Humanity's fate has always hung suspended between two opposing forces: freedom and oppression. At any moment—in ages past, in this very hour, and in the future—the courageous or craven decisions of individuals have the power to tip the balance. That's the assertion in Cloud Atlas, an epic saga mapping the influence of individuals' choices through six stories spanning five centuries.
It begins in 1849. A lawyer named Adam Ewing visits a preacher's plantation in Hawaii and finds his conscience awakened when he witnesses how slaves are mistreated, including the whipping of one named Autua. On his return voyage to San Francisco, Ewing discovers Autua has stowed away and needs his help. Ewing eventually decides to lend a hand—a fateful decision, as he'll need Autau's help to save him from a doctor who's been poisoning him to steal his gold. It's a dramatic tale Ewing recounts in a journal …
… that ends up in the hands of an aspiring composer in Cambridge, England, in 1936. There, Robert Frobisher informs his gay lover, Rufus Sixsmith, that he's seeking employment as an amanuensis (a musical transcriber) for a famous composer named Vyvyan Ayrs. Frobisher hopes the association with Ayrs will ignite his career. It doesn't. And when the older man learns his assistant is gay, the information becomes blackmail fodder. Despite that predicament, Frobisher writes his magnum opus, "The Cloud Atlas Sextet," a haunting work that vanishes …
… until it's rediscovered by an investigative journalist named Luisa Rey in 1973. Rey believes a nuclear power plant in San Francisco is a ticking time bomb, and an aging Rufus Sixsmith seems key to unraveling the mystery. But he's killed before he can help her. And Luisa fears she's next. It's a story Erin Brockovich would have loved, and one that Luisa records in a book …
… that publisher Timothy Cavendish is reading in London in 2012 when he suddenly finds himself in need of a large sum of money to deal with a crisis. He seeks the help of his rich-but-miserly brother, Denholme, who tricks Timothy into signing himself into a care facility for the aged—a facility from which he cannot escape. It's an outlandish story that eventually gets filmed …
… and watched 132 years later by a "fabricant" in the Korean city of Neo Seoul. There, consumers are served by manufactured clones. One of them, Somni-451, labors as a slave-like fast-food server under the oppressive Unanimity regime. Until, that is, she's rescued by an agent of the Union resistance named Hae-Joo Chang, who opens her eyes to the truth that her cloned kin are eventually "recycled" as food for other fabricants. Somni-451 and Chang try to overthrow the regime, recording a video message to all those fighting oppression …
… which helps explain how, 200 years after that, Somni-451 has become a goddess worshipped by a primitive group of survivors of humankind's nuclear apocalypse living in Hawaii. There, Zachry and his tribe struggle to sustain life and to keep a tribe of cannibals known as the Kona at bay. Twice a year, though, they see the ships of another group of survivors, the mysterious, high-tech Prescients. And now the Prescients need Zachry's help to reach an outpost atop a mountain in a haunted forest.
It's a cooperative effort that could ultimately determine whether humanity lives … or perishes.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Cloud Atlas grapples with the struggle between those who cherish freedom and those who would extinguish it. It focuses on oppression based on nearly every sociological classification possible, including race, sexual orientation (more on that below), economic status, age and how people are born (fabricants vs. the "pureblood" in 2144).
Arguing for slavery, Adam Ewing's father-in-law warns, "There's a natural order to the world, and those who upend it never fare well." But Ewing rejects that logic and is determined to challenge a status quo that enslaves people. Other characters confront the oppressors in stories that range from the ridiculous (Timothy Cavendish breaking out of his assisted-care facility) to the risky (Luisa Rey battling a huge corporation) to the revolutionary (Somni-451 seeking to overthrow a totalitarian regime). At one point we hear, "Only those deprived of [freedom] have the barest inkling of what it is."
Somni-451 suggests that a person's method of creation shouldn't determine his dignity: "No matter if you are born in a tank or in a womb, we are all pureblood." She also hears a co-worker say, "I'll not be subjected to criminal abuse," which becomes another refrain of resistance throughout the story.
Several people say, "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." That's Cloud Atlas' main message: Every person matters, every decision has consequences. Reinforcing it, someone opines, "The nature of our immortal lives is in the consequence of our words and deeds."
Facing execution, a man says, "I believe death is only a door. If it closes, another opens." He's hinting at reincarnation, not heaven, as the film moves souls from one body to the next through the centuries, changing gender and race along the way. Cloud Atlas uses this spiritual premise to suggest that our decisions in each successive life impact our lives—and others'—into the future.
Two characters have dreams in which they have memories of past lives. One starts out as a would-be murderer but ends up a hero centuries later. The film thus indicates that moving from evil to goodness throughout ones' incarnations is possible. Before committing suicide, Frobisher tells Sixsmith in a letter, "I believe there is another world waiting for us. … And I'll be waiting for you there. … I believe we do not stay dead long."
Of course, Hebrews 9:27 counters all that with, "Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment."
Several characters believe truth is worth living and dying for. One suggests that truth is singular, and that to believe there are multiple truths is incorrect. Ewing prays and reads his Bible. And it's his faith that apparently motivates him to work for slaves' emancipation—in contrast to the Rev. Giles Horrox, who believes slaves are fundamentally inferior. A conversation between them includes the question, "If God created the world, how do we know what things we can change and which remain inviolable?"
In the future, Zachry's people practice a primitive-looking native religion that includes shamans who perform rituals. Zachry is haunted by a green, devil-like entity known as Old Georgie, who tempts him. Old Georgie employs biblical allusions when he whispers, "You're Judasing your own kin for a piece of a‑‑" and describes a woman as a "Jezebel."
The fabricants in Neo Seoul are indoctrinated by their masters to serve customers with religious zeal. At the end of their careers, they're led off in a ceremony communicating (falsely, it turns out) that they're going to receive some kind of spiritual reward.
Frobisher and Sixsmith kiss. Frobisher's bare backside is visible when he gets out of bed. He later tries to seduce aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs, who mocks him, saying he has no interest in "a little buggering." Ayrs implies he has the power to destroy Frobisher because he knows about the younger man's homosexual habits, labeling the man a "pervert," "sodomite" and "reprobate."
Frobisher also has sex with Ayrs' wife, Jocasta. We see her bare back as she gets in bed, and the sides of her breasts as they have sex. It's implied he performs oral sex on her.
A female clone named Somni-351 has sex with a man (they're mostly clothed, but sexual movements are obvious) as Somni-451 watches. Later, Somni-451 engages in graphic sex with Hae-Joo Chang. Her breasts and bare rear are visible in a lengthy scene that includes explicit sexual sounds and movements. Timothy Cavendish recalls nearly losing his virginity to a teenage girl. She's shown naked in bed with a sheet mostly covering her bare back. He's shown covering his genitals with a nearby cat (with comedically disastrous results) when they're discovered by her parents.
Female fabricants' breasts are visible as they dress for the day. And they're routinely subjected to leering looks, suggestive gestures and carnal touches. We hear several sexual references and double entendres.
Frustrated with his inability to live openly as a gay man, Frobisher puts a gun in his mouth, and we hear him say in a voiceover, "Suicide takes tremendous courage." He pulls the trigger and kills himself. (We hear the fatal shot.) Before killing himself, Frobisher shoots Ayrs.
Fabricants wear death collars that can be activated via remote control. When one fabricant rebels, her restaurant manager presses a button, and an artery in her neck is punctured, killing her. All fabricants eventually get euthanized by a bullet-like shot to the forehead. After that, they're decapitated (offscreen) and their bodies hung on a conveyor in a factory (onscreen) to be "recycled." Thus, in a scene very reminiscent of The Matrix, Somni-451 sees a warehouse full of bodies as Hae-Joo Chang tells her they're used to feed new fabricants. Somni-451 concludes, "So, they feed us to ourselves."
Chang and Somni-451 engage in multiple futuristic chases and shootouts through Neo Seoul that claim the lives of enemy fighters via bullets and explosions. A final shoot-out between Union and Unanimity forces leaves most of the freedom fighters dead.
We see several brutal killings (including throats being slit) in conflicts between Zachry's tribe and the cannibalistic Kona clan. One man is shown eating a fresh victim. Combat includes physical beatings and people being shot with crossbows. A young boy is shot and killed. An energy weapon is used to kill several Kona warriors. One of the Kona combatants tries to cut Zachry's head off, leaving a wound from his eye to his neck. Zachry does the same to another Kona warrior, nearly sawing his head off with a knife.
Autua is whipped mercilessly. An author tosses a book critic off a skyscraper roof. (The camera watches his bloody impact many stories below.) An assassin shoots a man through the mouth. A woman's car gets forced off a bridge into water. A shootout and car chase wreak havoc in downtown San Francisco. A man shoots a woman's dog; she later kills him with a blow to the head with a wrench, them pummels his body with it.
An airplane explodes. A bar brawl results in a dislodged tooth. A man is killed when he's hit in the head with a trunk full of gold. There's the threat—and then the residual reality—of nuclear holocaust.
Crude or Profane Language
When actor Tom Hanks appeared on Good Morning America to promote Cloud Atlas, host Elizabeth Vargas asked him to talk in the thick accent he used for one of his roles in the film. Tom's response? "Oy, mostly it's swear words!" He did end up dropping an f-bomb in that interview. And in the movie? More than 20 f-words and about five s-words pop up. Characters misuse Jesus' and God's names two or three times each, and God's is paired with "d‑‑n." We also hear "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑," "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑y," "bloody" and "ruddy." Derogatory and/or obscene slurs include two uses of "n-gger," one of "wetback" and one of the c-word.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters smoke cigarettes and consume alcoholic beverages throughout.
Other Negative Elements
A man on a toilet is intimidated by men who shove a plunger in his face. Several folks justify an aggressive lifestyle by saying, "The weak are meat, and the strong do eat."
Cloud Atlas is on a very short list of films I've seen that prompted me to say afterward, "I've never seen anything quite like that before." Actress Susan Sarandon felt similarly when viewing clips. "I just thought … this looks like the trailer for every film a studio is doing for the entire season," she said. And she's right. In terms of scope, genre and sheer storytelling audacity, The Matrix creators Andy and Lana Wachowski (the latter known as Larry before a sex-change operation), with help from director Tom Tykwer, have crafted a movie that David Mitchell, the author of the book on which it's based, once said was unfilmable.
Thematically, Cloud Atlas reflects on the importance of freedom and cost of securing it. It sends inspirational messages when it insists that every individual's choices can have an eternal impact and every person has intrinsic worth. But it ultimately knows nothing of the God of all inspiration, and offers no judgment for evil choices made in a man's lifetime. There's no salvation here. No Christ. No Savior. Just another chance to, perhaps, get it right in another life.
Some characters do make moral progress over the course of multiple lifetimes. But we're never given any hints regarding why.
Not that this epic's muddled spiritual worldview is its only problem. Not even close. A gay man's despairing suicide is meant to lash out at the moral code of the day, and in the process dangerously and disturbingly romanticizes killing yourself—especially given the suggestion that suicide is a path to a better place. Add to that graphic depictions of sex, grisly bloodletting and harsh profanity, and this film makes even the Wachowskis' violent Matrix trilogy look relatively restrained by comparison.