‘The nature of our immortal lives lies in the consequences of our actions.” Thus spake Sonmi-451, a Fabricant, one of many identical cloned slaves in the post-eco-apocalyptic future depicted in “Cloud Atlas,” the phenomenal new film codirected by Lana and Andy Wachowski of “The Matrix” and Tom Tykwer of “Run Lola Run.” According to the laws of karma, around which this Rubik’s Cube of a film seems to have been constructed, lives fade into lives and our future course will be rooted in both present and past actions. The weight of ingrained impulses — karma — becomes blind destiny. Unless we break out of it.
“Cloud Atlas” attempts, with vast ambition, to show how this notion plays out over the course of centuries, weaving together six distinct tales to show the eternal life of the soul, and the impact of individual actions on all of humanity. The directors reinforce this notion by having the same actors — Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant and others — appearing in story after story, sometimes almost unrecognizable: A black character becomes white, white becomes Asian, female becomes male, the same couple meet 300 years later, a poisoner becomes the poisoned, an energy industry CEO becomes a blood-thirsty cannibal … Well, maybe that last one’s not such a stretch.
Some people say that this is a hard film to follow; some people clearly need to be taking their Ritalin. After the flurry of the first 20 minutes when all the story lines are laid out, you can settle in and be blown away by the ease and grace with which the filmmakers skip between their strands. Remember that classic segue in “2001″ where Kubrick cuts from the ape’s bone thrown into the air to a satellite orbiting in space? “Cloud Atlas” hits that sweet spot about a dozen times, as scene after scene echoes one that came previously.
In 1849 we see slaves on a New World plantation, their facial tattoos redolent of a preindustrial past as their white owners discuss the “natural order” of the races. In 2047 we see Sonmi-451 being lectured by the ruling Unanimity in Neo-Seoul on the natural order of human rule over clones. Several hundred years later we find the survivors on a radiated planet — perhaps due to the actions of a shady industrialist in the 1970s strand — wearing facial tattoos and driven by superstition, the white race thrown back on the primitivism it once derided in its slaves. There it’s a black woman, a Prescient, who is one of the sole surviving receptacles of civilization’s knowledge.
Heady stuff, and this is barely touching on the directions “Cloud Atlas” blazes into — ideas as viruses, parallel-universe theory and the good old notion that love is all you need. Yet despite the emphasis on the metaphysical, this is no “Tree of Life”: The Wachowskis and Tykwer have their art-house ambitions tempered by their mainstream reflexes, and more often than not, this serves them well. “Cloud Atlas” quickly builds to cliffhangers in all six stories, and the film tilts into guns-blazing sci-fi chases as easily as it does a comedy bit when a group of oldsters break out of their nursing home. Escape becomes the film’s ultimate theme, but the pleasures of escapism are plenty too.