Cloud Atlas Explained (Spoiler Alert!)

This may be the toughest article I’ve ever written. I’m going to try to explain the movie Cloud Atlas.

The last time I did one of these posts, I got into a debate with the Writer/ Director of the film via twitter. You can read that post here: What They Didn’t Tell You in Looper

Okay, here it goes. Cloud Atlas: came out October 26, 2012, adapted from a 2004 novel of the same title by David Mitchel, directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and is about… as confusing a movie as even possible. In fact, it was like six really confusing movies in one, and then scrambled together. It’s about as easy to follow as a bee in a tornado.

Most movies follow a three-act structure – the setup, the confrontation, the resolution. It’s not the only way, and maybe not even the best way, but that’s what most movie viewers are accustomed to seeing. To say that Cloud Atlas deviates from this structure would be an understatement. The best way to describe the story arch is like filling a balloon with air and then letting it go. The balloon whizzes around the room with no discretion or purpose. Then at the end, it just falls flat. Even that analogy breaks down because balloons filled with air have a structure.


After twenty minutes or so, it becomes apparent that the story is unfollowable. You give yourself the benefit of the doubt and hang in there, hoping that some sliver of plot will be revealed allowing you to start piecing things together. Then credits.

The driving force of this movie seems to be the characters, but admittedly I didn’t understand the movie so I may be wrong. The characters are never really explained. We know almost nothing about who they are, little about what motivates them, and not one morsel of their back story. We are introduced to a series of seemingly random story lines midway through, and are forced to play catch-up. When we start to unravel the mess we’ve been placed in, the story jumps to another completely different story, but the actors in the previous story are now playing different characters in the new story. Huh!

From my fading memory of the film, there are six stories.

Story One: Some kind of post-apocalyptic tale where a group of savages on horseback bare warpaint and kill a village of mountain people for no apparent reason. Some strange goblin appears at will who despite his creepy and sinister nature gives seemingly sound survival advice to one of the characters. A futuristic lady coasts to shore on a large yacht and helps these primitive mountain people.

Story Two: A journalist in the 1970s investigates a corrupt nuclear power plant owner and his plan for mass destruction. We are introduced to a few characters just long enough before they get killed. We are told that the journalist’s dad was also a journalist, who was friends with the assistant of the corrupt power plant owner, who feels duty bound to help his deceased friend’s daughter.

Story Three: A gay male prostitute meets a legendary composer in old town England. The prostitute writes down and plays the music that the old composer describes. The prostitute is in it for the money and adulation. He also has a gay lover who he keeps in contact with via snail mail.

Story Four: A lawyer on a ship (circa… I don’t know, 1850?) is being poisoned by a fellow shipmate for his gold. A slave on the boat saves the lawyer’s life. The lawyer convinces the ship’s captain to employ the slave for his sailing talents.

Story Five: Some rich and morally corrupt man sends his brother to a retirement home. The brother makes friends with some of the other retirees and attempts to break out of the prison-like retirement home.

Story Six: A futuristic tale about a bunch of Korean clones that are created to be wait staff in a diner. They sleep in these coffin-sized cubicles, they are fed some protein smoothie, and don’t know life beyond this servitude. The clones can eventually ‘graduate’ to become free citizens. Those who graduate are led to a ceremony, but actually it’s a slaughter. The “freed” clones get killed, ground up, and used to make protein smoothies for the still enslaved clones. One of the clones is rescued by some mysterious mercenary guy who is part of a squad of underground rebels, and is shown what happens to the freed clones. After seeing the horrible fate of the “freed” clones, the rescued clone becomes the symbol for the clone-rights movement.


Although I roughly described six lackluster stories, I couldn’t really say anything intelligent about any of them. I’m still not sure what the point of any of those stories was, or what the point of the movie as a whole was, but there were three commonalities that I took notice of:

  1. The same actors had reoccurring parts, albeit different roles
  2. There seemed to be unselfish acts of kindness
  3. The stories were loosely connected in some way

I would say this is one of the worst movies I have ever seen, but I’m afraid I might just be too stupid to get it.

 See Also:

Interstellar Explained

Transcendence Explained

Oblivion Explained

Life of Pi Explained

Looper Explained

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