Lana and Andy Wachowski (creators of The Matrix trilogy) plus Tom Tykwer (he directed Run Lola Run) team up to tackle David Mitchell's award-wining but deemed "unfilmable" 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas. The story concerns nothing less than the meaning of life and the binding fabrics of the universe crosscutting several timelines over the span of 500 years.
Featuring in multiple roles, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant the stories are stirred together in a genre mashup. It's part 19th century period tale, part '70s conspiracy thriller, part apocalyptic future, and more. The strength of the Cloud Atlas is how each moment dovetails into the next. The head-scratcher is that by the end of the nearly three-hour length you still don't know exactly what you've just witnessed.
And that's OK! Here's our helpful guide to get the most of your journey thru half a millennia:
1. Lots of make-up and the quadrupling of roles is distracting but mesmerizing: Tom Hanks as an 100-year-old man? Halle Berry unrecognizable as Chinese surgeon? That's just a fraction of the weirdness. Hanks plays several characters including a loner, a scientist, and best of all a nasty 19th century con man. The key is not in the roles (or all the obvious rubber noses) but that each character is always attracted to their cosmic partner. No matter the time, race, or even gender Hanks is always strangely fascinated by Berry. Got it?
Good because once that makes sense…
2. There are times when different actors play the same person: In the present Jim Broadbent is a struggling book publisher for a thuggish writer (Hanks in mobster mode). Later, Hanks plays a younger version of the publisher in a movie within a movie. Huh? Yup, because in this case, it's not about the connection between Hanks and Broadbent but how a meta-human in the future named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) relates to those characters' struggle for freedom.
3. The sci-fi Neo Seoul section is very Matrixy—and our favorite part: The easiest tale to digest is the most visually lush. In the year 2144, Yoona is a clone whose whole life is working at a fast food joint. She yearns for escape from her police state oppressors (like Neo versus the Agents). The pulse of the electronic music, the cool glow stick freeways, and the faster than bullets bullet-time: all good. And as Yoona recounts her tale to a man that looks like an Asian version of Jim Sturgess simple to understand.
4. Hugo Weaving as some tall green Leprechaun works but Hugh Grant as a brutal tribesman is awesome: We didn't even recognize Grant until the end credits (each actor is shown in their roles). Grant seems to relish sinking his teeth into such a bloodthirsty part even if we can't understand what he's saying but he's not the only one…
5. "True, true" and other nonsense dialect had us looking for a codex to understand: The furthest out there tale is After The Fall 2321 with Hanks and Berry dressed up in Waterworld–like attire. They speak in truncated isms but don't worry if you don't understand them (or even care). Sometimes big ambitious flicks like this are best enjoyed by not over thinking.
Don't give up! By the end you will (hopefullu) get a sense of… something. Seeing Cloud Atlas this weekend? Already seen? Sound off in the comments!