It has been somewhat fashionable in the run-up to Cloud Atlas's release to pin the proverbial "unfilmable" label on the David Mitchell novel from which it is inspired. Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski have proved that theory partially wrong. Cloud Atlas could, in fact, be made into a movie. Whether or not it could ever be made into a good movie remains to be seen. This version, a cross between Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States, is not just a bad movie. It is a half-dozen bad movies for the price of one.
The novel and the film contain six stories. In the first, an American aids a runaway slave in the South Pacific and runs afoul of a doctor with sinister intentions. The second takes place in the 1930s and consists of letters sent by a bisexual composer to his lover while he is working on a musical composition with the same title as the film. In the third, a 1970s investigative reporter uncovers a conspiracy surrounding attempts to create an accident at a nuclear power plant. In the fourth, a scenario set in the early part of the twenty-first century, a book publisher attempts to escape a nursing home. The fifth storyline consists of the pre-execution statement of a genetic slave (called a "fabricant") who has participated in a rebellion set in the future of Seoul, South Korea. In the sixth and final segment, a post-apocalyptic "valleysman" meets a refugee from a technologically advanced civilization.
The novel's central conceit is that each story is being "read" by a character in one of the future stories. This device helps create structural unity, since these stories span centuries—the earliest is set around 1850 and the most distant is "106 autumns after 'the Fall,' an event that the film dates sometime after 2144. That loose structural unity is undercut by the film's more frequent cutting between the stories, especially toward the end when the constant ping-ponging between storylines exacerbates one of the worst tendencies of modern action movies, that of requiring multiple climaxes. The series of false endings building upon one another is tiresome enough in an individual plot; multiplied by six it ends up looking like twenty-one action endings in search of a beginning (or even a middle).
The increasingly frequent cuts between storylines is necessary, though, because it masks just how thin and uninteresting all of the stories really are. Film critic Roger Ebert once famously opined that films with multiple or alternate storylines can only be as interesting as each story would be if filmed separately. Tykwer and the Wachowskis (who share screenplay as well as directing credits) suggest some typological and thematic connections by casting the same actors in multiple storylines and having key pieces of music and dialogue repeated, but after the first hour or so this ends up feeling more like a cinematic version of "Where's Waldo?" than an intentional device that actually means something. We are told that "all voices [get] tangled up into one," that "separation is an illusion," "death is only a door," and "we are bound to others." Well, yes, we are, but how? I half expected the film to conclude in solemn tones with an admonition that "wherever you go, there you are."