Film Reviews
The poster image for 'Cloud Atlas'

‘Cloud Atlas’: An Audiovisual Nesting Doll

Three visionary directors transform a popular novel into a long, but fascinating, piece of cinema

Here is an entry that defies conventional description. Cloud Atlas belongs to the hyperlink genre – the specialty of directors like Quentin Tarantino and Alejandro González Iñárritu – among other films where scenes alternate between multiple times, places and points of view to tell a story, in the same way that someone would click on the links in a Wikipedia article to understand what they’re reading.

Movies such as Pulp Fiction or Babel often juggle different interlaced stories within a short and manageable period of time. Cloud Atlas differs in that it attempts to tell a single story, in six episodes, over a period of nearly 500 years. (Only Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain can compare in scope.) At the same time Cloud Atlas is attempting an even bigger trick: to convert its plot into a Matryoshka, the Russian nesting doll that contains another inside that also keeps an additional one, which also hides one, and so on.

Cloud Atlas in a Nutshell

It inherits its structure from its source material, a 2004 novel by British writer David Mitchell. The book is full of fantasy scenes and was considered impossible to film, so no large studio would finance its adaptation. Only an alliance between crazy young visionaries would dare to try. It is gratifying to know that these deluded youths turned out to be the Wachowski Siblings – accustomed to bringing fantasy into reality since The Matrix– and Tom Tykwer – well-versed in the “impossible” movie adaptation after making Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Lilly (formerly Andy), Lana (formerly Larry), and Tom sought investors outside the studio system to make the film as they envisioned it, later offering its distribution to Warner Bros. The result is one of the most expensive independent feature films in history, as well as one of the most extraordinary experiences we’ve seen, and possibly will see, in our whole lives.

Cloud Atlas
A future highway, as seen in one of the chapters of Cloud Atlas. (SOURCE: Warner Bros.)

Tangled Timelines

I’m up to my fifth paragraph and haven’t even touched on the plot of Cloud Atlas. The truth is I’m stalling, in part to avoid spoiling surprises and also because I’m afraid to confuse you into not seeing it. I’ll try ordering the plot’s stories and timelines like a PowerPoint presentation.

  • 1849: An American lawyer meets a doctor and a slave on an island in the Pacific during a business errand for his wealthy father-in-law. The young man becomes ill on the boat back to the U.S. Both the doctor and the slave will change his life before the journey is over.
  • 1936: A bisexual musician moves in with a renowned composer in Scotland. He gets a job as the old man’s secretary, hoping to use the elder’s fame to catapult himself and his symphony-in-progress into the limelight.
  • 1973: A journalist in San Francisco runs for her life while investigating the deadly secrets of a newly built nuclear power plant.
  • 2012: A criminal becomes a murderer and a best-selling author, all on the same night. His brothers bully his publisher for the book royalties, not knowing he used up the money to pay some debts. Frightened, the publicist asks his own resentful brother for help. The brother traps him in and old age home, yearning for escape.
  • 2144: A clone in Neo Seoul, programmed to serve in a fast food franchise together with her “sisters”, is freed by a militant rebel and discovers the secret behind her existence.
  • The Far Future: A tribe of humans on a post-apocalyptic island defends itself from the wild cannibals tormenting them, while a member of the last advanced civilization recruits one of the tribe members to climb a forbidden mountain.

Stories Within Stories

What connects all the stories is that each one “bleeds” into the previous and the following one in several ways. The lawyer’s account is an old diary read by the young musician. The musician’s boyfriend is an elderly scientist who reveals the dangers of the nuclear plant to the reporter. The tale of the reporter is told by her neighbor in his first novel, which the publicist is considering. The story about the publicist in the asylum is made into a film which the clone sees. Finally, the legend of the clone inspires a religion on the tribal island.

Cloud Atlas
Tom Hanks as a 70’s scientist, one of his multiple roles in Cloud Atlas. (SOURCE: Warner Bros.)

In addition, both the book and the movie tackle the concept of reincarnation, represented in both by a birthmark in the shape of a comet. (The title of the novel, which refers to a meteorology reference volume, justifies this. As clouds grow in size, they spill their contents to the Earth, then disappear and rise back up to the sky as steam to repeat the cycle.) To further this concept, the filmmakers reuse the same cast in every story: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant.

One Interpretation

How can so many stories represent a single tale? A film of this magnitude is difficult to explain. The only help I can offer you is my own interpretation, which is this: Mankind repeats the same mistakes over and over, letting itself be manipulated by the oppressors who impose their will on the weak. Yet there will always be brave souls willing to fight so that the oppressors weaken in each generation. Also, love is eternal, karma is real and redemption is possible.

Cloud Atlas
A soul across the ages: Halle Berry in three of the roles she plays in Cloud Atlas. (SOURCE: Warner Bros.)

Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving represent the oppressors in the stories. Doona Bae and Ben Whishaw are the oppressed. Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess are the brave rebels. Jim Broadbent, James D’Arcy, Keith David and especially Tom Hanks represent karma and redemption. Hanks, in particular, is a sinner at the chronological beginning of the film. He is punished, he discovers love and slowly struggles to better himself, although some of his lower impulses never abandon him.


At this point I still haven’t discussed the cinematography, setting, performances and visual wonders of Cloud Atlas. Those who know the pedigree of the actors and filmmakers involved don’t need me to do that. Those who have read this far already know whether or not you want to see it.

It is not customary for critics to discuss the film during pre-release screenings. However, the dislike some of my peers felt after seeing Cloud Atlas was apparent in their body language. I don’t blame them. The film is extensive, tangled, complex. A viewer who sees it from the start may be just as much confused as another who came in late.


This film was not manufactured by marketers to appeal to the general public. What it does is represent a new way of telling stories in the movies. Time will tell if I am wrong. After all, a cloud is a cloud, no matter what other attributes our brains imbue into them. I will only admit that after the screening I left the movie theater a) thoughtful, b) with a smile on his face and c) very eager to see it again. In my short experience, those are usually positive signs. If you approach it with patience and an open mind, Cloud Atlas will unfold before your eyes and reveal its wonders to you.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Some viewers will be upset with all the “white” actors playing Asians in this movie. To them I remind you that the entire cast performs roles with different ethnicities, nationalities and even genders. Doona Bae, originally from South Korea, is here a clone, a Latina, a futuristic Caucasian and an Englishwoman from the Victorian era. A film where Keith David begins as a slave in the past and ends as a revolutionary leader of the future does not merit allegations of racial discrimination.

This review was first published on the Revista U website. Click here for the original article (in Spanish).


Movie title: Cloud Atlas

Movie description: Three directors transform a popular novel into a long, but fascinating, piece of cinema.

Date published: 2012-12-20

Director(s): Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer

Actor(s): Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, James D'Arcy, Keith David, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant

Genre: Drama, Fantasy


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