How the World of Cloud Atlas Works

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 27 2012 10:53 AM

The World According to Cloud Atlas

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas
Top row: Tom Hanks in three different roles inCloud Atlas.Bottom row: Halle Berry in three different roles inCloud Atlas.

Photographs by Jay Maidment/Warner Bros. Pictures.

The first question you’re likely to have after walking out of Cloud Atlas is: What was up with that leprechaun? But you’ll probably have some more substantive questions nagging you as well. Like: What did it all mean? What are the Wachowski siblings and co-director Tom Tykwer trying to say about reincarnation, revolution, and the fate of mankind? And how do the movie’s six narrative strands fit together? Herewith, is our best effort at sorting it all out:

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

Reincarnation

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The film casts a number of actors in multiple roles across time to underline the themes of reverberating actions and eternal recurrence in David Mitchell’s novel. But the movie seems to believe in a more direct process of reincarnation than the book, which merely suggests reincarnation as a possibility.

The Wachowskis have suggested that each actor in the movie plays a soul that evolves across time. As they told The New Yorker, “Tom Hanks starts off as a bad person … but evolves over centuries into a good person.” The soul depicted by Hanks goes from being a murderous quack (Dr. Henry Goose) to a physicist (Isaac Sachs) to a cockney gangster (Dermot Hoggins) and finally to a troubled tribesman of the post-apocalypse (the Valleysman Zachry); the soul played by Halle Berry goes from being a young Polynesian native to a Jewish composer’s wife (Jocasta Ayrs) to an investigative reporter (Luisa Rey), and so on.

 But is it that simple? If Hanks always plays the same soul, then what happened between 1970 and 2012 to turn him from a whistle-blowing scientist into a murderous memoirist? Hanks’ progress, if indeed it’s from a “bad person” to a “good person,” hardly seems to follow a linear path. Also: the filmmakers decision to use nearly all of their actors in multiple roles is arguably as confusing as it is clarifying. Are all the characters played by Hugo Weaving the same soul? Perhaps—they’re  certainly all evil. But what about Halle Berry? In 1973, when she’s a muckraking journalist, and in “106 years after the Fall” (well into the future), she’s heroic. But in the 1930s she’s the mostly silent and occasionally adulterous wife of an egotistical composer.

Birthmarks

Which brings us to the comet-shaped birthmarks, which one character in almost every plot possesses. In Mitchell’s novel, the birthmark is thought to suggest that everyone who has one is actually a different incarnation of the same person. But in the movie, different actors, including Ben Whishaw (when he’s portraying Robert Frobisher) and Halle Berry (when she’s playing Luisa Rey) are seen with the birthmark. So which is it: Are all the characters played by Tom Hanks the same soul? Or is each character with the birthmark the same soul?

Good vs. Evil

There may be a way to resolve this question. Perhaps only some actors play the same soul across time—including Tom Hanks and possibly Hugo Weaving—while other actors play different incarnations of the same soul (i.e., the soul with the birthmark). This interpretation might also help explain how the filmmakers see the six storylines connecting. There are essentially three main characters in each story. One, who the Wachowskis have said embodies “the Everyman,” is played by Tom Hanks. The second is a force of conservatism, evil, and oppression, who is represented (because it’s a Wachowskis film) by Hugo Weaving. The third is a force of good who can see beyond superficial differences of race, sexual orientation, and genetic engineering, and who is represented by various actors, all of whom own the birthmark: budding abolitionist Adam Ewing, the composer Frobisher, journalist Louisa Rey, fabricant Sonmi, and hero of the future Meronym. (Note: These characters have the birthmark in the book, and some certainly have it in the movie. Do they all? We can’t quite remember. If you do, let us know in the comments.)

Interconnectedness

However they work, exactly, the device of actors playing multiple characters across time and the device of repeating the birthmark across time both convey one of the film’s major themes: The interconnectedness of all human life. This theme is also underlined by events in each narrative. One individual’s actions—Sonmi’s standing up against an oppressive corporatocracy, or Robert Frobisher’s completion of his haunting sextet (itself about eternal recurrence)—are shown to have effects reaching far into the future. Frobisher’s sextet is heard again and again across the film, and Sonmi’s rebellious speech seems to eventually become scripture to the people of the future. And it’s not just their words and speeches that resonate down the ages, but also their stories: Just as in Mitchell’s novel, each character tells his or her own story, and each of these stories is shown being read (or in some cases, watched) by the people of the future. Our actions, the movie seems to be saying, don’t just affect our present: They’re shaped by mankind’s past and will in turn shape mankind’s future.

Prejudice and Oppression

Often in the film’s stories, the evil force that the hero is fighting against is a form of imprisonment rooted in some kind of prejudice. In the earliest tale, Adam Ewing fights against the American institution of slavery. In the 1930s, Frobisher is threatened with imprisonment on account of his homosexuality. In the Neo Seoul plot, Hae-Joo Chang and Sonmi 451 fight against a totalitarian government that treats clones like cattle. Each of these systems insists on the fundamental difference between the dominant group and the dominated one, thus violating the fundamental principle of interconnectedness.

Revolution and Change

So how do you go about effecting change in the world of Cloud Atlas? How do the forces of good wage their eternal battle with the forces of evil? It’s worth noting that each story plays out in remarkably similar ways. What allows each hero to prevail over his oppressor is, in nearly every case, a recognition of himself in another.

Take, for instance, the story set in 1849. The hero is Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), who recognizes himself in the slave Autua (David Gyasi) as he’s being whipped. As a result of this moment of recognition, Ewing decides to help Autua escape from bondage and Autua in turn saves Ewing’s life. Later, Ewing rises up against his slavery-supporting father-in-law (played, of course, by Hugo Weaving) and becomes an abolitionist. In the story set in 22nd-century Neo Seoul, Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) recognizes his other in the genetically engineered fabricant Sonmi-451, and together they lead an uprising against an oppressive regime (their rebellion will fail in their own time, but echo meaningfully into the future). After the apocalypse, Zachry (Hanks) and Meronym (Berry) are able to look past the differences of language, culture, and skin color to unite and start a new civilization on a distant planet.