“Cloud Atlas”
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant
Directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski

It can be easy to get swept away by a movie that’s so challenging and ambitious in its scope that you fail (at least initially) to see how pretentious it really is. But that turns out to be the case with “Cloud Atlas,” the existential $102 million epic that’s co-directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings – the creative visionaries behind, respectively, “Run Lola Run” and “The Matrix” (both of which came out in 1999).

Based upon David Mitchell’s sprawling novel from 2004, “Cloud Atlas” tells six stories that span the course of five centuries. In 1849, an American attorney champions a defiant slave during a sea voyage among the Pacific Islands; in 1936, a famous British composer struggles to finish his defining opus; in 1973, a San Francisco journalist puts her life on the line to expose an industrial scandal; in 2012, a publisher faces unjust imprisonment after achieving his greatest success; in 2144, a genetically engineered worker in New Seoul embraces her destiny; and in the post-apocalyptic 24th Century, a goat herder harbors a crisis of conscience during his fight for survival.

These interwoven stories, told simultaneously, are tied together by the notion that the actions taken in the earlier stories will have ripple effects on the later ones. But despite some fleeting moments, the line that’s supposed to connect them is far too thin to hold the 172-minute movie together, and the individual stories – adapted for the screen by Tykwer and the Wachowskis – are too muddled, uneven and, at times, derivative to be remotely engaging or profound on an emotional level. (For example, the story set in New Seoul feels more like a cross between “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix” than the love story that it supposedly is.)

At least “Cloud Atlas” has better merits as an actor’s showcase, with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving playing different characters in each of the six stories. But more than just playing different roles, some of them go one step further to portray characters of different races and genders (the latter of which must have appealed to Lana Wachowski, the co-director previously known as the other Wachowski brother, Larry). The makeup process required for these changes can be a mixed bag, ranging from being too noticeably obvious to so amazingly subtle that the actors go almost unrecognizable through their scenes.

Movies with a provocative scope can range being complete failures like “The Fountain” to divisively mixed like “The Tree of Life” to flat-out brilliant like “Inception.” The knee-jerk reaction to qualify “Cloud Atlas” as the latter may be more understandable given its magnitude, but the challenge to tell six complex stories simultaneously pulls the film in so many different directions that it becomes a chore to follow. So while it’s admirable in its ambition, it’s haphazard in its execution, resulting in a clouded “Atlas” that’s quite literally all over the map.

-Scott Mantz