This entire story is one big spoiler. See the movie, then come back here and we'll explain it to you.
In the book, we get these stories one at a time, until the author circles back around to them halfway through the narrative. The film takes a different approach. The stories are threaded together from the beginning of the movie, with some of the connections made more obvious and some made … not so obvious, to say the least. It’s only natural to emerge with your head spinning and lots of questions.
We’re going to answer those for you. Let’s start with the basic plot of the movie — but keep in mind that these stories are woven together over the whole movie. We’ll move chronologically.
The first setting is 1849 in the South Pacific as Adam Ewing, an attorney from San Francisco, heads to the Pacific Islands to meet with a plantation owner (played by Hugh Grant).
We see Tom Hanks in the villanous role of Dr. Goose here — a man who is intent on poisoning Ewing so he can take his money. He acts as if he wants to help Ewing, who is sick, but we discover it’s Dr. Goose who is making Ewing sick.
We also meet Autua, a slave who is viciously beaten in front of Ewing. The two unlikely friends do become friends after Autua holds a knife to his own throat and asks Ewing to kill him if he won’t help him.
Other cast members make appearances in this story arc: Susan Sarandon plays Hugh Grant’s wife, and Jim Broadbent appears as the captain of the ship. We also see Halle Berry as a plantation worker and Keith David as a Maori slave.
We start to realize that these characters from different time periods are connected once we meet the handsome and talented young composer Robert Frobisher (played by the oh-so-charming Ben Whishaw). We see him in bed with his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (played by James D’Arcy). Frobisher escapes from the hotel room as people come looking for him, and he sets off to be the protege of Vyvyan Ayrs (played by Jim Broadbent) — an aging composer who needs Frobisher more than Frobisher needs Ayrs.
Halle Berry plays Ayrs’ gorgeous and much younger wife — and she ends up sleeping with Frobisher. Frobisher writes letters to Sixsmith telling him about what he’s up to — and mostly talking about the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” a masterpiece he’s working on and must finish. He ends up shooting Ayrs because the elder composer won’t let him leave, and Frobisher has to flee. Sixsmith tracks him down in a hotel room, but Hugh Grant gets in the way as a hotel employee guarding the stairs. Sixsmith makes it up the stairway and hears a gunshot — and arrives just in time to find the love of his life has killed himself. Also in this story arc: Tom Hanks plays a hotel manager, and Hugo Weaving plays the older composer’s friend.
Frobisher writes to Sixsmith about reading Ewing’s diaries, and the links between the characters becomes more apparent.
Here, Berry plays Luisa Rey, a promising and stubborn journalist in San Francisco who gets involved in a dangerous story surrounding a nuclear power plant. She gets stuck on the elevator with a much older Sixsmith, who is now working as a physicist and is aware of some bad things.
The seedy president of the plant, Lloyd Hooks, is played by Hugh Grant. While Rey is getting a tour of the plant, she runs into Isaac Sachs (played by Hanks), an employee who discovers her searching through an office. He feels an instant connection with her. Sixsmith tries to get the report to her, but Hugo Weaving plays the man hired by Lloyd Hooks to kill anyone who gets in the way. He runs her off of a bridge, and although Luisa Rey survives, Sixsmith himself is murdered. Luisa Rey finds Sixsmith’s letters from Frobisher under his dead body, and she finds herself drawn to them. Keith David plays Napier, a man who works for Lloyd Hooks but who decides to help Luisa Rey.
Also in this story arc, we see Rey going into a record shop and asking for the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” after reading about it in Frobisher’s letters. It turns out that the record store employee who is working there is Ben Whishaw, who played Frobisher in the previous scene. He’s listening to the song as she asks for it.
Some other actors who turn up: Xun Zhou plays a male hotel worker, and Doona Bae plays a Hispanic woman who helps Luisa and Napier as they run away from the hitman.
Here we get the most comical storyline in the movie: Timothy Cavendish (played by Jim Broadbent) is an aging publisher who is hosting a “Lionel Asbo”-esque (think the thuggish Martin Amis character in his most recent novel) author’s book party. The author, Dermot Hoggins, is played by Tom Hanks. We see him as a criminally minded, testosterone-laden man who grows angry when he spots a critic in the crowd who panned his book and throws him off of the roof. At one point, he also spots Halle Berry and checks her out.
The book becomes a bestseller, of course, in a hilarious portrayal of how there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and Cavendish is tracked down by Hoggins’s friends, who demand money from him. (Hoggins is in jail, of course.) Cavendish needs to escape because he doesn’t have the money to pay them, and he calls upon his brother, Denholme (played by Hugh Grant), and his brother’s wife Georgette (played by Ben Whishaw).
Denholme says he can help him, and he tricks Cavendish into voluntarily checking himself into a nursing home. There we get the comical back-and-forth between Cavendish and the awful Nurse Noakes (played by Hugo Weaving) as Cavendish tries to get himself out of a terrible situation. Hilarity ensues as he plans an escape with several of the other residents, and they are chased down at a bar, where football fans protect them from the orderlies. Also in this story arc: Susan Sarandon as someone Cavendish loved long ago, Jim Sturgess as one of the guys in the bar and James D’Arcy as an employee at the nursing home.
In this futuristic Korea, fabricants are slaves who are created to work in a fast-food chain, and they subsist on a food source called soap. Doona Bae plays Somni-451, a fabricant who is encouraged to start thinking for herself by her friend Yoona-939 (played by Xun Zhou). We then meet Hae-Joo Chang (played by Jim Sturgess — yes, dressed up as an Asian, and no, it’s not very convincing and definitely kind of offensive) who whisks Somni-451 away in an epic, futuristic, Matrix-esque scene and teaches her about what really happens to fabricants. (They are recycled for the “soap” food source and fed to other fabricants.) He encourages her to be part of a revolution, and one of the ways he inspires her is by showing her a movie of Cavendish’s adventures — with Tom Hanks as Cavendish. Here we get a typical romance set in sci-fi future as Hae-Joo and Somni-451 fall in love. Hugo Weaving plays Boardman Mephi (in a very Agent Smith-like role), Hugh Grant plays the manager of the restaurant, Halle Berry plays the doctor who removes the collar from Somni, Keith David plays An-Kor Apis, Jim Broadbent plays a street musician, and James D’Arcy is the person taking Somni’s confesion.
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In this post-apocalyptic setting, we get Tom Hanks playing a goatherder named Zachry. Civilization is now a very primitive one, and the language has transformed into a weird hybrid. Somni comes up as a goddess they worship, and more characters make an appearance. Susan Sarandon appears as the village Abbess, and we get Hugh Grant as an awful villain and leader of a cannibalistic tribe. Halle Berry, playing Meronym, shows up on the island as part of another civilization that is far more advanced, known as the Prescients. Hugo Weaving plays a scary and ghoulish voice inside Zachry’s head that taunts him, known as Old Georgie. Zachry ends up helping Meronym by taking her to a part of the island that he fears. We discover that Zachry and Meronym end up together at the very end of the movie, and Zachry is telling this story to their offspring (their grandchildren, most likely, since they are much, much older) as they sit around a campfire. Also in this storyline: Xun Zhou as Zachry’s sister, Jim Sturgess as Zachry’s brother-in-law, and Ben Whishaw as a tribesman. Keith David, David Gyasi, and Jim Broadbent all play Prescients.
Whew. So that’s the plot. Now let’s get to some important questions.
What’s with the birthmark that appears on so many of the characters?
This movie is mostly about reincarnation and the ability for people to become better — or worse — as they move through different life cycles. The birthmark indicates a soul passing through another body, and shows how we’re all connected. And this birthmark isn’t just any birthmark. It’s in the shape of a comet, which indicates something scientific but mystical about the whole process.
This “Cloud Atlas Sextet” — how do the directors use it?
The song is often used in many of the scenes as a way to link together the stories. Most obviously, and in an example of the directors hitting you over the head with a frying pan, Halle Berry talks to Ben Whishaw about the song when she goes to purchase a copy in the record shop and finds him listening to it. In a 2010 interview in the Paris Review, Mitchell said: “‘Cloud Atlas’ is the name of a piece of music by the Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was Yoko Ono’s first husband. I bought the CD just because of that track’s beautiful title.” So a real song actually inspired the author, even if it was just the song’s name. The song used in the movie was composed by director Tom Tykwer with Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil.
Why do so many of the actors play multiple characters and sometimes change genders and race?
A major theme is how souls can evolve and maybe change over time, and having actors play different characters was a way of clearly expressing this on screen. This isn’t so obvious in the book, though. The directors had to choose a way to film what many have said is an unfilmable book.
Why does the movie seem like “The Matrix” at times?
Lana and Andy Wachowski directed “The Matrix,” and so the futuristic scenes in Korea seem very Matrix-y. Also, there’s a similar struggle going on. As David Edelstein wrote in New York magazine: “The strain of gnosticism in ‘The Matrix’ has here become a full-fledged transmigration of souls, the body but a weak and temporary vessel.” And David Mitchell said himself in an interview in 2010 in the Paris Review:
What made us successful in Darwinian terms — our skill at manipulating our environment — now threatens to wipe us out as a species.
This is a sentiment expressed very well by Agent Smith in “The Matrix” when he compares unthinking humans to viruses. He’s just trying to do this very worthwhile job of keeping these self-spawning lifeforms — us — under control, [or] some semblance of control. Which is what the cheetahs might well say about the antelopes.
What’s with the different genres in this movie?
David Mitchell deliberately wrote each storyline as a different genre. So we have the first story, a historical narrative written in diary format. Then we move to Robert Frobisher’s letters, which is really a romance. From there we go to the journalist’s story set in the 1970s, and it’s more of a straight-up mystery/action movie. In the contemporary scene with Cavendish, we get a comedy of errors. In the futuristic Korean world, we get a sci-fi movie. And then we get the post-apocalyptic almost primitive world. I think Mitchell was trying to show how characters can be linked across time, despite their circumstances.
Is Luisa Rey a reference to Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”?
It seems likely. Especially because Luisa Rey herself is forced off a bridge by the hitman.
Why is the structure of the film different from the book?
In the novel, David Mitchell was able to unfold the story over time by establishing each story arc and then circling back to each story after the post-apocalyptic scene — but that doesn’t work as well on the big screen. In the film, we see the stories happening simultaneously. We’re able to closely follow the characters as we’re constantly reminded of what is happening to them. If the film followed the same structure as the book, we’d forget who the characters are by the time we got back to their story.
What are some of the other differences between the book and the movie?
As David Mitchell himself said in the New York Times: “Some changes to plot and character were inevitable, so that the book’s six worlds could be coaxed into a film-shaped container: the love interest between the (now) middle-aged Zachry and Meronym on postapocalyptic Hawaii, for example, or Cavendish’s epilogue, which appears in the film but not the book.”
What were the directors trying to get at in this movie?
A common theme is how people can become either more good or more evil throughout their lifetimes. We start out with Tom Hanks as a really villainous and greedy guy, but by the end of the movie, he’s ultimately good. We witness him transform again and again along his own spiritual path. So some people end up OK in the end and get a second chance.
This is especially the case with the love between Tom Hanks and Halle Berry at the end of the movie. But some characters just can’t become good. The filmmakers have talked about how the soul Tom Hanks plays is able to transform itself, even as he clearly struggles in the postapocalyptic scene. But Hugh Grant does not — he becomes a barbaric, cannibalistic murderer.
How often is the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” reinterpreted in the movie?
According to Julian Sancton in Grantland, we hear the song as: “(1) Frobisher’s initial piano performance, (2) a symphony, (3) a rendition by a jazz sextet, (4) nursing-home Muzak, (5) futuristic Korean street music, (6) a solemn hymn sung by a hoard of clones.”
Why do some of the settings seem oddly familiar?
That’s because the directors did that on purpose. Ayrs’ salon becomes the nursing home dining room. And the restaurant where Somni works is transformed for the fateful book party.