Special effects, interlocking stories, role-swapping actors, and a New Age ethos pervade <i>Cloud Atlas</i>, the latest Hollywood-flavored mindbender from the folks behind <i>The Matrix</i>.

Most of the DNA structure of this swirly film can be explained by the casting of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in multiple roles — strands introduced to reinforce a Hollywood-spawned pabulum philosophy lurking under the surface of something that looks daring, innovative, and confusing. Both Hanks and Berry are good actors, but in this film, in multiple roles, these big-screen presences lull us into calm acceptance of a dumb set of morals tacked onto what ought to be a nice kaleidoscopic mix. They are the little wink at the end of the confusion that promises that, even after injustice and tragedy, we can tell the kids a story by the fireside and go to bed.

Cloud Atlas is short-attention-span theater for ADD folk. Yet the script, based on David Mitchell’s novel, is nicely diverse. At least six subgenres tangentially connect: a slave melodrama set in the 1800s; a nuclear power plant paranoid thriller; a tragic tale of music composition and the love that dares not name its name; a science-fiction post-holocaust adventure with made-up futuristic pidgin English dialogue; and, perhaps most inventively furbished, the Matrix-like story of a cloned human rescued by radicals intent on saving humanity from heartless (and faceless) technocrats.

To be fair, the film is almost three hours long and never boring. If you feel tedium setting in, don’t worry: The channel will change automatically, with clever editing tricks galore. Best of all, the stories all end like a string of fireworks with rich counterpoints — triumphant science-fiction victory followed by a preventable suicide. But it’s really just a New Age answer to the questions raised in dozens of kindred films: Babel, Magnolia, and Short Cuts, for instance. These are movies that suggest our connections are chance and absurdity. Cloud Atlas prefers hints of reincarnation and immortality and even misquotes Marge Simpson, who once said: “God never closes a door without opening a window.” Well, here’s the window, and it’s a pretty cloudy one indeed.


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