Micah J Gordon at Moviefanatic has made an interesting attempt to match recurring patterns in each of the six storylines and slot 18 of the characters into 3 sets of archetypes. Ordinarily I’d resist efforts to reduce the movie’s formula of challenging complexity to a handfuls of common denominators, but there’s a lot of merit in the pathways he’s found through this maze. As long as we don’t stop hearing the melody of Sextet while we try to pin down each note. As long as we remember the way art and music is meant to tease our brains with repetition, variation, repetition, variation — and then the all important surprises that break the repetitive patterns apart. Personally, I think there are are least two more archetypes per storyline missing from this chart, but I’m sure Micah always intended this graphic to be a single key to the many locks on these doors. He proposes an interesting theory about the birthmark too.

The Struggler in each story has a comet-shaped birthmark, which some have suggested indicates that all of these characters are reincarnations of the same “soul.” Others have suggested that the common actors signifies some kind of spiritual connectivity. In reality, the interconnectivity of the characters has nothing to do with the actors playing them (though Weaving and Hugh Grant are pretty much only jerks).

The birthmark signifies a shared lust for freedom–a “birthright” to advance civilization, if you will–with all six stories paralleling each other pretty tightly (which is perhaps why the 45-minute climax was so utterly taxing). While some element of each plotline carried over to influence the next (Sixsmith, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, the Sonmi statue, etc.), ultimately the film does little to reinforce the theory that souls are being recycled.

Check out the infographic after the cut.

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  • harry

    I didn’t have a hard time following the movie or what it was trying to imply about reincarnation. I just had a hard time giving a shit.

  • Why the hell do people feel the need to explain this movie? If people don’t understand it, they’re trying to hard.





    Look. All the big name actors play one character. That one character is reborn over and over again throughout different ages. Some of them are getting better as people some of them are getting worse.

    Example: Tom Hanks. He plays one guy who in his first life that we see is a bad dude who kills for gain. He comes back again and is almost as crappy because his victim wasn’t so innocent. He comes back again and is working for a bad corporation but seems nicer and then out of nowhere pays the ultimate price. Next time we see him in his new incarnation he’s a dude living after the Fall in a nice blue shawl but is a family man who still seeks to protect his own. He’s learned to love through loss and evolves in this one life to become someone who literally overcomes his demon to do what’s best for mankind. And then he lives a happy old life as elder of the tribe.

    Example. Hugo Weaving. He’s a slave owner type who discourages his progressive son and tells him there is a natural pecking order. In his next life it appears he’s a Nazi. In futuristic Seoul the head of some kind of military police dudes who stamp out freedom at every turn. And in his last in he’s carnation after the Fall he’s not even human he’s just an actual demon. The end.

    So see one person, soul, spirit, entity evolved to become a decent human being and father Abraham of the new people (Tom Hanks). The other person/soul went through all those incarnations just to get worse until he ceased to be because the time for evil was over (Hugo Weaving).

    Those were only two of the characters but they all were either sliding up or down. But the actors played ONE ROLE throughout time. There weren’t six disjointed stories edited together. IT WAS ONE STORY WITH ONE GROUP OF PEOPLE/SPIRITS AND THEIR JOURNEY THROUGH ALL THEIR LIVES OVER HUNDREDS OF YEARS.

  • Antoinette

    I spelled Seoul wrong which is stupid because I love the Olympics.

  • Ryan Adams

    Probably not an accident that the author could have choosen any of 50,000 real names of real cities in a real atlas of the world, and the name of one of the cities he chose was homonymoniously… Seoul. Neo soul.

  • Question Mark

    Re: Antoinette. It’s not as simple as the “same soul” argument seems. For instance, you mentioned how Hanks starts as the murderous doctor and ends as the kindly tribesman. Well, it’s not a linear progression — he is the whistleblower going the right thing in 1973 but then by 2012 he’s the thug novelist who tosses the critic off the building, and in 2144 he has just a tiny role as the actor playing Cavendish in the movie of Cavendish’s life. Similarly, James D’Arcy goes from playing the likeable Sixsmith character in 1936 and 1973 to suddenly being one of the nasty nurses in 2012.

    The only characters who are always bad as the ones played by Weaving and Grant, whereas we don’t know enough about some of the other major actors arcs in every timeline because they’re just cameos (Hanks as the actor and Broadbent as the musician in 2144, for example).

    It’s also very possible that the reason for all the multiple castings is just because Tykwer/the Wachowskis thought it would be a) fun and b) practical given how they were juggling so many locations and shooting schedules. As much as I liked the film on its own merits, the “guessing game” of seeing the actors pop in the different time periods was a fun sidebar. There were a lot of surprised gasps from my theatre audience during the credits when they showed each of the roles.

  • Evan

    Agree with Question Mark. The film is not saying that these are the same souls that have been born into different time periods. For one thing, several of them overlap. As an example, are we supposed to believe that Hugh Grant’s character in 1973 (Lloyd Hooks) is the same soul as his character in 2012 (Denholme Cavendish)? Of course not, because Denholme Cavendish would have been alive in 1973 with Lloyd Hooks, perhaps as old as 20 or 30 at the time. One could argue they are the same soul split across multiple characters, including within the same time period, but I think this is missing the point of the film.

    I think the purpose of casting actors in multiple roles was a symbolic one. It’s an aesthetic way of showing how history repeats itself, and how all of these themes–such as oppression, freedom, hatred, love, friendship, imprisonment, rebellion, etc–appear again and again, regardless of time or place. Similarly, they affect everyone, regardless of race, gender, age or class. Despite the differences in the six stories, their core themes are commonalities. These commonalities appear and reappear throughout space and time, taking on different guises and shapes, like clouds drifting across the skies. The stories depict a cloud atlas of life itself.

  • John

    I agree with Evan.

    Too bad that this film is not being enjoyed by Joe Schmo movie-goer. But did we ever think that would happen?

    This all reminds me of ‘The Way Back’ from 2010. HUGE movie that today’s movie-going public just don’t want to see.

    Hmm, now that I think of it, wasn’t Sturgess in both?

  • SFMike

    Am I the only one who found it hilarious that people in Neo Seoul had DVDs of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish but apparently hadn’t ever seen Blade Runner?

  • David

    Give this dead horse a rest Ryan (Not Bryan) Adams. You should watch Skyfall – WOW !! Sam Mendes is back. And someone dies, though i wish they resurrect him/her!!

  • SFMike, I know you’re kidding around — but you realize in such an oppressive society a movie like Blade Runner would most certainly have been banned. All the remnants of 20th- and 21st-century film culture had apparently been lost or suppressed.

    Hae-Joo Chang explains to Sonmi that he had to track down and reconstruct the Cavendish film from a fragment.

    That’s one of the heartbreaking themes that runs through all 6 timelines — the fragility of various means of storytelling throughout the ages.

    Travel journals get torn in half, collections of private letters get dispersed, prints of movies get lost when technology neglects to preserve them. Transcripts of criminal interrogations get hidden under “classified” — and in the end, the tradition of oral storytelling persists from ancient times into the distant future (with all the mixed up misunderstandings, mis-tellings and embellishments that the spoken word involves as stories are passed down through generations).

    And, of course, rare recordings of music are another of mankind’s precious creations that we take for granted.


    Oh I have an answer to the Hugh Grant problem. And it’s not a split soul. But I’m going to keep it to myself. I know you guys by now. And about Hanks. I don’t understand how he’s not a problem too. I was born in 1973 and I’ll be 39 by the end of this year. Was Hanks’ thug supposed to be my age or older? or younger? He didn’t look younger than me. I didn’t read the book so I don’t know.

    But the fact is I hadn’t gone to the IMDb board until last night after I posted here and it seems most people saw the exact same plot that I did with the Hugh Grant problem being the only issue. I don’t understand why you guys need movies to be symbolic. That all has to do with some high school English teacher who made you write reports on the symbolism in MOBY DICK right? lol Which is kinda funny because that one slave guy in CLOUD ATLAS was totally Queequeg.

    One more time, for the fans, movies aren’t books. Use all you senses when you watch them. Feel it, peeps.

    I will explain something else that I shouldn’t about this film and others. When you get into time issues and the future and the past and metaphysical ideas, anything is possible. People often criticize films that deal in this realm because they’re trying to over explain it and get it to fit into a pre-existing structure and judge it under strict guidelines that they’re used to. I went through this all the time as a fan of “LOST”. And I think the writers of that show also got caught up in trying to explain things “scientifically” and lost their way. When you’re dealing with time travel or different lifetimes or space and time, you can make up whatever you want. No one knows what really happens. No one’s done it and reported back. But sometimes when people are questioned on it they feel obligated to try to hammer it down into what the current scientific thought is. But scientists don’t know either. They just have theories too. “Proven” theories are theories all the same.

    CLOUD ATLAS makes perfect sense. If you allow yourself and the creators some metaphysical freedom.

  • Antoinette — Trust me on this: You will adore the novel Cloud Atlas for much the same reason you liked how the film adaptation of Lawless took the shuffled vignettes of Wettest County and rearranged them back into chronological order.

    You’ll be stimulated to see the chunks of the novel that had to be left out (due to running time constraints) and thrilled to see how the segments that survived into the adaptation have been amped up and sharpened to make certain themes emerge on screen (while submerging other ideas into playful hints in the film).

  • I will explain something else that I shouldn’t about this film and others. When you get into time issues and the future and the past and metaphysical ideas, anything is possible.

    Primarily, for me, we’re all vaguely familiar with theories of time that aren’t linear, right? The quantum physics notion that time and space might be folded in upon itself, right?

    It was Sasha on one of our podcasts a couple of weeks ago who first helped me consider the idea that there may be multiple layers of reality in the movie to suggest seemingly time-distant events are happening simultaneously in the universe. The book has a chronological structure. But the movie shreds that into thousands of facets that reflect on each other in ways that a straightforward linear timeline cannot.

    The editing in the film is built on classic patterns of crosscut parallel action. Parallel. Let that sink in.

    If I’m not mistaken, there’s a hint of these concurrent existences made overt in the movie when Ayrs claims to hear music in his head that hasn’t been written yet. It’s a tossed away line in the movie, but give that some thought if you’re in the mood to feel your head expand.

  • And Antoinette — was it you several days ago who said how it tickled you to hear Carlos Castaneda name-dropped in the movie?

    Castaneda is not mentioned in the novel. I guarantee you, the Wachowskis have inserted the Castaneda reference for a reason. Anybody who’s ever played around with magic mushrooms or other hallucinogens can tell you how layers of perception of multiple realities unfold like a time-lapse rose blooming in your head.

  • Antoinette


    Yeah that’s what I meant but I wasn’t going to explain it totally. I never listen to the podcast because I don’t want to get spoiled for things I haven’t seen, because you guys are way ahead of me with movies, and then I forget to go back later.

    But yes I meant parallel. The fact that time is really just something we need to arrange things in our human brains also explains stuff like MULHOLLAND DRIVE and LOST HIGHWAY. That’s what the Club Silencio was about. “This is all a tape.” The music was the key to everything in CLOUD ATLAS. Because Broadbent described hearing the music in a nightclub setting which didn’t exist then. And there was the SOYLENT GREEN line foreshadowing the soap(?). He had knowledge of “the future”.

    I don’t know if you guys saw this. http://www.cbs.com/shows/late_show/video/2295410301/the-late-show-10-22-2012 If you want to skip ahead it’s after the two little dots that are close together.


    The music was the key to everything in CLOUD ATLAS. Because Broadbent described hearing the music in a nightclub setting which didn’t exist then.

    That’s one of the interesting contrasts between novel and film. Ayrs recounts the same dream to Frobisher in the novel that we see him describe in the movie — I mean, his dialog is word for word identical.

    But in the novel Ayres is describing the dream somewhere around page 75. The segment of the novel that takes place in Neo-Seoul doesn’t begin for another 100 pages. So on page 75 we have no idea what Ayres is on about. He sounds loony on page 75. On page 175 we realize he was having a prophetic vision.

    (I’ll need to see the movie again to know for sure if there were any Neo-Seoul club scenes that appeared on film before Jim Broadbent talks about his dream. Does anyone know offhand?)

    Regardless, Antoinette, I felt the same way you do: Ayrs’ vividly detailed dream of a place that won’t exist for another 200 years is what seals the deal for me as far as understanding the film as Time folded into simultaneous realities.

    And the Wachowskis have been fascinated by the relationship between dreams and reality for over a decade. Recall the explanation of deja vu in The Matrix.

  • lane

    whoa. as i’ve been reading the back n forth between Ryan and Antoinette, i opened the Letterman link and have to sit through a few ads to get the point she was referencing. there was a Samsung ad that repeated the phrase ‘deja vu’ 3 times as I read ‘deja vu’ in Ryan’s post. of course, just a moment of small coincidence, but i couldn’t help but feel it was all a bit “Cloud Atlas-y” to paraphrase Lana. beyond EVERYTHING this film is, one of its great outcomes is to provoke conversations and thoughts that are important, but not brought up regularly. while I’m obviously a fan, I have no sway over my friend’s opinions and I can tell you 9 out of 10 of them have completely loved the film. go see it

  • Evan

    What’s wrong with symbolism? I love the movie, and for me, it’s themes become all the more powerful because of this added layer of symbolism. Of course the movie makes sense on a literal level–I was never trying to insinuate otherwise–and I could spend ages peeling back all of its layers, trying to decipher their various meanings. But for me, it works on a higher level than that. One can choose to immerse themselves in the “puzzle-box” nature that is the interconnectedness of its themes and characters, or one can simply enjoy the lyrical sensation of the movie as a whole, like a piece of music that washes over you. There’s no wrong way to experience it.

    I love the book as well, but for different reasons. The book is not structured in a symphonic way, like the movie; rather it features a palindromic trajectory, where the stories double back on themselves. The parallels are somewhat vague at first, but eventually they become crystal clear. Additionally, the style of prose for each segment is so different, but each written masterfully in its own way. This is one aspect that, obviously, could not be fully translated for the film, but the film has a different power. Whereas books have writing styles and techniques, films have editing. The way the filmmakers have adapted the novel into a new medium is nothing short of astonishing. And I don’t mean that the editing simply allowed them to splice the stories together, so as to make the parallels clearer, because it does much more than that. The symphonic structure of the film, and the sensation it creates as a piece of art, is largely a result of the editing. The book and the film are both powerfully realized, with each using the strengths of its respective medium to full advantage.

    I’ve seen the movie twice now, and the first time I was unfairly making comparisons to the book. “Why did they change that?” “Why did they leave that out?” and so on. I still loved the movie, but I had unconsciously married it to the book in my mind. On my second viewing, I was able to view the movie without any comparisons to the books. By this point, I knew what the film was, and I wanted to appreciate it on a purely cinematic level. What a difference it makes! The movie has a power of its own, unique from the book, due to the very nature of its medium. It played MUCH better on the second viewing, and this is coming from someone who loved it on the first viewing. I can only hope that word of mouth will help this movie out. Hollywood needs to take risks on projects like this more often.

  • I have to say, I saw ‘Cloud Atlas’ this weekend, and I walked out of it with a sense of disappointment, feeling like the 2nd act of the movie was a total mess and the movie was really stretched thin by the tension of its ambition. I told my girlfriend that I saw it with that it really felt like 3 good movies and 3 not-so-good movies put into one big ‘Meh’ of a movie.

    But, two days after seeing it, I literally can’t get this movie out of my head, to the point that I’m reading some of the same reviews over and over again, trying to really unravel all of the pieces. So in this aspect, from the perspective of making the audience think, I believe the film succeeds and then some.

    A friend of mine told me that the reason I can’t forget the movie is that my past and future selves won’t let me, which I thought might be a possibility haha.

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