Cloud Atlas is a movie that, for me, gets better with every watching. Fortunately, I had been forewarned that it is confusing; otherwise I might have turned it off after the first few minutes. While I got the gist of the plot with the first viewing – several lives interweaving and affecting each other through time – with each subsequent viewing I was able to catch more detail and see layers I had missed before.
A number of themes are explored: human nature, freedom, relationships and how they affect us, past lives, fate, the future. Perhaps the most compelling, and confusing, aspect of the film is how the same six souls meet and interact in different times and places.
There is a lawyer, Adam Ewing, in the early 1800’s, who has been sent to the Pacific on family business – the slave trade. He helps and is helped by a native Maori.
Ewing's journal is discovered by another character, a 1930’s musical composer, Robert Frobisher, whose life is tragically cut short. Before his death, he finishes the Cloud Atlas Sextet and sends it to his lover and friend, a Cambridge student, Rufus Sixsmith
Later in his life, this Cambridge friend meets a third character, the 1970’s journalist, Luisa Rey. Through Sixsmith, Rey discovers a conspiracy to cover up the design flaws in a nuclear reactor. While investigating this cover-up, she crosses paths with several recurring persona, as well as discovering letters from Frobisher to Sixsmith.
A fourth character, Timothy Cavendish is a small time publisher who runs afoul of some thugs over the matter of royalties. He appeals to his brother for help. The brother sends him to what he thinks is a hotel, but which turns out to be more akin to a prison. While traveling by train to the “hotel”, he reads a manuscript titled, ‘Half Lives – The First Luisa Rey Mystery”. Cavendish later writes his own story about his adventures in the “hotel”.
Cavendish’s story is turned into a film which is seen by a fifth character, Sonmi-451. A clone bred to work in a fast food restaurant in Neo Seoul, far in the future, Somni-451 begins to question her life. She meets a man, Hae-Joo Im, with whom she plans to broadcast the truth about the clones and the oppressive Korean government.
100 years later, the sixth character, Zachry, lives in a low-tech post-apocalyptic Hawaii. His tribe worship Somni as a holy woman. Meronym, a woman from a more advanced group of people, asks for Zachry’s help in traveling to a place to send a signal to other world colonies. She reveals to Zachry that their world is dying and convinces him that Somni is not a goddess, but a woman, and in fact, the place they’re in is the same one that Somni broadcasts from.
It seems confusing, and it is, but part of the appeal for me is figuring out who is playing each part. Another aspect I find appealing is the varied settings – a Pacific Island in 1849, Korea in 2144, England in 1936 and again in 2012, San Francisco in 1973, and Hawaii far in the future.
There are some disturbing images and scenes, although they are generally seen from a distance. This is not a light-hearted film, but rather one that displays the dark side of humanity as well as the rippling impact of kindness and courage.