That was a metaphorical and philosophical bullet to the brain, as is the style of the Wachowskis. It does, however, boil down very simply. It’s the journey of souls, one in particular as marked by a comet-shaped birthmark.
Going about describing this film is like trying to describe a mix of the reincarnation and love from The Fountain, the intertwining story element of Babel, the psychological aspect of Black Swan, an emotional and theological chunk from Atonement, and a little bit of The Matrix philosophical and theological elements to top things off. When I say bullet to the brain I mean that the film keeps going and you’re sitting there wondering what you’re looking at in six different timelines that cross paths here and there in the most unique ways.
I’ll try to separate the plots out for you, since in the movie they are all interwoven in a beautiful and cinematic way that makes the whole film so much more complex, but at the same time so much more beautiful and simplistic.
Storyline 1: A lawyer, Adam, has sailed across the Pacific to obtain a contract for his father-in-law for slavery rights of some kind in 1846 (I think). There he gets infected with a worm, and a doctor goes with him on his return journey to San Francisco to help him. As does a slave who says he can earn his own passage. And he does. The doctor (Tom Hanks), however, is trying to rob Adam, and is also poisoning him slowly so that he can get the contract and the gold in the case the contract is in. The now former slave saves him, in repayment for Adam getting the captain of the ship to allow him to earn his passage on the voyage (in turn basically granting him his freedom). Once back in SF, Adam burns the contract in front of his father-in-law, and he and his wife (the daughter) announce that they are moving east to be part of the abolitionist movement. When told that they will be nothing but drops in the ocean, Adam says what is an ocean but a multitude of drops? Adam narrates part of this, and this story connects to the next in the fact that he wrote his story down, and the book is one that is read by the main character in the chronologically next story.
Storyline 2: England, 1930’s. We meet a gay couple, one of whom studied to be a composer and manages to worm his way into the household of an ailing composer of note in the day to help him transcribe the rest of his music. Whilst there, under constant barrage from his employer, the young man, Robert, is finally able to write his own music, which the old composer claims is rightfully his, and threatens to ruin Robert’s, reputation. (Outing him would have ruined him in that era.) So Robert goes to leave and the old man continues to threaten him, wherein an accident happens when the two struggle with a gun, and it goes off and shoots the old man, but doesn’t kill him. The old man is out for blood after this, while Robert finishes his symphony, The Cloud Atlas Sextet, before killing himself minutes before his one true love rushes in the door. The letters Robert wrote to Sixsmith (his lover) through this narrate the story, and are part of the continuation within the next story.
Storyline 3: San Francisco 1970’s. A journalist (Halle Berry) meets Sixsmith as an old man by chance in an elevator. The power goes out and they have a long time to talk. Sixsmith eventually decides he wants to trust Louisa with his secret, but before he can tell her, he’s killed. She finds his body, and the letters Robert wrote to him, and then decides to start investigating the whole thing. Louisa goes to the nuclear power plant that is soon to be up and running, and meets Tom Hanks’ character there, and the two instantly connect, and he says some poetic things about suddenly believing in past lives and fate and such. His plane is blown up, and a contract killer runs her off a bridge. She survives, and eventually gets the story out, via a copy of the report of the faulty nuclear plant Sixsmith sent to his niece. Louisa gives her the letters and Megan says that Sixsmith believed in love, even though he was a scientist. Also, Louisa goes to a record shop to buy Robert’s Cloud Atlas Sextet in here, and says she knows it, even though there are only a handful of copies of it in existence.
Storyline 4: Present day. I Somehow missed how this one connected to the last storyline. Whoops. A publisher, Timothy, is at a party with the author of a book he wrote, Dermot. The book got a terrible review and Dermot, at the party, throws the reviewer off the balcony, killing him. (At this point, Tom Hanks has played a killer twice). The book suddenly becomes a success, and then thugs come and demand money from Timothy, who goes to his brother for help. The brother sends him to a mental institution for the elderly to get rid of him, and there, Timothy and three others plan an elaborate escape. The escape empowers Timothy to reunite with the woman he had loved in his youth. At the end, he decides to write down his story, and it becomes a film that shows up in the next story
Storyline 5: New Seoul, 2144. In storyline 2, the old composer says he had a dream about a strange cafe where all the waitresses had the same face. Turns out, that’s the beginning of this story. One of the girls shows another the lost and found, and Sonmi 451 becomes entranced with a little movie player. Yoona (the other one) acts out against a customer who sexually assaults her and then tries to escape. She is killed instantly. Hae-Joo comes and breaks Sonmi out, and shows her the resistance, as well as the truth: the genetically grown workforce that serves people are killed after a certain amount of time, and their bodies broken down and fed to the current workforce. The whole thing reveals a fairly emotionally despicable situation. So Sonmi agrees to do a broadcast across the world and colonies on other worlds. While this is happening, the resistance is destroyed, and Hae-Joo is killed. Sonmi, once captured and asked to tell her side of the story for the archives (which narrates this whole bit), is asked if she was in love with him, and she says she still is. When this causes some confusion, she says that death is like a door. When the door on this life closes, another opens. The soul continues. Her broadcast eventually ends her up as a sort of deity in human culture.
Storyline 6: Way into the future, on a colony. Zachry’s brother-in-law, Adam (a connection to the first storyline) and nephew are killed by cannibal warriors while Zachry hides nearby. Halle’s character comes to the island their village is on to climb ontop of the mountain the locals believe is the devil’s lair. The devil in this case is called old Georgie and is Hugo Weaving (who has played a villain in every storyline he shows up in except one, and he’s barely in that one). Zachry agrees to help Meronym (Halle), and finds out that Sonmi was a human who lived a very short life, and he sees part of the broadcast she made all that time ago. The tribe is all wiped out by the cannibals, and Zachry kills one, which causes a battle in while he and Meronym kill the whole cannibal tribe (to save each other and to save Zachry’s niece, the lone survivor of the raid). They go somewhere else, and the last scene is of Zachry telling this story to his grandchildren, pointing out Earth to one of them, then going inside with Meronym.
One interesting tie from the last story to the first is that in the first, Tom Hanks plays a doctor trying to kill someone, and he takes a jeweled/glass button from Adam’s coat. In the last story, Zachry (Tom Hanks) wears a necklace with that same jeweled/glass button, and when he turns from being selfish to being a hero, that necklace is ripped off. Also, the doctor talked about cannibals in one scene, when he first meets Adam, and then cannibals appear in the last story.
Now, if this was hard to follow, I’ve actually given you the easy format. The stories all intertwine in a very unique way, and sorting out what’s happening in each story takes some time. In the intertwined format it’s much more eloquent than I’ve made this seem.
The image carried over through the whole thing is a comet-shaped birthmark. First on Adam, then Robert, then Louisa, then Timothy, then Sonmi, and lastly Zachry. It’s the story of souls through time, and the lives around that soul. The story always centers on the one who bears the birthmark. From killer to hero, as the description says. But it’s more than that. It’s the story of love found and lost throughout time, of life lost and life saved. The comet represents the journey of the soul, and in some way how that soul crosses paths with someone who had seen this mark before, been involved with the life of that person.
In the sense that it carries over, like reincarnation, it is very reminiscent of The Fountain. I happen to love that movie, but Cloud Atlas far surpasses it. Instead of just two people passing through time, always to be together, it’s multiple people, but the same pairs are always there. It uses the same actors to play many roles, allowing us to follow the journey of the soul and how it relates to the past and future, rather than confusing us by casting a bunch of different people. I’ve heard some flack about how they should have cast different ethnicities rather than doing makeup on them. The point is for the audience to understand who these characters are, and why it’s so important that they would be drawn to each other.
The way that all these stories are interwoven makes the reveals happen at just the right time, showing us one character and then introducing them to another in a different timeline, which eventually causes us to be introduced to them in the first timeline and so on. Hard to explain well, but cinematically it’s so beautiful and works perfectly.
It made me cry. I was sitting between total strangers in a packed theater and I was so moved that I cried. But the sadness was coupled with happiness from other storylines, giving the whole film this incredible bittersweet feeling. Storyline 5 was the saddest, I thought. It represented an incredible amount of hope that ends in death because it cannot end any other way. I think also that Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess in combination offer this incredibly potent mix of heart, soul, and sincerity.
Each storyline shows us that there are two paths we could follow (if you look closely). Good or evil. Doing the right thing or being self-serving and doing the wrong thing. Life is about the choices we make, and the lives we cross paths with, and how the choices we make impact those lives.
In a metaphorical and philosophical way, I think I understood this film. Someone actually turned to me during the credits and asked if I understood it, and then afterwards in the bathroom I heard a bunch of girls complaining that they didn’t get it and the plot was really simple and they didn’t seem to like it. I was absolutely 100% judging them in that moment. Because the plot wasn’t actually that simple. Any of the stories could have been it’s own film, but then the overarching storyline of the soul, the comet birthmark, going on, was both simple in idea and incredibly complex in execution. The film is more of a character-driven story rather than a plot-driven story (Inception would be plot-driven).
As for other things about the film, the music was incredible. The Cloud Atlas Sextet we hear played throughout is hauntingly beautiful. The makeup in the film was phenomenal, especially since the actors were changing ethnicities for most of the different storylines. That’s hard to do, let alone do well. The cinematography was beautiful. It was never showy (unlike The Matrix), and I liked that. The acting was amazing. Top-notch actors were brought on for this, and they carried each and every story with care and fineness. Hugo Weaving is terrifying villain, but for very different reasons, so is Tom Hanks. Jim Sturgess always has this incredible amount of heart in his acting, and watching him in this film made me realize why I love him so much; I can’t not love that much heart and sincerity. Doona Bae is incredibly moving. How she acts seems so simple, but I have no doubt it is anything but, as the complexity of each feeling came through. Halle Berry brings her cool, confident, capable self to screen. Ben Wishaw (Robert) blew my mind. He had a powerful storyline, and he played it so well. Everyone in the cast was wonderful, and it was clear why they are renowned actors. The special effects were nice, and I love how they did New Seoul and the futuristic timelines. Everything seemed a logical advance from where we are.
The one thing that brought me out of the film a bit was in the last timeline, they have this sort of future-speak that is basically butchered english, and sometimes I had to spend a little time deciphering what was said.