If you have been following the reactions to this movie, you will know that it has been getting very mixed reviews so far. At its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, it got a ten-minute standing ovation. But many reviewers do not seem to think much of the movie. For instance, Richard Brody of the New Yorker called the movie an exercise in "synchronized banality" and "a whole lot of nothing."
Damn. That's harsh. Especially harsh, I thought, for what I think is a valiant attempt at adapting a very complex novel with many complicated themes to the screen. Personally, I thought the whole thing was quite well executed. In adapting the movie from the novel, the directors (Lana and Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer) changed quite a few things in each of the six stories that made up the novel; which is something that has to be done if you are going to try to tell a more-or-less coherent story in under three hours (and yes, the entire movie runs for almost three hours; so make sure you go to the bathroom before the start of the movie, even if you don't particularly feel like going; some reverse bandha activation will probably come in handy here :-)). A number of plot twists in several of the stories had to be simplified, and some not-so-major characters in the novel were excised from the movie version altogether in order to make the narrative more streamlined.
The movie also lays out each of the stories in a different way from the novel. The Russian-nested doll narrative style of the novel (if you don't know what I mean here, read the novel; this is too involved to get into here...) is discarded, in favor of a mosaic style in which the camera stays in one story just long enough for you to get a sense of what is going on there, and then deftly moves on to the next story. Then rinse and repeat, until all six stories are completed. And it helps that the same actors (Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Bae Doona, et al) plays various characters in each of the six stories. Which helps emphasize the themes of eternal recurrence and reincarnation that are at the heart of the novel, lending a sense of continuity to all six stories.
I was actually rather concerned that my fiancee, who has not read the novel, wouldn't get what the movie was about: As mentioned above, the movie shifts deftly between the different stories, and truthfully, there isn't much of the kind of hand-holding explanation of every plot detail that American audiences have come to expect from directors (which, I suspect, may be why so many reviewers do not like the movie). If you miss a small detail in a particular scene or the significance of a particular piece of dialogue, you'll miss how things hang together, and given the pace of the storytelling, the directors don't do much to help you get back onto the horse. To my surprise, my fiancee told me after the movie that she liked it very much; even though she didn't get all the plot details in all the stories, she liked the overall tone and understood the general message of the movie.
If her response is representative of at least some people out there, it reinforces a particular theory I have about movie-goers in general. I believe that there are basically two kinds of movie-goers in this world: The kind that understands movies mostly with their heads (I am a member of this kind), and the kind that understands and connects with movies more on a gut-emotional level. I get the sense that Cloud Atlas appeals at least as much to the second kind of movie-goer as the first. In fact, it might work better for the second kind of movie-goer, because people who understand movies primarily with their heads want to understand everything the moment they see it. And if they haven't read the novel beforehand, and also missed or misread a few details in the movie, the whole movie will probably come across as a big piece of eye-candy that doesn't really seem to be saying anything in particular (hence the "synchronized banality"). This, at any rate, is my theory. So yeah, it may be a good idea to read at least some of the novel before you watch the movie, at least if you are an in-the-head kind of movie-goer like me :-)
But all in all, I highly recommend this movie. Try to catch it at a screen near you before it goes to DVD. I think it's worth the experience. In the meantime, I'm going to go finish the novel. I'll also leave you with a piece of eye-candy here. Enjoy!