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So Mr. Hanks is a rapacious doctor in 1849, a murderous thug with artistic pretensions in 2012, a cowardly goatherd inching toward enlightenment in the 24th century. Miss Berry is a white Jewish adulteress in the 1930s, a gutsy journalist in the 1970s, an Asian medical man in the 22nd century and part of an elite race of survivors in the 24th.

The film’s prologue is an assault of images and characters introducing six time periods and stories, with “Cloud Atlas” then settling into a kaleidoscope that shifts from era to era, deconstructing the chronological structure of the half-dozen narratives in Mr. Mitchell’s novel.

“There are going to be people out there who are going to say, ‘Who do they think they are to make this movie like this?’ That’s been the case with every great film. They said the same thing about ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ in the silent days,” Mr. Hanks said. “I think every audience is yearning to be surprised.

“I am bored when I walk into the theater expecting A, B and C, and a movie delivers A, B and C. I want to see something brand new that I never anticipated coming a hundred million miles away. And my God, that happens before the words ‘Cloud Atlas’ appear up on the screen on this one.”

With the Wachowskis directing the 1849 segment and the two futuristic ones and Mr. Tykwer overseeing the 1930s, 1970s and contemporary stories, “Cloud Atlas” could have been a schizophrenic mess.

The actors shuttled from sets in Scotland, Germany and Spain, changing costumes, characters and directors from day to day.

“I was most frightened about that, thinking, ‘Oh God, how’s it going to be with three directors? Am I going to be confused? Who do I listen to, and what’s it going to be like?’ But it was none of that,” Miss Berry said. “They spent so many years talking about it, honing their ideas and figuring it all out, they were very much on the same page.”