We went into the film knowing nothing other than it had something to do with reincarnation. The film was beautiful to watch, confusing, and had a "where's Waldo" element as you figured out which Hollywood star was under all the cosmetic and prosthesis makeup. (This was fun but also confusing, too, as we weren't sure if the actors were suppose to be reincarnated versions of themselves or not. More on this later.)
Although we spent a lot of movie confused, we had a good discussion of the film over dinner later that night. We decided we did like the movie. There are a few cautions, however, I'd like to add before anyone goes to see it on this recommendation. (We don't recommend that it's for everyone!)
First, there is a good reason for the "R" rating. (We didn't realize it was "R" when we went.) There is brief nudity (female front, male back) and two or three sexual situations. These were not long but graphic enough to make you want to look away. There is also quite a bit of graphic and bloody violence. That was what I found the most disturbing. I do not remember language being a huge issue.
The movie does contain the overarching theme of reincarnation. However, the "reincarnation" plot line didn't seem to be done from a religious point of view. Rather, we thought the reincarnation element was making a statement about humanity--how we repeat the same story throughout history. In each of the story lines there was a struggler seeking freedom from oppression, a villain, and a savior (someone that helped the struggler attain freedom).
I do like movies that make you think. However, I don't like when you have to watch a movie several times to "get it." This is one of those movies. (Even at matinée prices, re-watching can get expensive.) So, if you want to see Cloud Atlas, I would strongly suggest knowing a few key things before watching the film. I feel this will cut down on distractions and help make the whole movie more enjoyable--the FIRST time.
Below I have a Cheat Sheet to the movie for those of you that still want to see it. I have done my best not to spoil anything. If you want a purist view of the movie, stop reading now!
- The movie focuses on six main story lines interwoven throughout the three hours.
- These plot lines are centered around six characters or "the struggler" that have a shooting-star or comet-like birthmark.
- This birthmark seems to indicated that he/she is the same "soul" reincarnated throughout time. In each lifetime, the "soul" has a unique struggle against oppression--sometimes causing big ripples of change and other more insignificant ripples.
- In each of the six plot lines, the birth-marked person has a tangible connection to their former life in some way. (Explained below)
- Chronological order of the plot lines:
- The first storyline is in the early 1800's and it follows a lawyer involved in slave trade named Adam Ewing. Ewing (played by Jim Sturgess) has the birthmark. He writes a journal of his voyage that is later published into a book called The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.
- The second story is about a 1930's musician named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw). He writes a series of letters to his lover, Rufus Sixmith (James D'Arcy), as he works on composing the Cloud Atlas sextet, and piece of music that is later recorded. Frobisher's character has the birthmark and is shown reading Ewing's book mentioned above.
- The third plot surrounds a 1970's journalist named Luisa Rey (Halle Berry). Rey has the birthmark, which is seen by Frobisher's old lover, Sixsmith. This discovery leads him to entrust in her a story. She agrees to meet Sixsmith, but finds him dead atop of love letters from Frobisher. His murder leads her to investigate
corruption connected to the local nuclear power plant. She also reads the letters written by Frobisher and seeks out the recording of the Cloud Atlas sextet. She ends up writing a mystery book called Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.
- The fourth story, set in modern-day England, focuses on the aging and unhappy, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), who is a owner of a small publishing company. He has the same birthmark. We see him reading the Half-Lives manuscript written by Rey (above) on a train ride to hotel where he is hiding out from creditors and mob-like crooks. He finds out he is tricked by his brother and the "hotel" is actually a nursing home, where he is held against his will. He, along with three other residents, plot and escape from the home. He later writes a best-selling novel about his escape that is later made into a bio-pic movie.
- The fifth story is centered on the birth-marked, Sonmi-451 (Donna Bae), who is a Fabricant--a genetically-engineered clone, who was bred to work in a fast-food restaurant in a capitalist, totalitarian Korea (now called Neo Seoul) in the far future. When she is inadvertently awaken by another clone, she is shown a clip of Cavendish's biopic. This movie sparks in her friend a revolt against her "owners" and leads to her death. Sonmi is left behind, and through the help of rebel commander, she escapes her enslavement. While on the run, she is lead to question her existence and the treatment of her kind. She then goes on to lead a revolution.
- The final plot line takes place about 100 years after the fall of Neo Seoul. It follows one tribe that lives in a low-tech Hawaii and is focused around Zachary (Tom Hanks) who lives a cursed life because of earlier cowardliness in life. The people in Zachery's tribe revere Sonmi, and believe her to be holy. Occasionally, the tribe is visited and studied by a technologically sophisticated people known as the Prescients. One of these women, named Meronym (Halle Berry), comes to live with the tribe in hopes of finding a guide to city steeped in local folk-lore. Meronym is looking for the old city to send a message to another colony in a far-off plant.
If you can remember that the slave-trading lawyer Ewing, the composer Frobisher, the journalist Rey, the publisher Cavendish, the clone Sonmi-451, and post-apocalyptic Zachary are all the same person, you should understand the movie a lot easier than I did the first time. You can also see the growth of that soul better, as well as the universal plight to overcome oppression or control.
If you see the movie, let me know if these plot elements helped!