Cloud Atlas follows 6 very different stories, each taking place in a different time period, but with the same actors playing different roles, races and even genders in each time period. Most of the stories are in the past, but a couple are in the distant future. Watching this film is like watching 3 different episodes of LOST all at the same time. The movie switches between stories somewhat seamlessly with the idea that they are all connected, as are the characters who seem to have reincarnated from one time period to the next.
The movie's philosophical bent seems to be one of reincarnation and karma.
The themes of this movie include karma, love, oppression/slavery, violence/murder, rebellion and hope. The central idea is that we are all connected and events that happened long before we were born affect our lives and our lives will affect others long after we are gone.
The stories of Cloud Atlas are as follows:
Year 1849: Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is a lawyer crossing the Pacific in a ship who is involved a a business deal involving slavery. He befriends an escaped slave (Keith David) while a greedy doctor (Tom Hanks) tries to poison him. He is saved by the escaped slave and is able to return to his wife (Bae Doona) and confront his father in law (Hugo Weaving) over the issue of slavery.
Year 1936: Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is a bisexual musician who goes to work for a famous but aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) and then develops an affair with the man's younger wife (Halle Berry). Vyvyan tries to blackmail Robert, so Robert shoots him and then is on the run from the law. He hides in a hotel where he is then blackmailed by the owner (Tom Hanks). After barely finishing his musical masterpiece, Cloud Atlas, Robert kills himself.
Year 1973: Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a journalist investigating an unsafe nuclear power plant run by a corrupt oil company. (No agenda there.) She is befriended by an engineer (Tom Hanks) and a security guard (Keith David). She is then pursued by a hit man named Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving) hired by an oil executive (Hugh Grant). Along the way she hears the music Cloud Atlas for the first time but somehow recognizes it.
Year 2012: Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is a publisher who has a windfall when his gangster author (Tom Hanks) commits murder at a party. Other gangsters come after him so he flees to his antagonistic brother (Hugh Grant) who tricks him into permanently checking into a retirement home where he is abused by a sadistic female nurse (Hugo Weaving). From there he plots his escape with other retirees. This is the only humorous sequence in the film.
Year 2144: In a dystopian future, Sonmi-451 (Bae Doona), is an artificially created slave clone who simply waits tables when one of her fellow clones fights against being abused, but as a consequence is executed. She is then recruited by a rebellion officer (Jim Sturgess), who she falls in love with, and a rebellion general (Keith David) who want to use her to broadcast a message of truth to the whole world. Once the rebellion is crushed, she is interrogated by a not so friendly Asian inquisitor (Hugo Weaving).
Year 2321: 106 years after the fall of Earth, Zachry (Tom Hanks) is a primitive tribesman living on the Hawaiian islands. His tribe is often attacked by cannibals, and Zachry often has visions of the Devil (Hugo Weaving) taunting him. His people believe that the Devil lives on top of a mountain. These people also have a myth about Sonmi-451 being a goddess. The island is visited by Meronym (Halle Berry) who belongs to a small group of people who still have technology. She tells Zachary that the Earth is dying and that they must travel to the top of the mountain, where there is a giant transmitter, so that they can send a request for help to humans on another world.
This last sequence uses a degraded form of English that is full of odd expressions like "true true." It makes the speech harder to follow but I was able to keep up. When the movie comes out on DVD on 2013-02-05, I suggest turning on subtitles so as to better follow the dialogue.
The end credits show pictures of all the different roles that each actor plays, many of which come as surprise. Sometimes the makeup is so heavy that you cannot easily recognize the actors. This would be a fun movie to watch repeatedly so as to pick up on the different actors.
I highly recommend watching the eye popping trailer. This is a film where the ideas are slightly better than the execution of the story. I give this movie a great deal of credit for being different, daring and innovative. In terms of acting and cinematography, the movie is a triumph. The fact that a movie of this scale was independently made is astonishing. This movie only has a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but I think that the complexity of the movie lost some people. I wager that over time the movie will gain more acceptance and be considered a great film.
Roger Ebert said that this is one of the most ambitious films ever made
The movie is rated R for many brief moments of intense violence, along with some nudity, sexual situations and language.