The trailer for Cloud Atlas, the gargantuan new movie of David Mitchell's 2004 novel that took two Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer to adapt, looks less like a preview than a whole slate of coming attractions, so many and varied are the times and places that it touches down.
The box-office success of Christopher Nolan's multi-tiered Inception in 2010 makes this sort of busy, "difficult" blockbuster suddenly viable, though even with such a precedent, it was necessary for the filmmakers to gather their budget from independent financiers. More than anything in the contemporary multiplex, however, Cloud Atlas resembles D. W. Griffith's 1916 "drama of comparisons" Intolerance, with its four parallel narratives. What does it say about studio moneymen when the innovations of a century ago are still "too risky"?
Like Mitchell's book, Cloud Atlas contains six narratives set into parallel motion, each coming in and out of view regularly like figures in a carousel. Briefly: In 1849, an American lawyer, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), pays a business visit to a Pacific Island plantation run along the cruel Simon Legree model by its owner (Hugh Grant). In the period before World War II, we find Ewing's diary in the hands of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), an aspiring composer who, after taking leave of his lover, goes to work in Edinburgh as amanuensis to an aging idol, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). Wearing old-age makeup, Frobisher's ex-lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy), reappears in 1973 San Francisco, blowing the whistle on the inside-job abuses of a nuclear plant honcho (Grant, again) to Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), an investigative reporter with a Huey Newton peacock chair in her apartment.
Compared to all this, the contemporary-set comic-relief plight of Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent), the head of a boutique London publishing house who accidentally signs himself into an assisted-living facility, seems rather innocuous — but the future will hold no more peace than the past. In "Neo Seoul," Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) lives her entire life as chattel in servitude at a fast-food restaurant, threatened with a fatal invisible-fence collar should she try to leave — and man is still governed by terror in a post-apocalyptic "After the Fall" period, where Zachry (Tom Hanks), member of an agrarian tribe that speaks devolved pidgin English, lives in fear of both cannibal barbarians and a race of technologically advanced outlanders called Prescients.
In Griffith's Intolerance, the stories are connected by the theme of prejudice and dogmatism through the ages. It's bondage and manumission that run through Cloud Atlas: Ewing helps a slave to freedom; Frobisher must win emancipation from the plagiaristic, blackmailing Ayrs to complete his opus, the "Cloud Atlas" sextet; Sonmi-451 is liberated by Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), a freedom fighter who raises her revolutionary consciousness; Zachry must overcome his fear of native superstition, mouthed by a ridiculous imaginary bogeyman, in order to help a visiting Prescient (played by Berry).
The same voices and faces — that is, actors — recur in different roles all along Cloud Atlas's timeline, even playing against racial type and gender: Sturgess dons epicanthic folds and Kyle MacLachlan's hair in Neo Korea; Berry wears whiteface as Ayrs's wife, etc. The results generally make one think more about putty noses than about the transmigration of souls, as intended.
Cloud Atlas is not without magical thinking of its own: The protagonists of each segment are linked by a shooting-star birthmark, suggesting pre-destination behind their righteously disobedient lives. The movie certainly places itself on the side of the angels in the eternal struggle between the owned and owners — and it's tempting to pull for a formally ambitious, queer-friendly, R-rated blockbuster that unapologetically uses the word "amanuensis" and seems designed to drag viewers into uncomfortable new idioms. There is, however, a viewing experience to consider.
You might wonder how so many stories can be told properly in two and a half hours. The answer is that they cannot. Attempts to link the sections via a chain of texts passed through the generations — Ewing's diary, Frobisher's sextet, a film based on Cavendish's ordeal — seem like clumsy afterthoughts. The associative cuts between eras are smartly worked out, and everything fits together, but that's all they do. Each segment feels like more like an extended trailer for itself than a sound narrative unit. Maybe this incompletion is purposeful — "Our lives are not our own. We're bound to others," as one of the movie's many maxims has it — but it's a problem when what's invariably elided or taken for granted is the very human connection and commiseration that is supposedly the most vital force in the universe. There is a great deal of humbug about art and love in Cloud Atlas, but it is decidedly unlovable, and if you want to learn something about feeling, you're at the wrong movie.
Seemingly destined to reinforce the Wachowskis' image as multiplex subversives, Cloud Atlas reduces "love" to one of its many slogans. "We must all fight — and, if necessary, die — to teach people the truth" goes another. Insofar as I can figure, the Wachowskis' particular "truth" strives toward a utopian ideal that has something to do with wearing hemp homespuns, a là the crusty rave scene in Matrix Reloaded. The same militant posing marked 2006's V for Vendetta, which the Wachowskis produced and scripted and which surrendered any claim to serious contemporary commentary by using the loaded visual vocabulary of 1930s-vintage fascism, and it was in the "Wake up, sheeple" shrillness of The Matrix, whose schismatic red pill/blue pill hook predicted Cloud Atlas's simplified historical long view. But even Paul Ryan likes to rage against the machine — and who isn't an enemy of totalitarianism and slavery, at least in theory? Although there's much about Cloud Atlas that seems daring, its traffic in crude and blustering generalizations is resolutely safe.