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

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.