If Cloud Atlas represents one possible future for cinema, then it is completely appropriate - considering the time-hopping subject matter - that its form and execution should feel so firmly rooted in the distant past. Its ridiculously ambitious scope, encompassing six interrelated storylines stretching over several centuries (and nearly three hours of running time), echoes the envelope-pushing innovations of silent-movie pioneer D.W.Griffith and his 1916 melodrama Intolerance. Like that legendarily overblown ground-breaker, Cloud Atlas also touches upon themes of oppression, injustice, and persecution. Only now we get two additional plot threads for good measure, and Tom Hanks doing an unspeakably horrifying Irish accent.
Much has been made of the filmmakers' lofty ambitions, adapting a supposedly unfilmable novel by David Mitchell, and mounting one of the most expensive independent movies ever made. Then there's the bold (if somewhat barking) decision to use the same core group of actors in every story, even using unconvincing prosthetics to help them change race. There are more costume changes here than during panto season at the West End.
Given the awe-inspiring statistics involved, it's easy to overlook, at least for a short while, the film's many shortcomings. Ultimately, no amount of dazzle and narrative convolution can disguise the fact that Atlas's six plotlines, which unfold simultaneously via Alexander Berner's remarkably seamless editing, essentially tell the same story six times, and never as well as one fully-developed concept might have done.
To give away too much of the actually pretty thin conceit would be to spoil the film's kaleidoscopic effect. Suffice it to say that it's a roll-call of popular genres, from the 70s political thriller through the British farce to the dystopian sci-fi, all of them crammed awkwardly into the same breathing space for three hours, until the whole thing starts to resemble an incident with a broken elevator at a comic book convention.
Occasionally, the cumulative impact of the stories does have the intended power, underlining the film's wide-eyed and infectious message of the inter-connectedness of human lives, and our shared destiny as a species. More often, the leaps from comedy to tragedy are jarring; When the horrific sight of human flesh being processed for food in a factory is unceremoniously replaced by Jim Broadbent staging a breakout from a retirement home run by Agent Smith himself, Hugo Weaving, in drag, the results are cringeworthy. These scenes, looking like something straight out of a BBC1 sitcom (and not one of the good ones, either), are easily the worst bits of the movie, and should have been the first things to end up on the cutting-room floor. Although they're given a run for their money by the post-apocalyptic scenes of Tom Hanks as a tribesman, which are just quite dull.
Speaking of BBC-level production values, considering its 100 million plus budget the design of the film is often cheap-looking and creaky - a bit like a Doctor Who Christmas special that somebody in the script department has allowed to get well out of hand.
Having said all this, it feels a little mean-spirited to poke holes in a movie so clearly made with sincerity and passion. The fact that it is a labour of love for everyone involved is readily apparent; It's hard to think of why else the Wachowski brothers (of Matrix fame) and Tom Tykwer, all of whom co-wrote and directed the project, would have invested so much time and difficulty in such an un-commercial work. Or why Hugh Grant could have decided it was a good idea to run about in a loincloth or disguise himself (very badly) as an Asian person. Obviously, yes, on one level...on many levels, it's utterly mad, severely flawed, and likely to go down in history as a legendary folly. But what's wrong with that? If only there were more movies of this size willing to take such risks and flout so many tenets of conventional wisdom and Hollywood box-ticking. After all, how many recent blockbusters have featured protagonists from a broad array of ethnicities, or foregrounded a gay love story? The answer, obviously, is not enough. In a world where franchised crap keeps getting flushed out into our multiplexes, ultimately it's hard not to sentimentally admire something as nuts as Cloud Atlas. Even if one can't actually recommend going to see it...
This particular cloud's silver lining, however, could be the directions it maps out for blockbusters of the future. Its innovative structure, pushing away from the constraints of the mainstream system, and multi-racial casting, read like blueprints for the screen entertainment of tomorrow. Maybe, as in the subsequent futures portrayed by Cloud Atlas, somebody will get it right next time...