Cloud Atlas has lofty intentions

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Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, and Hugh Grant. Rated 14A.

You have to give Cloud Atlas credit for sheer ambition. Based on David Mitchell’s critically acclaimed novel, it aspires to be a kind of karmic Gone With the Wind. At just under three hours long, it interweaves six different story lines that span the past, present, and future and sticks them into a kind of psychic blender. Its mission? To show us how humanity keeps recycling the same preoccupations throughout history: greed, love, vanity, and just about every emotion in between.

Tossing a delicate note of reincarnation into the mix only adds to the challenge of keeping things straight. Thankfully, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski—who share screenwriting and directing credit—are up to the task. It’s especially fun to see the team behind the Matrix series put their own spin on homages to everything from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Blade Runner.

Even so, we’re asked to juggle a lot of different themes and intentions here. It helps that the cast plays multiple roles throughout the narrative, increasing a sense of both continuity and déjà vu. Most of the heavy lifting is done by five principals: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and Jim Sturgess.

They all do good work, particularly Hanks, who revels in playing everything from a greedy doctor in the 1840s to a loutish contemporary novelist. The six interweaving stories are less consistent. They range from fascinating (a futuristic tale of slavery that manages to blend elements of Aldous Huxley with the fast-food industry) to predictable (a story about a caveman and an alien visitor that plays like a stale episode of Star Trek).

What we’re ultimately left with is, at best, entertaining and, at worst, all too familiar. At the same time, Cloud Atlas falls disappointingly short of its most lofty intention: despite much effort, it fails to touch us in any lasting emotional way.

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