Cloud Atlas is a 2012 German drama and science fiction film written, produced and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. Adapted from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, the film features multiple plotlines set across six different eras. The official synopsis for Cloud Atlas describes the film as: “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.”
During four years of development, the project met difficulties securing financial support; it was eventually produced with a $102 million budget provided by independent sources, making Cloud Atlas one of the most expensive independent films of all time. Production began in September 2011 at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany.
The film premiered on 9 September 2012 at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival and was released on 26 October 2012 in conventional and IMAX cinemas.
Cloud Atlas polarized critics, and has subsequently been included on various Best Film and Worst Film lists. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score for Tykwer (who co-scored the film), Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil.
The film consists of six interrelated and interwoven stories spanning different time periods. The film is structured, according to novelist David Mitchell, “as a sort of pointillist mosaic.”
South Pacific Ocean, 1849
Adam Ewing, an American lawyer from San Francisco, has come to the Chatham Islands to conclude a business arrangement with Reverend Gilles Horrox for his father-in-law, Haskell Moore. He witnesses the whipping of a Moriori slave, Autua, who stows away on Ewing’s ship, and convinces Ewing to advocate for him to join the crew as a freeman. Meanwhile, Dr. Henry Goose slowly poisons Ewing, claiming it to be the cure for a parasitic worm, aiming to steal Ewing’s valuables. When Goose attempts to administer the fatal dose, Autua saves Ewing. Returning to the United States, Ewing and his wife Tilda denounce her father’s complicity in slavery and leave San Francisco to join the Slavery Abolishment Movement.
Cambridge, England and Edinburgh, Scotland, 1936
Robert Frobisher, a bisexual English musician, finds work as an amanuensis to composer Vyvyan Ayrs, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” But Ayrs wishes to take credit for Frobisher’s work, and threatens to expose his scandalous background if he resists. Frobisher, who has read a partial copy of Ewing’s journal in the meanwhile, shoots Ayrs and flees to a hotel, where he finishes “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” but then commits suicide just before the arrival of his lover Rufus Sixsmith at the scene.
San Francisco, California, 1973
Journalist Luisa Rey meets an older Sixsmith, now a nuclear physicist. Sixsmith tips off Rey to a conspiracy regarding the safety of a new nuclear reactor run by Lloyd Hooks, but is assassinated by Hooks’ hitman Bill Smoke before he can give her a report that proves it. Rey finds and reads Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith. Isaac Sachs, another scientist at the power plant, passes her a copy of Sixsmith’s report. However, Smoke assassinates Sachs and also runs Rey’s car off a bridge. With help from the plant’s head of security, Joe Napier, she evades another attempt against her life which results in Smoke’s death, and exposes the plot to use a nuclear accident for the benefit of oil companies.
United Kingdom, 2012
Timothy Cavendish, a 65-year-old publisher, has a windfall when Dermot Hoggins, a gangster author whose book he has published, murders a critic and is sent to jail. When Hoggins’ associates threaten Cavendish’s life to get his share of the profits, Cavendish asks for help from his brother Denholme. Denholme tricks him into hiding in a nursing home, where he is held against his will, but Cavendish escapes. Cavendish receives a manuscript of a novel based on Rey’s life and writes a screenplay about his own story in the home.
Neo Seoul, (Korea), 2144
Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered fabricant (clone) server at a restaurant, is interviewed before her execution. She recounts how she was released from her compliant life of servitude by Commander Hae-Joo Chang, a member of a rebel movement known as “Union”. While in hiding, she watches a film based on Cavendish’s adventure. The Union rebels reveal to her that fabricants like her are killed and “recycled” into food for future fabricants. She decides that the system of society based on slavery and exploitation of fabricants is intolerable, and is brought to Hawaii to make a public broadcast of her story and manifesto. Hae-Joo is killed in a firefight and Sonmi is captured. After telling her story and its intent, she is executed.
The Big Island (dated “106 winters after The Fall”, in the end credits and book cited as 2321)
Zachry lives with his sister and niece Catkin in a primitive society called “The Valley” after most of humanity has died during “The Fall”; the Valley tribesmen worship Sonmi as a goddess. Zachry is plagued by hallucinations of a figure called “Old Georgie” who manipulates him into giving in to his fear, leading to the murder of his brother-in-law and nephew by the cannibalistic Kona tribe. Zachry’s village is visited by Meronym, a member of the “Prescients”, a society holding on to remnants of technology from before the Fall. In exchange for saving Catkin from death, Zachry agrees to guide Meronym into the mountains in search of Cloud Atlas, a communications station where she is able to send a message to Earth’s colonies. At the station, Meronym reveals that Sonmi was a mortal and not a deity as the Valley tribes believe. After returning, Zachry discovers the slaughter of his tribe by the Kona. Zachry kills the Kona chief and rescues Catkin; Meronym saves them both from an assault by Kona tribesmen. Zachry and Catkin join Meronym and the Prescients as their boat leaves Big Island.
A seventh time period, several decades after the action on Big Island, is featured in the film’s prologue and epilogue: Zachry is revealed to have been telling these stories to his grandchildren on a colony of Earth on another planet, confirming that Meronym, who is present at the site, succeeded in sending the message to the colonies and was rescued along with him.
Learn more about the concepts, principles and symbolism behind the subliminals found in this film: