Wait for the Book, Dept.
Okay. So I gave Cloud Atlas the best shot I could. Watched it in a sparsely attended Thursday showing at an IMAX theater.
Eyecatching movie. Poor adaptation. E for effort. Would not watch again.
Sorry, kids. I read the novel on which the film is based in order to watch the film with a clear and recent sense of its source material. And I feel that for someone who hasn't read the novel, he or she is getting some odd, truncated, oversimplified version of the story, like relating Joyce's Ulysses in the form of an org chart or PowerPoint presentation.
Basic background: The book comprises six novellas involving people in six different times: a notary aboard a Hawaii-bound ship leaving the Antipodes in the 19th Century; a British composer in Bruges in 1931; a reporter in California in 1975; a British vanity press publisher in the current day; a clone restaurant server in mid-22rd-century New Seoul; the half-literate survivors of The Fall in 24th-century Hawaii. Their stories interweave. In the book, each narrative is cut in half and resumed after the furthest-future story is told in its entirety. In the film, one flits from moment to moment to scene to scene.
[SEMISPOILER ALERT: Basically, eight actors play most, if not all, of the principal roles. So, we see Tom Hanks as a scheming doctor in 1, a hotel manager in 2, a thuggish memoirist in 3, an actor in a film-within-a-film in 4 and the protagonist in 5. Lotsa makeup. Lotsa weird, unconvincing prostheses.]
I feel that the filmmakers feared that the translation from complex text to film would be too far a leap for audiences with no context outside what they're shown because they've changed the book in fundamental ways that either (i) pander to the audience (kewl CGI chase scenes!!) or (ii) try to make the connections between the six novellas really obvious.
And that's my problem with it. The source novel by David Mitchell is 500+ pages long and moderately complex in its statement and recapitulation of themes and images and words. In order to make this comprehensible for an audience that does not have the benefit of a text through whose pages it can retrace its steps and remind itself of names and events, the filmmakers chose to take the basic theme--the continuous transmigration of souls (limited by the author to the character bearing the comet-shaped birthmark in each story)--and expand it to every single character in each novella. So that everyone shows up reincarnated in every story. Which was not the author's intent, at least that I could read.
The film sorta kinda ends up being about love transcending the specifics of one time or place, but also sorta kinda about the same eight people's imprisonment in an unbreakable cycle of reincarnation. Which are not the same thing.
Also, major changes were made, presumably to make the film more accessible, so that, for example, the subtle and engrossing story of the intellectual and spiritual awakening of Sonmi-451, the cloned server, becomes a whiz-bang antigrav shoot-'em-up, complete with a studly hero who saves this weak female who is also a Vessel of Wisdom. Urgh.
Even at almost a three-hour running time, the film contains a fraction of the detail that the book offers. Thus, the weaving relationships between the young composer, the established composer whom he serves, the composer's wife whom he beds, the composer's daughter whom he despises, themselves a mirror of contrapuntal themes of music, are elided in favor of a simpler story. The fascinating backstory of how the corpocratic New Seoul came to be and of how Sonmi slowly achieves self-actualization are dropped in favor of a flashier, more traditional sci-fi narrative. The far-future story, narrated in a post-apocalyptic pidgin that's reminiscent of the speech in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, is fascinating on the page, but unintelligible on the screen (and not just because some scenes seem to have had the directorial instruction: "Mumble!").
Can I recommend it? It's intellectually, formally and artistically ambitious, certainly, which one doesn't hear much in discussing $100M films. It's visually engaging, especially in IMAX. The whiplash editing has its own advantages over the ordered structure of the book and creates its own rhythms and juxtapositions. So, yes, I'd say see it as a film experience.
But read the book first. Really. That's Cloud Atlas. The film is Cloud Atlas: The Anime.