Explainers

‘Cloud Atlas’, Explained

March 20, 2018
14 min read

“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.” Do you believe in karma? Do you believe in reincarnation? Personally, I am a firm believer of the fact that everything in this world of ours is connected in some way or the other, that this connection exists across lifetimes, that we’re all trapped in a circle: “The Circle of Life and Rebirth” and that our lives are indeed not our own. This idea of eternal recurrence is what drives the ambitious and enlightening film ‘Cloud Atlas’.

Directed by Tom Tywker, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski and based on David Mitchell’s novel of the same name, ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a baffling adventure story lasting over six hundred years and covering six seemingly different yet intricately interconnected stories. A first watch of the film will leave your head spinning with queries and theories. For those of you who haven’t seen this masterpiece yet, watch it and then come read the rest. For those of you who have, read on and perhaps you’ll find the answer to your question.

THE SIX STORIES & THE CONNECTIONS

Evidently, ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a mixture of six intertwined personal stories taking place between 1849 and 2346. Each of the story is set in its own era, starting from the Pacific Islands in 1849 to the Post-Apocalyptic era in 2346. Despite each story having its own genre, setting and narrative, all of them, in one way or the other, focus on the eternal conflict between freedom and oppression. And all though the factual connections between them are rather clear after the first watch, there are things beyond facts which seamlessly link these threads to form “The Circle of Life”. Now let’s break down each of these threads chronologically and join all the dots together.

The Pacific Islands, 1849

We begin our journey with attorney Adam Ewing, who has come to the Pacific Islands to meet plantation owner, Reverend Horrox and notarize a contract between the owner and his father-in-law, Haskell Moore. In the scorching heat of the field, Ewing faints while witnessing the gruesome whipping of Autua, a slave working for Horrox. Dr. Henry Moose makes Adam believe that he’s sick from a Polynesian worm and that he shall aid him in getting rid of it. Little did Adam know that Dr. Moose was poisoning him and making him sick so that he could steal all his money.

On the boat, Adam again meets Autua, who had managed to sneak onto the boat. An unlikely friendship develops between the two. Ewing helps Autua to become a part of the ship crew. And had it not been for the stow-away, then the villainous doctor would have definitely succeeded in killing Ewing. Autua honored Ewing’s favor by saving his life and making sure that he reached back home safely. After his eye-opening journey across the Pacific, Ewing goes up to his overbearing and racist father-in-law and says “I owe my life to a self-freed slave”. With his wife, Tilda, by his side, he decides to become an abolitionist and help the oppressed.

Throughout his journey Adam keeps a journal, a journal which in the year 1936 falls into the hands of Robert Frobisher, the protagonist of the next thread. Also the waistcoat buttons, stolen by Dr. Moose are exactly similar to the ones possessed by Zachary, a goat herder in the post-apocalyptic era.

Cambridge, 1936

Now we move to Cambridge where we come across prostitute and composer Robert Frobisher in bed with his lover Rufus Sixsmith. He sets off on a journey to become the greatest British composer and decides to become the amanuensis of Vyvyan Ayrs, an aging yet legendary composer. Throughout his stay, Frobisher gets engrossed by Adam Ewing’s journal and writes numerous letters to the one true love of his life describing each day to him in a poetic manner. He even ends up sleeping with Vyvyan’s wife.

Soon he starts his own work, a symphony he calls “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”. A symphony which Vyvyan apparently heard in his dream playing at a cafe which was identical to PapaSongs, the cafe shown in the thread set in Neo Seoul in  2144. Vyvyan tries to claim Frobisher’s work and doesn’t let him leave the house. Frobisher shoots him and then hides using Ewing’s name, where he completes his symphony and finally kills himself.

Much like the role played by Adam’s journal, Frobisher’s letters form the link with the next thread, wherein Luisa Rey reads these letters after her encounter with an old Rufus Sixsmith. Strains of the mystifying cloud atlas sextet recur throughout various threads. Also, it’s interesting to mention that the title of the first collaboration of Ayrs and Frobisher was “Eternal Recurrence”.

San Francisco, 1973

Next we encounter Luisa Rey, a promising and stubborn journalist, who after a disastrous interview with one Mr Kipin yells at him saying “for the last hour, all I could think about was throwing you off the balcony”. She meets on old Rufus Sixsmith (now a scientist) in an elevator and the two become acquaintances. Sixsmith knows the truth behind the Swannekke nuclear reactor which if not revealed could cause humanity a great deal of damage. But Sixsmith is killed just before he could tell the story to Luisa Rey. She finds Frobisher’s letters from under his body and is immediately drawn to them, thus intertwining these threads together. So much so that she ends up purchasing the Cloud Atlas Sextet and strangely she believes that she’s heard this melody before. But where? Perhaps in a past life.

She continues her investigation and meets scientist Isaach Sachs at the plant. He agrees to gives her the report and the two develop a strong attraction towards each other. But Lloyd Hooks, the seedy president of the plant, hires contractor Bill Smoke to get rid of Sixsmith, Sachs and Luisa Rey. He sets a bomb on Sachs’s plane and tips off Luisa’s car from the Swannekke Bridge. She survives and now with the help of Joe Napier, they get rid of the contractor and disclose the truth behind the reactor.

Now to establish the link to the next thread, Luisa Rey’s story becomes a manuscript in the year 2012 which is read by Timothy Cavendish, the protagonist of the next thread.

London, 2012

Here we have the most comical thread in the movie. Timothy Cavendish is an aging publisher who is hosting an author’s book party. The author, Dermot Hoggins, is a criminally minded man, who throws a critic off the balcony much like Luisa Rey wanted to do with Mr Kipin. Hoggins’s friends track down Cavendish and demand money from him after the extraordinary success of the book. Since Cavendish doesn’t have the money to pay them, he calls on his brother, Denholme, for help. En route he reads the manuscript on Luisa Rey’s story and feels a rather strong deja vu.

Denholme agrees to help him and tells him to go hide at Aurora House till he arranges the money. For Denholme, this was his revenge from his brother Timothy and his wife Georgette, who had been cheating on him. Aurora House was a nursing home and he managed to trick Timothy into voluntarily checking into it. In a series of comic events, he plans an escape from the house and from the awful Nurse Noakes. With the help of other residents, he manages to escape and then reunites with his past love.

Later a movie is made on the publisher’s life titled, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” which is seen by the protagonist of the next thread. Also, interestingly the grand mansion of Vyvyan Ayrs is used as the nursing home in this thread.

Neo Seoul, 2144

Directed by the Wachowskis, this thread features futuristic Korea, specifically the city Neo Seoul. Focusing again on the concepts of oppression and slavery, the protagonist here is Sonmi-451. She’s a fabricant i.e. modern age slaves, created to work in a fast food chain, PapaSongs. But amidst all these slaves, there was a rebel, Yoona-939. She encourages Sonmi-451 to start thinking for herself and realise the life beyond their cycle.

Then we encounter Commander Hae Ju Zheng, who helps Sonmi-451 in escaping and wants her to lead the revolution against slavery. One of the ways he inspires her is by showing her the movie “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”. Then he tells her the dark truth behind the process of exultation. A process where instead of setting the fabricants free, they used to kill them. And worse, they used to recycle the remains to create soap, the food which the fabricants were given. After witnessing that how they used to feed them to themselves, Sonmi-451 decides to lead the revolution.

Although she ends up getting captured and finally excised, Sonmi-451 becomes a goddess for the tribe in the next thread. Her revelation becomes their holy scripture.

Hawaiin Islands, 2321 & 2346

The final thread in ‘Cloud Atlas’ is set in the post-apocalyptic era. Our protagonist here is Zachary, a coward goat herder who doesn’t support his friend as he gets attacked by a tribe of cannibals. Zachary’s tribe believes Somni to be a goddess and her speech is their holy scripture.

Then we are introduced to Meronym, member of an advanced civilization known as Prescients. Meronym wants to send out an SOS to off world colonies since survival on earth was becoming tougher day by day. Zachary helps her by taking her to a part of the island which she fears. Throughout this thread Zachary is haunted by a scary and ghoulish voice inside his head that taunts him. The voice calls itself Old Georgie.

Eventually Zachary overcomes his fears and emerges courageous and in love with Meronym. They end up together living on an off world colony where Zachary narrates the story to his grandchildren.

THE CAST, THE CHARACTERS & THE REBIRTH

‘Cloud Atlas’ is a rather unique film. One thing which makes it this exceptional and just adds to the confusion is the use of almost all of the lead actors for multiple roles across the six threads. We witness actors switching ages, races and even genders from thread to thread. Why did the directors do this?

Well since reincarnation is one of the central themes of the movie, they needed to find a way to track the reincarnation of various characters from tale to tale. And the use of same actors is the perfect way to express how souls change and evolve over time. And tracking of these actors is yet another crucial key to gain a deeper understanding of the connections and realize that how the idea of “Life is a Circle” holds true not just in one lifetime, but across all lifetimes of an individual. So let’s track all the key characters played by each of the lead members of the cast and realize the growth which they experienced with each rebirth.

Tom Hanks

The key characters played by Tom Hanks are: Dr. Henry Moose, Isaac Sachs, Dermot Hoggins and Zachary. He also makes appearances as hotel manager and the actor who plays Timothy Cavendish in ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’.

We witness his soul undergoing a positive transformation as he goes from a cunning and greedy Dr. Moose to Zachary, who despite being cowardly, is kind at heart and by the time the last thread ends he becomes courageous and selfless.

Jim Strugess

The key characters played by Jim Strugess are: Attorney Adam Ewing and Union Commander Hae Ju Zheng. His other appearances include those of a hotel guest in 1936, a soccer fan in 2012 and a tribe member in 2321.

His soul goes from a character who reluctantly fights for one slave to an abolitionist to a commander who starts a revolution aimed at ending all slavery.

Ben Whishaw

The key characters portrayed by Ben Whishaw are: Composer Robert Frobisher, guy at the store where Luisa goes to buy the Cloud Atlas Sextet. His other appearance include those of Georgette and a tribesman in 2321.

His soul unlike others, doesn’t evolve much. It remains morally uncertain and despite being a believer in love, ends up sleeping with anyone. This is evident from these incidents: Frobisher sleeping with Vyvyan’s wife and Georgette having an affair with her brother-in-law. Amusingly, he does end up selling his own symphony in 1973.

Halle Berry

The key characters played by Halle Berry are: A slave in 1849, Journalist Luisa Rey and Meronym. Her other appearances are those of Vyvyan Ayrs’s wife, an Indian chick at a party in 2012 and a male Korean doctor in 2144.

Just like Tom Hank’s, here again we witness a powerful transformation of the soul as she goes from a helpless and powerless slave to a bold and determined journalist and finally to humanity’s last hope. Her soul always had the impulse to help others and thus it kept on evolving gaining more and more control and positivity.

Jim Broadbent

The key characters played by Jim Broadbent are: Composer Vyvyan Ayrs and publisher Timothy Cavendish. His other noteworthy appearances being those of an arrogant ship captain in 1849 and a Prescient in 2321.

His soul is very selfish and snobbish in the beginning and even through parts of the 2012 thread. But then the tables turned for him. Much like he had imprisoned Frobisher in his mansion, his brother trapped him in a nursing home. After this he realised the meaning of freedom and humility. This is marked with his dialogue “Freedom, the fatuous jingle of our civilization, but only those deprived of it have the barest inkling of what it really is.”

Hugh Grant

Key roles played by Hugh Grant are: Reverend Horrox, Lloyd Hooks, Denholme and the leader of a band of cannibal warriors.

Here we realise that not all souls have a positive transformation over time. Some start evil and despite all circumstances remain evil, even become more barbaric and savage. But all these characters witnessed the circle of life in their own respective lifetimes.

Hugo Weaving

Key roles played by Hugo Weaving are: Haskell Moore, Bill Smoke, Nurse Noakes and Old Georgie.

We witness a situation similar to Hugh Grant here. But where Grant’s soul became more and more evil with each lifetime, Hugo Weaving’s soul was evil from the start. He learns nothing over time and eventually devolves until he’s just an idea.

Doona Bae

Key roles played by Doona Bae are: Adam Ewing’s wife and Sonmi-451.

She goes from being a powerless woman to a Goddess worshiped by a tribe for whom her revelation was a holy scripture.

In addition, the directors even used similar sets across the threads. Ayrs’ salon becomes the nursing home dining room. And the restaurant where Somni works is transformed for the fateful book party. If it would have not been for such intelligent direction, then ‘Cloud Atlas’ would have remained an unfilmable book forever.

THE BIRTHMARK

An explanation of ‘Cloud Atlas’ can’t be completed without talking about “The Comet Birthmark”. This birthmark is the one thing which remains constant across all the six timelines. It is present on each and every protagonist of each thread, from Adam Ewing to Zachary. But the question is: What is its significance?

The answer yet again lies in the word “Reincarnation”. The birthmark is an indication of this word. It essentially acts a soul tracker, indicating the souls crossing the ages like clouds cross the skies. And its shape just gives us a mystic sense about the process of reincarnation.

After having answered many queries about this stunning and thought provoking masterpiece, one question still remains. Is reincarnation real or not? I leave that for you to ponder upon.

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