On a technical level, Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas is a mammoth, daunting proposition.  Their adaptation of David Mitchell’s postmodern novel fragments and abstracts Mitchell’s already fragmented and abstracted literary narrative; both versions detail six interlocking stories – a Pacific sea voyage from the 1850s, the musical travails of a bisexual amanuensis, a noir-ish mystery starring an intrepid reporter, a gently satirical comedy about a publisher trapped in a nursing home, a sci-fi thriller with clones fighting for independence, and an epic adventure centering on hunter-gatherer tribes struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic Earth – but while Mitchell gives readers the first half of each story before cycling back around and finishing with the second halves, the Wachowskis and Tykwer freely edit between tales, blithely disregarding traditional notions of time and space.

A scene might begin with a hitman (Hugo Weaving) pursuing Halle Berry’s pesky journalist, shift to Tom Hanks’ futuristic forager as he scales the ruins of an obliterated Paris, and then end in Vienna as the amanuensis (the great Ben Whishaw) squabbles with the brilliant-but-egotistical composer (Jim Broadbent) who employs him.  These transitions happen in cuts, in simple camera moves, with the audience having to rely on repeated visual motifs and auditory cues to tie everything together.  In terms of sheer cinematic audacity, the filmmaking in Cloud Atlas eclipses anything else released in 2012.

However, that level of disorientation is misleading.  As spatially and narratively off-kilter as Cloud Atlas can be, the six stories that comprise it are remarkably engaging.  Each is highly reminiscent of familiar genre fiction.  You can feel Moby Dick in the sea voyage just as surely as E.M. Forster informs the amanuensis’ story.  The mystery is practically Raymond Chandler-lite, while the publisher’s travails feel culled from Stella Gibbons-by-way-of Terry Gilliam, and the sci-fi adventure has echoes of Soylent Green and the Wachowskis’ own The Matrix.  We understand these journeys because we’ve made the trips many times.

And that familiarity lends the film great power.  Because we recognize the broad strokes of each vignette, we’re free to pay attention to other elements, and boy oh boy, do the Wachowskis and Tykwer have a lot in store.  They’re interested in life, the universe, and everything, and the micro-connections that link us all together.  The six stories nest within one another, yet their importance extends past the surface references that pop up here and there.  An act of cruelty ripples through the landscape of the film to motivate deep compassion later on, just as the relationship between star-crossed lovers (Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae) in the 1850s vibrates the socio-political fabric of Korea in 2144.

It’s a grand statement: we are all joined, from our actions to the entertainment that defines us; the transcendental realms in Cloud Atlas run through Thoreau and Emerson.  Maybe that’s why the six stories fit together so remarkably well – as different as each is, they all operate in the same universe.

Nowhere is this interconnectedness more apparent than in the film’s performances.  On its own, Cloud Atlas would have an impressive cast; the filmmakers brought together a team that includes not just Hanks, Berry, Weaving, Whishaw, Broadbent, Sturgess, and Bae but also James D’Arcy, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, David Gyasi, and Hugh Grant (marvelous as the biggest rotter in each timeline).  The kicker is, every person plays five or six parts.  Sometimes a part is just window-dressing, like when Hanks shows up in the peripheries of the Korea story to play a popular film actor, but more often that not, each actor’s role informs their characters throughout time and space.

Of the large cast, Whishaw and Broadbent deserve highest marks – they are heartbreakingly good as the amanuensis and the beleaguered book publisher – though Hanks does some of his best work ever in a challenging sequence of roles.  It’s a full performance in five parts (an unscrupulous doctor, a shifty hotel manager, a conflicted researcher, a gangland thug, and a frightened tribesman), with each element reflecting a different stage in his transcendental development.  The overall effect is one of great unity – Tykwer and the Wachowskis convey the sense of souls mingling and permeating through the ether.

So what’s it all about, then?  It’s about violence.  And love.  And betrayal and ambition and fear, and how those feelings tend to intermingle.  It’s about the power of art, which can override reality, if necessary.  It’s about all the messy details and the big picture.  It’s about…

Well, I was going to say everything, actually.  Cloud Atlas has that kind of scope and range; it is visionary in its take on reality, and it is visionary in how much it wants to say.

Warner’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack gives the film a stunning HD transfer.  The movie is almost three hours long, and there’s an additional hour of special features, but the picture is always clean and sharp and free of digital banding.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is predictably impressive, as well.

For special features, we get fifty-or-so minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes: “A Film Like No Other,” “ Everything is Connected,” “The Impossible Adaptation,” “The Essence of Acting,” “Spaceships, Slaves, and Sextets,” “The Bold Science Fiction of Cloud Atlas,” and “Eternal Recurrence: Love, Life and Longing in Cloud Atlas.”

Cloud Atlas streets on May 14th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: Masterful, Visionary CLOUD ATLAS Shows How We’re All Connected