When I saw the extended trailer for Cloud Atlas, I thought that the result was going to be either a total mess or something brilliant. Predictions being what they are, I was wrong on both counts: this adaptation of David Mitchell's complicated novel is not that much of a mess (although I suspect some of the multiple plotlines will be unintelligble without prior acquaintance with the book), but it's not especially brilliant, either. The film cuts rapidly between six plot layers: Adam Ewing, lawyer, and the moral effects of his encounter with an escaped slave (1840s); Robert Frobisher, composer, and his misguided attempt to latch onto the coat-tails of another composer, now aging and ill (1930s); Luisa Rey, reporter, and her investigation into the mysterious goings-on at a nuclear power plant (1970s); Timothy Cavendish, publisher, and his seriocomic adventures when a crook wants a bigger cut of his royalties (2012); Sonmi-451, a fabricant worker at Papa Song's cafe, and her discovery of both consciousness and the possibility of social change (a dystopian, post-global warming world some centuries on); and, finally, Zachry, one of the few survivors in a post-apocalyptic village, who encounters a Prescient from Earth's last remaining advanced culture (another several centuries on). Everything happens simultaneously; we rarely rest in any one plotline for more than five minutes or so. All of the plots are linked by themes of imprisonment (both literal and figurative), exploitation, and the relationship between individual choice and social change. As Adam Ewing reminds his slave-trader father-in-law at the end, "what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
The Wachowskis have done their best both to simplify the novel and to make it more upbeat. Thus, the ambiguous relationship between fiction and reality in the novel, which persistently sabotages the supposed veracity of all of its plots, disappears entirely in the film: there's nothing to indicate that anything's wrong with Ewing's journal, the film version of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish appears to be based on a "true story" (as is the Luisa Rey novel), the Archivist doesn't query Sonmi-451's narrative, and so on. Frobisher's relationship with Ayrs, the decrepit composer, unravels far more crudely in the film, without many of the underlying complications involving Jocasta or Eva (absent from the adaptation). More drastically, the Sonmi-451 plot no longer involves the revelation that the Union rebellion is, in fact, a government-managed trick; instead, the rebels are all true martyrs for their cause, and Sonmi's relationship with Hae-Joo becomes a genuine romance. (This undermines novel-Sonmi's greater self-consciousness about her narrative work, which emerges from her awareness of "plotting" in a larger sense.) Similarly, Timothy Cavendish gets to make things right with his own long-lost beloved. And Meronym and Zachry wind up leaving the planet (!) and living happily ever after with lots and lots of grandkids. (All this added romance makes the outcome of the Sixsmith/Frobisher plot much more frustrating.) In other words, the Wachowskis rewrite most of Mitchell's novel in comic mode, substituting a paean to the power of love for the novel's far more pessimistic assessment of humanity's likely future. Apparently, we're not going to completely do ourselves in.
Despite eliminating much of the novel's metafictional character, the Wachowskis do try to emulate its rampant pastichery. Alert viewers, for example, may notice hints of Peter Jackson's Ringwraiths hanging out alongside shots that appear directly lifted from Star Wars (check out the Neo-Seoul fighter pilots). The Ewing and Frobisher segments look like Hollywood prestige period films, complete with loving shots of Ayrs' ancient mansion and lushly-colored nature imagery. By contrast, the washed-out interiors of the nursing home in Cavendish's plot owe something to One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (as, obviously, does the nurse). As much as I hate to say it, Meronym's white jumpsuit (which apparently repels dirt...) looks suspiciously like Wilma's uniform in Buck Rogers. And the orange-brown tones of much of the Luisa Rey segment does have a seventies feel to it. In terms of design, the post-apocalyptic Zachry plot felt the least convincing; I felt like I was looking at Planet of the Apes-style sets plunked down randomly somewhere. But in general, the film's use of pastiche functioned more as a historical signifier than as a reflection on the nature of narrative--except, perhaps, for the Luisa Rey detective plot, with its self-aware budding mystery author.
Much has been made of the decision to have the same actors playing multiple roles, crossing both genders and races in the process. The excuse for having white actors playing Asians (and other races), in particular, has been that the characters are reincarnated again and again across the plots. As Mike Le pointed out when the trailer appeared, and again more recently, this excuse makes precious little sense: instead of slapping terrible yellowface makeup on Caucasian actors--and really, as MANAA argues, the Korean makeup is appallingly, distractingly bad, especially on Hugo Weaving--one could adopt any number of other approaches to the reincarnation motif. Like, say, casting a Korean actor when one was called for. In fact, I thought that reusing the actors badly blurred the novel's own quite limited use of reincarnation. Strictly speaking, in the film, the only characters in each plot who overlap thematically are the leads and anybody played by Hugo Weaving, despite local differences. One can draw a line from Ewing to Frobisher to Cavendish etc. etc. etc. But all of the actors multitask, which makes life distinctly confusing: the ship's doctor, the hotel manager, and Hoggins are connected, but not to Tom Hanks' other roles, while none of Jim Broadbent's characters match up especially well. (The famously chameleonic Broadbent, by the way, tends to disappear entirely into his makeup, whereas Weaving's distinctively-angled features are impossible to camouflage.) By the same token, it's not clear why Ewing and Frobisher are played by different actors! I found the gimmick much more distracting than just casting different performers across the board; one could have achieved the reincarnation effect just as well using cross-cutting, more verbal echoes (as with Haskell Moore's and Boardman Mephi's dialogue), and more recurring objects (as with the button).