If I may steal from Tolstoy: competently-made movies are all alike, ambitiously messy movies are all ambitiously messy in their own way. Which is as much to say, Cloud Atlas is basically a disaster, but it's a disaster that held me in a complete rapture for the entirety of its beyond-bloated 172-minute running time, and a disaster that could never have happened if talented people with bold ideas hadn't been willing to spend a ludicrous amount of other people's money to realise their visions at the cost of anything else. It is a disaster that I loved like I have loved few other movies in 2012 and if personal edification were the only component in selecting a star rating, would give this a perfect 5.

That would be poor reviewing, though, and the fact of the matter is that I can't imagine who I'd recommend Cloud Atlas to, any more than I can imagine who I'd recommend should definitely avoid it. That's the problem with absurdly singular movies: they aren't comparable to anything else.

A collaboration between the seemingly unlikely talents of Tom Tykwer, of Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and the Wachowski siblings, of The Matrix and Speed Racer, the film is adapted from an unadaptable 2004 novel by David Mitchell (Tykwer's been to the "unadaptable" well before, but Cloud Atlas does a better job of it than Perfume), which tells six stories in a nested, ABCDEFEDCBA structure that could be recreated in a cinematic form, but would undoubtedly not be very exciting if it was, and so instead the movie Cloud Atlas opts for the simpler shape of intercutting between those stories in grand old D.W. Griffith fashion. The other notable trait of the book, that each of the six stories is written in a completely different voice and style, is translated rather more directly, so that each of the six narrative threads in the movie is represented as a different genre.

And that's how we end up with a sea-going adventure about a mad doctor and a young businessman set in the South Pacific in 1849, a gay love drama in Belgium in 1932, a political thriller about a crusading journalist in 1973 Southern California, a "quirky old Britishers" comedy in 2012, a future-shock action movie in "Neo-Seoul" in 2144, and a post-apocalypse adventure set in what appears to be, possibly, the ruins of New Zealand "106 years after the Fall"; Tykwer having directed the more generally realistic 1932, 1973, and 2012 segments, with the Wachowskis taking over the more nutsoid period/sci-fi episodes.

In all six of these stories, characters are played by a cluster of actors who appear in wildly different forms: Tom Hanks is a scientist here, a tribal leader there, a hotel manager in another place; Jim Broadbent is a venal composer, an addled writer, a ship captain; other actors in for the fun include Halle Berry, Ben Whisaw, Bae Doona, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and Hugo Weaving, the last of whom comes the closest to playing the same character in all six episodes in that he is fairly consistently a bad guy. Men play women, women play men, white people play ethnic mutts in a future Korea, Koreans play whites in a past San Francisco, middle-aged people play old people in make-up so unbelievable that makes me sorry for all the mean things I said about Armie Hammer in J. Edgar. All of which actually serves to make the movie stronger, in at least this regard, than the book; for the book could merely posit that these characters are interrelated across time, while the movie can dramatically demonstrate how personalities re-occur throughout history, and thus strengthen very much its them of something kind of like reincarnation but not exactly that, in which patterns happen over and over again, and people are linked by their place in that pattern, retelling the same kind of emotional journeys in seemingly irreconcilable locations and cultures.

Sure, it's one part New Agey hokum, and one part sentimental overkill - the film's overriding message, never exactly obscure, but pounded into the viewer's face like a wrecking ball in the final 20 minutes ore so, is that love transcends all things, time and space and death - but Tykwer and the Wachowskis are fiercely committed to fleshing it out anyway, and far better to have hokey sentiment treated with enthusiasm and passion than to have anything that only approaches its theme with subdued conviction. The one thing that can never be said against Cloud Atlas is that it lacks conviction: even the things about it that are the worst, such as the clumsy attempt at writing dialogue in post-Fall vernacular (inherited from the book, where it worked better), the parts of the make-up that are fucking awful (Grant as an old man, Bae as a Caucasian), or the weaker performances (Hanks and Berry, both of them owing in no small part to those actors being stuck with some of the loopier parts to play), are all victims of proud ambition, not of weak half-measures.

And the parts that work are so much better than the parts that don't work: the strange meta-criticism of the 2012 sequence, which mocks its genre even while indulging in its worst tendencies; the rich, wholly unmodulated emotions of 1932 (the best segment, in my estimation); the over-the-top CGI in Neo-Seoul (my least-favorite, but with the most imaginative and engaging visuals) that manages to look unreal in a way far more artistic and deliberate than most blockbuster films that only want to use visual effects in a leadenly photo-realistic manner; the score by Tykwer, Reinhold Heil, and Johnny Klimek, which serves a key narrative function (the title comes from the "Cloud Atlas Sextet", composed in 1932), and if it is not as life-altering as the script wants it to be, it's still one of the few truly beautiful scores to come out of a year that has been, so far, a low water mark for film music; the cutting together of moments from across the six stories, sometimes tied together by visual elements, sometimes by emotional beats, sometimes by narrative links, sometimes just in service of a jolt of momentum; Broadbent, who hasn't been this alive in ages and ages; and the sheer puzzle-box fun of keeping track of who's playing who and what lines and concepts get repeated, a game that does not as far as I can tell deepen the meaning of the film at all, but is much more fun to play here than in e.g. a po-faced Chris Nolan picture.

Movies this idiosyncratic don't get made all that often; movies this idiosyncratic on a budget this inflated don't get made but once every handful of years, and on that front alone, Cloud Atlas is essential cinema: genuinely visionary, to use a word that gets crapped out too often with too little understanding of what that word means, and wildly varied in the nature and style of those visions without ever feeling like a patchwork made up of disparate and incompatible elements (so visionary, in fact, that it's made me want to re-appraise Speed Racer, which does similar things aesthetically): in fact, one of the most impressive things about the film is how well it all fits together despite two distinct authorial voices working in multiple genres. It is, I think, a hard film to like but an awfully easy film to love, and almost as easy to deeply hate. Better by far that than just another chunk of respectably forgettable Oscarbait, of that I have no doubt.