into staying at a home for the mentally ill. In futuristic Neo-Seoul of 2144, a worker clone (Doona Bae) who plays a vital role in a rebel uprising is interviewed before her execution. The last scenario takes place on Hawaii a century after the near-extinction of the human race. Here, a humble goatherd (Hanks) struggles to stay alive, even as he holds the key to a new beginning.
All these stories converge upon a couple of common themes ("We are bound to others", "I will not be subject to criminal abuse") and although each varies greatly in mood and style, the filmmakers link everything together by cross-referencing characters who transcend time and place.
Well, sort of. The directors have admirable ambitions and manage to overcome some of the challenges posed by such a unique storytelling structure, but there is also a vaguely disconcerting notion that - despite the inherent entertainment value - the entire exercise is simply too clever for its own good. By trying too hard, this yarn creates yawning gaps that no amount of moviemaking razzle-dazzle can solve.