Watching "Cloud Atlas" is like being on a weirdly elongated, electrifying roller coaster.
At some point during its 172-minute running time -- yes, eight minutes shy of three hours and you will want to sit through the credits -- you have to simply raise your hands off the grab bar and just enjoy the ride. That is especially true if you, like I, haven't read the 2004 source novel by David Mitchell with its six narratives written in different styles.
It's dazzling although not as satisfying as more conventional movies such as "Argo," but it traffics in Big Themes and Ideas.
"Cloud Atlas," with an eclectic ensemble led by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and another dozen notables, is ambitious, risky and grand. It touches down in six time periods, from the mid-19th century to the 24th century, with some members of the sprawling cast playing as many as six roles.
3 stars = Good
- Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent.
- Rating: R for violence, language, sexuality, nudity and some drug use.
Its settings include: 1849 Pacific Islands where a plantation owner (Hugh Grant) believes slaves are like camels and don't feel the heat. They, of course, not only feel the searing sun but the sting of the lash, and when a visiting San Francisco attorney (Jim Sturgess) witnesses a flogging, he faints.
In 1936 Scotland, a talented young musician (Ben Whishaw) apprentices himself to a famous composer (Mr. Broadbent) who covets his work, while in 1973 San Francisco, a journalist (Ms. Berry) nosing around a nuclear power plant may be faced with the choice between her story and her life.
And so it goes until the time and places become less recognizable and more futuristic.
The story rockets into a primitive, post-apocalyptic era, with Mr. Hanks as a goat herder, Ms. Berry an emissary of an advanced human community called Prescients and Mr. Grant the leader of a marauding band of cannibal warriors. Even the language has dissolved into a stripped-down English that is understandable, if annoying.
Directed and adapted by Tom Tykwer and siblings Lana (formerly Larry) and Andy Wachowski, "Cloud Atlas" is built on the idea that: "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness."
It explores how the actions and consequences of individual lives impact one another through the past, present and future. Mistakes can be rectified or repeated, villains turned into heroes and soulmates reunited across time, even as touchstones (a piece of symphonic music, a traveler's journal, a manor later converted into a home for the elderly) appear and reappear.
Part of the fun is seeing how the actors are reborn in different stories thanks to extraordinary hair and makeup changes. Hugo Weaving, at one point, plays a hateful female nurse, Korean-born Doona Bae is a Hispanic factory worker and a replicant, while Chinese actress Xun Zhou becomes a male hotel clerk, and that's just a fraction of the Rubik's cube of roles and disguises.
At a time when many filmmakers are content to play it safe, safer or safest with projects that can be easily explained before Dave or Jay or Jimmy cuts to commercial, the Wachowski siblings and Mr. Tykwer (who also composed the music with Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil) are to be commended for their remarkable risk-taking.
"Cloud Atlas" is both accessible and inaccessible and you wouldn't want to do it every Saturday night, but taking a leap of film faith now and then is good for the soul -- or souls.