Wordsworth likened clouds to lonely, wandering souls, but according to writer David Mitchell and the brave filmmakers who have adapted his novel, all souls are connected. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry lead the ensemble, playing a multitude of characters making choices that shape the world between 1849 and 2346. This is a fascinating, far-out story, though it slightly exceeds the storytellers' grasp.
Taken individually, there is nothing especially difficult to fathom about each storyline and those set in recent times resonate in a more obvious way. In the 1970s, Berry is a reporter determined to expose corruption at a nuclear facility, which follows a brief encounter with James D'Arcy, who also features in an earlier thread as the sweetheart of an unsung composer (a standout Ben Whishaw).
A sense of impending doom hangs over these people and for Doona Bae as a 'fabricant' living a life of servitude in a futuristic Seoul. Jim Sturgess is her liberator in a Blade Runner-style plot that seems a more natural fit for directors Lana and Andy Wachowski (who previously collaborated on The Matrix series) with third wheel Tom Tykwer, presumably, lending his flair for the surreal.
An even more distant vision of the future feels positively dreamlike, with Hanks and Berry chatting in a strange dialect as she seeks his help to find an ancient citadel. He is beset by primal fears (Hugo Weaving, his demon) and along with the rugged backdrop and tribal way of life it seems humanity has devolved. This chapter closes a loop that begins on a slave ship, with Sturgess, in 1849.
The quest for freedom is a unifying theme, but the gravity of what binds these characters together is tempered by lighter moments. Mostly, these are contained in a story featuring Jim Broadbent desperately trying to break out of an old peoples' home. Hugh Grant is the villain of that piece and a clutch of others - though in his role as a '70s oligarch, it isn't clear whether the laughs are intentional.
Dots are joined across the vastness of time and space, but it's a fragile structure that Tykwer and the Wachowskis have fashioned here, making for a somewhat unnerving experience. Every cut between stories is a flying leap, until the final hour (of three) when the threads are gradually entwined. If the idea is to demonstrate the universe in harmony, that doesn't translate as a feeling.
In an attempt to bridge the gaps the filmmakers are overly dependent on recurring motifs (like a shooting star birthmark) and familiar faces popping up time after time - though occasionally made to look almost unrecognisable. But there are so many tonal shifts as well, from romance to adventure, sci-fi to conspiracy thriller to quintessential British comedy. It could never be a perfect whole.
That said, Cloud Atlas is never boring. Tykwer and the Wachowskis make a virtue of everything that is unexplained, creating genuine awe and mystery. Watching it is a bit like staring into a Magic Eye drawing because the visual clues are there, drawing you deeper in to see the bigger picture - but it's just as frustrating too, because when you think you've taken it all in, everything blurs.