THESE ARE STRANGE movie times, when a big goofball sci-fi epic like "John Carter" can exist side-by-side with earnest spiritual questing like "Tree of Life."
You can get one-stop shopping this week with "Cloud Atlas," a daring daffy attempt by three directors (the Wachowski siblings, Tom Tykwer) to adapt David Mitchell's complex novel of souls searching through time and space for peace and fulfillment.
A lot to chew on, obviously, probably too much even for three directors working in a three-hour time frame (you may need a few cans of Monster).
But these are the right three directors. The novel's intonations of mysticism and a sci-fi savior are exactly in step with the Wachowski's "Matrix" themes, and no one who saw the five-minute tracheotomy scene in Tykwer's "The Princess and the Warrior" could have missed its powerful invocation of the miraculous and messianic.
The problem facing the directors isn't aptitude, it's the old bugaboo of book-to-movie barriers. Mitchell's 500-page tome exists in several centuries, and the souls of its characters skip from one to the next, lodging in different mortal vessels.
The directors reach for continuity here by moving the same actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae) from century to century, often under heavy make-up, to play different characters.
This pays wildly varying dividends on screen. I like Sturgess as a budding abolitionist befriending a stowaway slave in the 18th century, but not as a Korean freedom fighter 100 years hence, fighting for the human rights of clones.
"Cloud Atlas" has come under criticism for this latter element - there's something about western actors in asian make-up that makes the skin crawl, the jaw drop, the funny bone activate. The movie has a built-in defense: It's very subject is the portability of the soul, the dispensibility of the flesh. I laughed anyway.
On the other hand, the directors understand and make lucid the book's important themes of subjegation and emancipation: slaves in the old world, homophobia in the 19th century, corporate oppression in the 1970s, elderly rest-home detainees in the present, clones in the near future and post-apocalyptic survivors in the far future.
"Cloud Atlas" is impossibly straight-faced for the most part but springs to life in its present-day portion, as Broadbent leads a nursing-home uprising against a British nurse Wratched (Weaving, in drag). This thread is funny, heartwarming and, separated into its own movie and distributed in December by Harvey Weinstein, would probably be nominated for an Oscar.
At other times, "Cloud Atlas" is funny in ways it does not mean to be. Hanks is more than game here, positively Peter Sellers-esque as a quack, a hotelier, a nuclear physicist, in different eras with different faces, voices, costumes. But not even Hanks can dignify the movie's polynesian post-apocolypse, wherein he guides groovy get-up Berry past Satan (Weaving again) toward the beacon of light and hope redemption.
It's not Hanks' Mike Tyson tattoos that do him in. It's his post-literate lingo, something that speaks to us of movie catastrophes past. Where have we heard this before, the fractured syntax and the calypso rhythym?
It is the distinctive patois of Jar Jar Binks.
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at philly.com/KeepItReel.