So when I learned that there was a movie version coming out this past weekend (I am not much of a cinephile), I was intrigued, more by wondering how in the world the Wachowskis could take a story that was comprised of an intricate series of chronological "first halves" (ranging from the mid-19th century through the early and mid 20th century on to contemporary, 22nd century, and post-apocalyptic times) that then reverse their course until the first story is completed last and make a coherent movie out of it. The only solution that I could conceive of before attending a showing this afternoon is to utilize a series of cut-ins that tell a series of parallel thematic/plot events similar to that employed in D.W. Griffith's 1916 masterpiece, Intolerance. More or less, my guess was correct for how the Wachowskis chose to adapt the book.
Cloud Atlas was a very ambitious book, striving to tell through the medium of parallel, reincarnated lives humanity's struggles to define itself between the poles of order and freedom; equality amidst deprivation and inhumane treatment of others; and love versus hatred and fear. The novel's six stories contain echoes of the other tales, yet each has the time and space to create its own haunting melody that underpins the others. This works well for a tale from which the reader can take a few minutes (hours, days, weeks...) to pause and to consider the connections. A movie is much more immediate, requiring sharper transitions and more clear parallels for it to work for those who are not familiar with the source novel. In this regard, the movie stumbles at times, as in order to preserve a thematic unity between the tales (as the lovers encounter and re-encounter each other; their fight against the repressive social order of the times; the ways of fight or flight embodied in action; and the resolutions), much is left unsaid until near the end, confusing many audience members (including my father and uncle, among others in the audience with whom I saw the movie) who are not used to such rapid-fire transitions without bridging dialogue.
Yet this is a quibble; the movie certainly is not for those who are not willing to invest a lot of time puzzling out the various connections beyond the easy ones such as the comet-shaped birthmarks. The decision to have a core cast of characters (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, among others) is not strictly necessary from the perspective of those who have read the book, yet it does provide a grounding point for those who are new to Mitchell's original story. The actors, for the most part, provide subtle connections between the eras/tales through their varied responses to events that resemble those of their prior "lives." Hanks in particular shows this sense of interlife moral development in his role as Zachry, yet most of the others also possess these moments of personal crisis in their scenes.
The novel focuses much more on the issue of collective humanity than does the movie, which at times relies too heavily on standard Hollywood tropes such as romantic love interests, shoot-em-up action scenes, and other "action-oriented" scenes in an attempt to appeal to viewers who favor such elements in their films. This fixation on these tropes occasionally weakens the impact of individual scenes, as the car-chase in the Luisa Rey era felt too much like a pastiche of other such scenes and a bit gratuitous in light of the unfolding stories. Despite moments such as this, there were virtually no longeurs during this nearly three hour-long film, as the cut-ins, especially toward the climactic final 40 minutes, serve to augment the power of each individual scene.
It is hard to imagine this film finding universal appeal; familiarity with the novel is a major plus (as the stories, despite the constraints of cinematic technique and audience expectations for "action," are very faithful in spirit, if not always in word, to the novel) and multiple viewings may be required for the full effect to be achieved. Cloud Atlas is perhaps the most ambitious movie that I have seen ever since I watched Intolerance on Netflix earlier this year. Its use of parallel stories that interrupt each other until the final crescendo of resolutions does resemble Griffith's classic favorably, not to mention that its themes will resonate with most readers once the initial confusion is dispersed. Cloud Atlas may not be the sort of movie that many viewers will "like," but it certainly will be one that several may "admire" for its adroit presentation of a complex story and for the lingering thoughts that may persist long after the final credits roll.