Spanning centuries and genres, the film breaks apart the book’s chronological and mirrored presentation and instead places the six stories parallel to each other, cutting between the stories with a gleeful, witty, dexterous montage that recalls D.W. Griffith’s 1916 feature Intolerance in the way it so skillfully weaves in and out of varying plotlines. A massive undertaking, three directors, Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (of The Matrix films and Speed Racer) split the six sections among them, adapting and directing separately but from a shared common vision so that the story flows both stylistically and emotionally. Like some strange geometric object with many sides and layers, the film grows all the more epic by expanding outwards through time and space.
Almost too much to handle in one sitting, this film is a rush of character and incident, themes and patterns, echoes upon echoes, all distinctive melodies that fade and reoccur time and again. Some sequences play more successfully than others, but the film is largely fascinating and generally gripping as it becomes a symphony of imagery and genre, returning again and again to mistakes humankind makes, the benefits and constraints of orderly society, and the way underdogs try to find the right thing to do against all odds. The themes play out repeatedly in a flurry of glancingly interconnected genre variations. What appears as drama later plays as comedy, as action, as mystery, as tragedy. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have put the film together in such a way that the editing escalates with the intensity of each plotline, bouncing in an echoing flurry during rhyming plot points (escapes, reversals of fortune, setbacks, reunions) and settling down for more languid idylls when the plots simply simmer along. By turns thrilling, romantic, disturbing, suspenseful, and sexy, there’s a fluidity here that makes this a breathless three-hour experience. The film moves smoothly and sharply between six richly imagined stories that connect more spiritually and metaphysically than they do literally, and yet artifacts of one story may appear in another, sets may be redressed for maximum déjà vu, characters in one story may dream glimpses of another. This isn’t a puzzle to be solved, but rather a stylish assertion that people are inescapably connected to their circumstances and to those who lived before and will live after.
Though some will undoubtedly be turned away by its earnest (if vague) spirituality and messy philosophical bombast, this is the kind of film that, if you let it, opens up an endless spiral of deep thoughts. You could think it over and spin theories about what it all means for hours. To me, that’s part of the fun. It’s a historical drama, a romance, a mystery, a sci-fi epic, a comedy, and a post-apocalyptic fantasy all at once. In placing them all in the same film and running them concurrently Tykwer and the Wachowskis have created a moving and exciting epic that seems to circle human nature as each iteration finds characters struggling against societal conventions to do the right thing. The powerful scheme and rationalize ways to stay on top; those below them yearn for greater freedom and greater meaning. There’s much talk about connection and kindred spirits; at one point a character idly wonders why “we keep making the same mistakes…” It accumulates more than it coheres, and yet that’s the bold, beautiful mystery of Cloud Atlas, that it invites a viewer into a swirl of imagery, genre, and character, to be dazzled by virtuosic acting and effective filmmaking, to get lost amongst the connections and coincidences, to enjoy and perhaps be moved by the shapes and patterns formed by souls drifting through time and space.