Cloud Atlas is not, in short, a novel that easily lends itself to cinematic adaptation. Among its many pleasures is the ease with which Mitchell slips from one authorial voice to the next, channeling Melville here and Huxley there, Evelyn Waugh and James Ellroy and Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess.
Tykwer and the Wachowskis, however, chop Mitchell's half-dozen stories into vastly thinner slices, ranging from perhaps 10 minutes apiece to mere seconds, and then splice them all together. And while this keeps the disparate tales moving along, it also homogenizes them. No individual voice has time to take hold—and, indeed, if any did, it would likely cause whiplash at the movie's next narrative lurch. Further undermining the impact of each story is the compression and simplification required to squeeze Mitchell's work from miniseries length (now that would have been an idea) into the confines of a feature film, even one that clocks in at an ample 165 minutes.
But if some of the challenges that faced Tykwer (best known for Run Lola Run) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer) may have been inevitable, others are of their own making. There is, for instance, the exceptionally uneven cast, whose performances run the range from understated (Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy) to hammy (Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant) to listless (Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon) to cringe-inducing (Tom Hanks). Still more problematic is the decision to make each of these actors reappear in different roles throughout the various stories, frequently age-, race-, or gender-swapping under topographic layers of makeup and prostheses. Over the course of the film we are treated to Berry, Weaving, and Whishaw portraying white women; Hanks, Grant, and D'Arcy portraying old men; and virtually every member of the cast portraying someone Korean. And don't even get me started on the accents: Hanks alone is tasked with playing multiple Scotsmen. (Somewhere out there, Mike Myers is firing his agent.)
The evident purpose of these many metamorphoses is to underline the moral that, as one character notes, "All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended." This unity of human experience is a point implicit in Mitchell's novel, which at its outer chronological edges traces an elliptical path from past cannibalism to future cannibalism and, within that, from past to future slavery. But it is a point that Tykwer and the Wachowskis, who also collaborated on the script, seem intent to make batteringly conspicuous, with each story gradually sorting itself out into a contest between decent, broad-minded egalitarians and sadistic racists, sexists, homophobes, and/or cannibals. (It's not the first time the Wachowskis have divvied the world up into enlightened rebels and their tyrannical overlords.)