A User's Guide to Watching (and Keeping Up With) 'Cloud Atlas'

Raeven Lee Hanan as Catkin and Tom Hanks as Zachry in ‘Cloud Atlas’/Photo © Jay Maidment/Warner Bros
Raeven Lee Hanan as Catkin and Tom Hanks as Zachry in ‘Cloud Atlas’/Photo © Jay Maidment/Warner Bros

When David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas first hit bookstores in 2004, there was a general consensus among critics that: 1) Mitchell was a masterful writer, and quite possibly a genius, and 2) the epic novel was something of a puzzle. (In fact, Sunday Telegraph reviewer Harry Mount found Cloud Atlas so utterly confounding that he famously refused to review it -- or even to finish it.) Without a doubt, the Booker prize short-listed, cult favorite tome is anything but easy, telling six separate but interconnected stories that span 500 years, jumping between narrators and genres from the Pacific Island travelogue of an 1840s American lawyer to the campfire tale of an aging post-apocalyptic tribesman. The book starts out chronologically, telling the first half of each story -- but then leaps to the next, before moving back in time to complete each tale.

So how do you bring this Herculean feat of postmodern narrative structure to the big screen? Answer: very carefully. For their much anticipated film version of Cloud Atlas (out October 26), Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") and Andy and Lana Wachowski (the "Matrix" trilogy) have painstakingly broken the six stories into smaller chunks, changing the storytelling format from what David Mitchell refers to as “Russian-doll structure” into something “more of a mosaic.” The device works; the stories move along quickly, making it easier for the viewer to spot connections among the characters. But at 164 minutes with six protagonists, a plethora of villains, and even an invented language, this is still a tough (but ultimately rewarding) film to follow. And so we present to you our spoiler-free guide to understanding "Cloud Atlas."


While it’s not always essential to have read the source material before seeing the movie, in the case of Cloud Atlas, it’s definitely worth diving into Mitchell’s world before heading to the multiplex. And if you’ve already read it, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go back for a quick refresher scan. While Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings have taken liberties with the novel’s plot to make it more film friendly, having familiarity with the disparate characters and plots before you take your seat will allow you to enter more quickly into the world of the film without having to constantly keep track of who is whom. Don’t have time to read 500 pages before October 26? Here’s a quick cheat sheet of the six stories (as told in the film).

1849, South Pacific
Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is a San Francisco attorney who travels on behalf of his father-in-law to the Pacific Islands to make a business deal with no-good plantation owner Rev. Horrox (Hugh Grant). While on the island, Adam watches as one of Horrox’s slaves, Autua (David Gyasi), is brutally beaten. The two men catch eyes, and sensing a kindred spirit, Autua later stows away in Ewing’s cabin to escape his enslavement. Ewing meanwhile contracts a debilitating “brain worm” and seeks treatment from the ship’s doctor, the shifty, Machiavellian Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks).

1936, Scotland
After being cut off by his wealthy father, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a talented, handsome, young composer, is unceremoniously kicked out of the hotel where he is holed up with his equally talented, handsome, young lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy). Without any other means of income, Robert travels to Edinburgh to act as amanuensis to the once celebrated composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). Through letters to Rufus, Robert recounts his exploits with Ayrs’ trophy wife Jocasta (Halle Berry), the difficulties in finding artistic connection with Ayrs, and the triumph of creating his masterpiece -- a symphony called The Cloud Atlas Sextet.

1973, San Francisco
In a tale of corporate corruption straight out of John Grisham, journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) serendipitously meets the now elderly Rufus Sixsmith (still played by James D’Arcy, here in old-age makeup), a physicist with knowledge of a massive cover-up at the nuclear power plant where he works. Luisa, with the help of plant employee Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks) and security guard Napier (Keith David), must evade a particularly nasty hit man ("Matrix" bad guy Hugo Weaving) in order to reveal the truth.

2012, England
The film’s comic relief comes courtesy of the madcap capers of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), an aging publisher at a vanity press, who after making a sudden, unexpected fortune from the publication of a trashy tabloid memoir is forced to go on the lam from his thuggish creditors. Timothy seeks help from his brother Denholme (Hugh Grant), who offers the afflicted publisher a room at an inn that’s not exactly the safe house Timothy had in mind.

2144, Neo Soul
Moving into solid sci-fi territory, we hear the pre-execution testimony of Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a genetically engineered fabricant (clone) whose preordained existence as a subservient but satisfied fast food drone is shaken when her sister-worker Yoona-939 shows her the forbidden world beyond their sheltered existence. Sonmi soon joins forces with Union revolutionary Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess), and the two aim to expose the evils of the oppressive totalitarian regime that prohibits free thought.

After the Fall, 2321, Hawaii
A lonely goatherd in a post-apocalyptic tribal community, Zachry (Tom Hanks) watches as an enemy tribe slaughters both his father and brother. Haunted and taunted by a devil figure Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving), Zachry is hopeless and cynical until Meronym (Halle Berry), a member of an advanced civilization called the Prescients, arrives in need of guidance that may just save humanity.

In a grand, sweeping epic like this, the themes aren’t subtle, so listen for the ways characters talk about interconnectedness, the ripple effects of one era’s actions on another, and the fleeting nature of freedom. The big ideas are all there, regularly repeated by characters like Sonmi-451 whose mantra “From womb to tomb, we are bound to others” frames the film.

In case you didn’t guess from the summary above, most of the actors in Cloud Atlas play multiple roles, with some (Hanks, Berry, Weaving, and Grant) appearing in every section -- a device the filmmakers use to highlight one of the novel’s central themes of reincarnation, and how one soul evolves on a journey through many bodies. Follow the actors through their various guises, and you’ll follow one soul through its long arcing progression. But while Tom Hanks is pretty easy to identify throughout, some of the other actors go chameleon, changing gender and ethnicity so frequently that it can be hard to spot them. Some that may elude you:

-Halle Berry as Jim Broadbent’s much younger bride Jocasta in the 1936 section.
-Hugo Weaving as Timothy Cavendish’s nemesis, the very commanding, completely terrifying Nurse Noakes and again as the devil incarnate Old Georgie who haunts Tom Hanks’ Zachry character in the After the Fall scenes.
-Ben Whishaw as Georgette, Timothy Cavendish’s unhappy sister-in-law.
-James D’Arcy, who in the film’s production notes says his characters all toil “within institutions they don’t like and wish they could change.” In Neo Seoul, he’s well disguised as the Archivist who records the final testimony of Sonmi-451.
-Hugh Grant as Seer Rhee, the repellant, drug addicted overseer of Sonmi-451 and her fellow fabricant sisters.

As in the book, each section’s protagonist sports an unusual comet-shaped birthmark, but where in the novel it’s implied that these characters share a soul, reincarnated across the ages, the filmmakers had a different interpretation of the mark. “It became more of a messaging system between a person in one era who does something or creates something that then inspires the person bearing that mark in the next lifetime,” explains Tykwer in the production notes. Adds Lana Wachowski, “Its appearance symbolizes the opportunity for that individual to make a difference in the world.”

Though each section has a decidedly different style and look, in keeping with themes of interconnectedness and reincarnation, there are loads of links between the various worlds. While fun to spot, there’s so much story to keep track of that you don’t want to get too lost hunting for Easter eggs (at least on the first viewing). But here are a few to keep your eyes out for:

-The Scottish country estate that plays Vyvyan Ayrs’ grand mansion in the 1936 scenes also serves as the suffocating safe house where Timothy Cavendish seeks refuge in the 2012 section.
-The twinkling blue buttons on Ewing’s waistcoat that catch Dr. Goose’s (Tom Hanks) hungry eyes in the 1849 story come back as beads on Zachry’s (also Hanks) necklace in the post-apocalyptic story.
-While giving Luisa Rey a tour of his nuclear facility, nefarious plant president Lloyd Brooks (Hugh Grant) promises to show her the “chicken factory,” their nickname for the area where the egghead scientists work. Later, Luisa seeks refuge in a very different kind of chicken factory.

In the After the Fall scenes, Zachry, the other tribesmen, and Meronym speak a form of pidgin English. If you try too hard to understand it, you’ll get caught in the syntax and miss key plot points. Instead try to let the words flow over you -- it’s similar enough to English that if you relax and just listen, you’ll catch what you need.

To get a headstart on the book, here's an excerpt.

  • Very glad I read this. I absolutely loved the book and i'm really worried they would do a disservice to it. But by the sounds of it, they have done a pretty good job. Apart from casting Tom Hanks...but i'm waiting to be proved wrong on that one.

    • Dana Werdmuller

      Me, too, on the Tom Hanks casting. A bit of a "huh?" for me. I pictured Zachry much younger, was thinking Jim Sturgess might take that on. But I hope to be surprised.

      • Zac

        I thought the same thing, but Hanks actually does a good job throughout the movie. Honestly all the casting was great. I suppose Hanks is hard to take seriously because he's so well known as a conventional actor, but on the other hand, he is also going to help propel the movie into the conventional viewer's awareness, and this is definitely a film more people should see.

        I read the book too, so I was worried about the adaptation failing to live up to it. I was pleasantly surprised!

  • Dana Werdmuller

    For those interested, the audio book of Cloud Atlas is excellent. I read (and relished) the book and was then able to revisit the story via the audio version. Masterful storytelling in both forms.


    It is not "NEO SOUL"

    IT IS "NEO SEOUL" There should be "E" please.

    Seoul is an actual city in south Korea where DoNa Bae is from.

    • linda

      Bit late to post this but it is you who are mistaken. In Cloud Atlas,iIt is called Neo SOUL, not Neo Seoul - probably done to reflect more than one interpretation.

  • Mallory

    Another Easter egg: The first time Cavendish tries to escape from the home, he yells out 'Soylent Green is people!' as a joke. In the 2144, Neo Seul setting, Sonmi finds out that her sister clones, after being 'let go' from their slave jobs, are killed and recycled into food.


    • Barbara Fletcher

      You jibberin' the true true!

  • Korean

    ...Kinda tripped out on the whole "Korean people" are slaves in the future and they eat themselves?...why is that? Is there any indications that would lead up to "Korean people" doing this?...If so lets address that!....... Also why were they so against Half breeds?

    • Klaro

      @Korean: I think you misunderstood the movie. It doesn't show that Korean people are slaves at all. It shows that in the future, people have developed technology to clone human beings and create an entire subclass of human servants. Therefore, in the movie version of Neo-Seoul or Korea, there are two kinds of people. The elite or upper-class are called "Consumers" and they are presumably normal-born humans. The subhuman or slave-class are called Fabricants and they are "clones" of real humans but aren't considered real humans.

      They interact in the place where Fabricants work, a fast-food restaurant, and there you can see the "normal" Korean people who are called Consumers go about their daily lives while the slave Fabricants act as their servants. Hope this clarifies things.

  • sam

    something is killing me Please explain me the meaning
    of babbits bawling
    4 days searching on the net and still no luck
    a BIG Thanks if you know the answer

    • Tom

      I assume babbits is a bastardisation of babies. So "babies crying" would be my translation.

      • Barbara Fletcher


  • zel Jordan

    "Cloud Atlas" is the name of the new movie from the Wachowisks (and of the book in which is based upon) which literally means a sort of book about types of clouds. 12 years after 'Matrix', they deliver once again a story aligned with our technological development: the data cloud.

    The current "cloud" is a four-dimensional information environment, a quantum system where everything is stored without linearity of time: a past information can be accessed and a future one be altered by a simple interaction with the cloud in the present (delete a file in your Dropbox and all the information structure of the cloud is changed

    But this is just a small simulacrum of the greater cloud that the film speaks about, "the karmic cloud" that we are all part of. And is in the middle of this cloud of karmic relationships (cause and effect), with no beginning nor end, without past or future, that the theater of our lives comes alive in each one of the infinite presents, and where by every act of interference (conscious or unconscious) we have the full power (free will) to affect, change and transform the entire system in real time (in the now).

    By stepping into an unknown journey which is life without the guidance of a set of maps, an 'atlas' (knowledge) to guide us to the 'actual experience' (enlightenment, realization or awakening) that we all inhabit the same existential system where 'we are all one at one time' (one consciousness), we end up relating ourselves with the cloud in a wrongly way, seeking in its content the very meaning of our existence.

    (In the story, which interweaves six different tales, this knowledge comes in the form of the 'Cloud Atlas Sextet', a sextet for overlapping soloists: piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color.)

    This ignorance of the unity off all things then creates the illusion of separation (me and you, yours and mine) and gives rise to all sorts of fears and desires and the consequent need to control them through manipulation, guilt, coercion and abuse - towards our own selves and others - which inevitably results in the generation of suffering - individual and collective (they never actually happen separately).

    And thus we 'reborn'.

    Unaware that our true nature is always and essentially complete, free, immortal and infinite.

    Lost in the midst of clouds without actually knowing that we are the sky that holds up everything.


    "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our
    future. "

    - Sonmi-451, the fragile recyclable clone born as an 'empty vessel with no free will' created to serve 'humans' processed fake food, is the one who awakens from the 'sleep' of ignorance and transcends the experience of limited existence. Free, now she can consciously chooses to accept the role of continuing serving humanity, but this time as a powerful 'vehicle' for the 'true truth': the oneness of everything and everyone.


    • Gabriela

      Couldn't have been said better 🙂

    • Gary

      Zel, your insights are simple, wise and beautiful. I will reflect on them more, and I think they will help my work to re-orient my understanding and actions. Thanks!

    • Jack

      "the oneness of everything and everyone." what a load of bull....

      ok I agree this story (movie) is entertaining, and yes it does have some fundamental principles about life like being good to others, not being greedy, and that no white person is better than black and no full blood is better than half blood etc...

      nonetheless its a movie, and they do say if you believe in a Creator you will see a creator in everything and if you don't believe in God you will see Godlessness in everything.

      For your sake like Sonmi-451 I hope you believe in Heaven and hell and the creator of that Heaven and hell.

  • Very glad I found this page. Thanks for the information. Do you plan on making more like this?

  • Ricky I.

    Wow, zel is spot-on with their analysis. Great choice of quotes as well. I just watched this film and while I think that I fully understand the plot, I am more so impressed by the different directions that this plot lends towards varied interpretations, meaning, and overall a relevance to my own outlook on life. While many films are often bested by the novels that they are based upon, I feel as though the relevance of and meaning in Cloud Atlas is still served quite well by the film. The wonderful story is merely a vehicle for generating a discussion in one's own mind and hopefully with others.

  • Great shared comments here. What I Love about 'Cloud Atlas' is how it triggers more thinking about its many layers of meaning. Reincarnation or genetic memory is new to many yet this concept offers deep understanding of how
    lives unfold at times. How random are some events after all?
    I loved the same actors playing more than one character as a reflection of their other lives, all time as one time. In many ways all plots had a similar theme, but explored it in different ways, but perhaps strengthening its underlying theme.
    There is so much to discuss in the theme, I wanted to sit down and do a detailed study of all it's themesand inherent philosophies as well analyse the archetypes used to complete the whole. This really is a genius work
    I loved it.

  • NateP

    Ok here's what I still can't get: If the actors are playing reincarnations of the same soul through time, then how can 2 characters in the same "soul journey" exist simultaneously in the one timeframe??? Examples... 1) if Whishaw is a record store clerk in 1973, wouldn't his character from 2012 (the old wife) be just a younger woman 39 years ago in '73? And 2) if Hugh Grant is the power plant owner in '73, how can he also be the elder Denny Cavendish in 2012? The math doesn't work out for reincarnation of these souls...or are we to believe that some of these souls are just shifting from one body to another in mid-lifetime? Please help...I really want to understand the idea here.

    • Angela

      Read The Education of Oversoul 7 by Jane Roberts and Seth Speaks. We're not limited to only one incarnation at a time. We are multidimensional and our souls are vast.

      • shad

        After watching Cloud Atlas, I thought of the Seth materials and googled the connection. thanks for posting that. I'm glad someone else saw a connection.

    • Anon

      Also, the distribution of the actors among the characters is the decision of the directors, and not necessarily part of the structure of the novel.

  • eighty5

    This movie is a ridiculous mess. Especially Tom Hanks dialogue in 2321 Hawaii. It makes Dune seem as simple as the primary reader "See Dick Run".

  • Listen to me. I know sceince and this idea that Cloud Atlas has to do with reincarnation is total B.S. Becuase there is no such thing as dying and coming back. lol You die, you're gone.

    The other point that you will now read is that no one caught the importance of homosexual love to the harmony of the world. I understand this intimately.

    Darryl Forests
    R.I,P. Life Partner eveshi

  • IrreligiouSurvivalist

    If you take Jack Webber add Leslie Flint throw in Higginson, eveshi and Jon Donnis, you have recent, completely identifiable evidential physical mediums which prove the afterlife and the validity of physical mediumship. Case absolutely closed.

    Only joking! Webber, Flint and Higginson were all caught in fraud! All physical mediumship is cheesecloth and muslin, even Jim Warwood says so!

  • Speakeasy Ormaybenot

    Pigdon? Please speak with diction. We're watching this with subtitles because no one can possibly understand this ineffective manner of communicating. I am quite certain there were arguments on set over this. Nobody cares. Just tell the story.

    • Barbara Fletcher

      I believe that language devolution would be a thing under such circumstances.

  • Twocents

    I think the idea of casting the same actor over and over for different rolea is a bad decision that cause a lot of confusion about this reincarnation business.
    It's not the actors that are reincarnated. We have Soul A reincarnated through out the centuries- firsf as lawyer Ewing, then it is reincarnated again as Robert Forbisher, then it reincarnated as Luisa Rey, then as Timothy Cavendish, then as SonMi, then finally as Zachry. This is why Zachry can tell his grandkids the story of multiple lifetimes in different eras- because he is the same soul- who finally remembers. Every lifetimes it has.
    Instead, I read a lot of people analysing and review based on the actors role. Which imo a big load of bull, though you're welcome to hold that interpretation if you wish.
    Just that- maybe you'd be reincarnated as someone completely different, like this Soul A who found itself reincarnated over and over in different vesels- from an honorable upper class hetero guy to poor deviant bi musician to a fat publisher with poor moral standard to a girl of asian descent that's a clone to a goatherder with flashbacks of its past lives.
    It's worth noting that I think Soul A has a soulmate in the form of Soul B. this Soul B probably started off as a friend in the form of Autua the slave, who turned into a lover in the form of Sixsmith- which explained why Luisa Rey didn't end up with any lovers- because Soul B, the soulmate of Soul A, was killed during this lifecycle.
    Nevertheless Soul B backed with Soul A in Cavendish lifetime, though they have to went through years of separations due to Cavendish' folly of youth.
    They then became the star-crossed lovers in Neo Seoul, before finally they become the goatherder and the prescient.

    This is my take on this film.

    • dileep

      That is cool.

    • Curious

      I read an interview with the author. In that article it was explained that in the movie, the birthmark did not keep appearing on the same reincarnated soul. Instead, it would show up on a person of significance in that time frame. So I must disagree with Twocents.