Whatever the success of their various ventures, the Wachowski brothers seldom settle for the tried and the true in their approach to cinema. "The Matrix," probably still their best known work, demonstrates some genuine originality and, rarely, some real meaning in contemporary science fiction's familiar bag of stunts and special effects. If the two sequels progressed very little beyond the first film, mixing the mystical mumbo-jumbo and Eastern thought with a good deal of conventional nonsense repeated over and over, they still suggested something like the Wachowski touch.
Now the brothers, together with Tom Tykwer — three directors! — have transformed what must be a pretty strange novel, "Cloud Atlas," into a pretty strange film. Without any preparation beyond a line of prose on the screen, the directors shift half dozen stories and their people all over the world and all over time. The scenes move, with no chronological order, back and forth from the South Seas in the mid-19th century, to San Francisco in the 1970s, to England in 1936, to "Neo Seoul," Korea in 2144, to contemporary England, to some distant, undated post-apocalyptic future.
Some parallel actions and particular objects both interrupt and connect the stories — a character opens a door, for example, in one story and a character in another story passes through it. More important, the many different narratives often contain references to others--a young composer, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) in 1936 reads the journal of a lawyer traveling on a slave ship in 1849; Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a reporter in San Francisco, buys the recording of Frobisher's composition, "The Cloud Atlas Sextet," on the recommendation of his former lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy); her accidental meeting with Sixsmith leads her to a major investigative report, which provides one of the positive consequences of a series of fictions reverberating with violence and drenched in blood.
Probably the most significant and certainly the most unusual uniting device in "Cloud Atlas" originates in the cast itself. Several actors play a great many parts, all different from each other, in just about all the narratives. Most conspicuous, Tom Hanks impersonates a thuggish contemporary English writer, Dermot Hoggins; an evil doctor aboard the slave ship; a Scottish hotel clerk; a physicist who falls in love with Luisa Rey; and Zachary, the leader of a tribe of primitive survivors of some unspecified apocalypse.
Jim Broadbent gets almost as much screen time as Hanks, playing the novelist's publisher in a mostly comic narrative, the captain of the slave ship, and an elderly composer for whom Frobisher works as amanuensis. A Wachowski favorite, Hugo Weaving, serves as a distinguished German conductor, a wealthy slave trader, a contract killer, and a brutal nurse in a nursing home run like a prison. Like Hanks, Halle Berry takes on both major and minor roles, as the investigative reporter, as the older composer's wife, and as a visitor from an advanced civilization who joins with Hanks to find some way to save civilization in the barbarous days after doomsday.
Possibly the strangest of all the stories involves a young replicant, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), in the Korea of the future, where a group of rebels fights against the ruling government, Unanimity. She witnesses the horror of the government's use of replicants (right out of "Soylent Green") and becomes something like a prophet for her people, accepting sacrifice like a goddess, finding a sort of immortality in speaking to people of both past and present with noble words of sweet and harmless banality, apparently intended to provide thematic unity and moral edification to the whole of "Cloud Atlas."
The kaleidoscopic anthology of narratives and the multiple roles of so many well known actors display some of the characteristic Wachowski touch, their penchant for the unusual, their willingness to attempt large projects, their inclination toward science fiction, their apparent attraction to a sort of New Age, vaguely Transcendentalist metaphysics and mysticism. Such grand ambitions and gestures, of course, as "Cloud Atlas" demonstrates, don't necessarily guarantee a commensurate success; the movie may qualify as a sort of epic of space and time, but its epic scope lacks an epic vision.