CONTAINS HUGE SPOILERS, SORT OF
Whilst it's always nice to sink into your cinema seat and be rewarded with precisely what you expect down to the tiniest details and with absolutely no surprises, sometimes it's even nicer to be faced with a gloriously bizarre, one-off head trip which doesn't fit into any easily identified genre category and which could shoot off in a dozen different directions at any moment. Cloud Atlas is a wonderfully ill-advised folly: a massive 172-minute oddity with major stars rendered unrecognisable via wigs and make-up in up to half a dozen different roles: an epic anthology in which each of the six stories brushes thematically with the others and the whole giddy thing serving as its own wraparound. It may be baffling and the stories so wildly different in tone from abolitionist drama to tragic love story to conspiracy thriller to caper comedy to future dystopia to post-apocalypse SF, but somehow the six randomly selected jigsaws come together to form a larger, bigger picture of their own.
What we are, what we do, what we create, ripples down through the centuries and affects others in entirely unpredictable ways by pure chance. Chronologically, it begins in 1849 when lawyer Jim Sturgess' eyes are opened to the horrors of slavery on the Maori plantations; on the sea voyage home (captained by Jim Broadbent) greedy doctor Tom Hanks seeks to poison him. In the 1930s, Sturgess' published journal intrigues ambitious music student Ben Whishaw, who wangles a position assisting legendary but irascible composer Jim Broadbent. In 1970s San Francisco, crusading journalist Halle Berry uncovers a conspiracy at Hugh Grant's local atomic reactor (where composer Whishaw's one-time gay lover now works); she and scientist Tom Hanks are targeted by assassin Hugo Weaving. In present day England, a novel about Berry's adventures written by her next-door neighbour is sent to publisher Jim Broadbent, who has had an unexpected hit with thuggish Cockney author Tom Hanks' new book. He ends up imprisoned in a draconian retirement home owned by his brother Hugh Grant and ruled over by Hugo Weaving, but his subsequent escape is dramatised as a film starring Tom Hanks, and clips of it are watched in the future city of Neo Seoul by Doona Bae as a "fabricant", an artificial slave vital to the future economy: rescued by Jim Sturgess, she becomes a martyr to the revolution. And centuries later, after the apocalypse, her words are taken as Gospel by the farmers of the valleys (led by Tom Hanks)....
And so on. That's just the start of the interconnectedness, whether concerned with literature and music, giant themes such as slavery, references to Solzhenitsyn, or little remarks like the 2012 Broadbent quoting Soylent Green which nicely echoes another of the stories. Most of the cast turn up in multiple roles: Hanks is also a hotel receptionist in 1930s Cambridge, Grant also a woad-covered tribal warrior in the far future, Donna Bae is also Sturgess' wife in 1849. Some of these, to judge from their appearances in the end credits, are barely visible and one wonders whether a lot of footage was dropped and there's the possibility of a longer version in the offing. Even given the whopping three hours the film already runs, more wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing because it's incredibly engrossing. Nor do the stories get in the way of each other: they're intercut and edited together incredibly well and none of them drag so you're not left marking time waiting for them to go back to one of the others.
Somehow this spiritual centuries-spanning Short Cuts all works. Somehow the wild mix of genres and the shuffling of six entirely different stories with the same casts manages to hold together. It looks great throughout, and the CGI cityscape effects in the Neo Seoul segment are fantastic. If there are isolated niggles, such as the pidgin dialect of the far future being a little difficult to get a grip on (though not so difficult as to be entirely incomprehensible), Hugo Weaving in terrifying drag for no good reason or Hanks' hilarious stab at a Cockney accent, they don't really figure too much in the vast scheme. And, unusually for anthologies, there isn't a weak story among them; in fact you could probably make a perfectly satisfying feature out of each one.
Frankly I'm thrilled that someone stumped up so much money for something so bonkers and with so little chance of commercial success. Sadly not enough people will see it (it's been taken off my local 9-screener after just one week) and investors won't be willing to ante up for the kind of insanely risky projects the art of cinema really needs. But then Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis have never gone for the easy box-office route: Speed Racer and The International may not have been huge commercial successes but they're much underrated films. Cloud Atlas laughs dementedly in the face of formula, and it's more fun, more enjoyable and more exciting than anything else on the circuits right now. Hilarious, surprising, thrilling and horrifying by turns, it's absolutely worth seeing at least once.