Cloud Atlas, the 2012 movie based on David Mitchell’s book, is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. It has a message that deeply resonates with me: Ordinary individual actions matter in the tapestry of history and human progress.
If you just saw Cloud Atlas and you haven’t read the book, you probably have a lot of questions about the plot and what is really going on in the story. To make the movie easier to digest, I’ve started a very unofficial FAQ to help the movie become more widely understood. If you have a question not answered here, please put it in the comments below and I’ll try to answer it as best I can.
Note: I am not connected with the movie, I’m just a guy who has read a lot about the film, and read the book (once.) I also have a concentration in anthropology, which helps with understanding the book.
If it isn’t obvious, there are numerous spoilers on this page so PLEASE see the movie first.
Is the movie better than the book?
As the original author (David Mitchell) reportedly mentioned in the New Yorker article covering the production of the film, the movie is indeed better than the book in many ways. The film is a brilliant adaptation and augmentation of the original story and comes to a much cleaner resolution. The clearer resolution was intended by the directors, to ensure that the movie feels right in terms of cinematic convention. On the other hand, Mitchell’s deeper themes around post-modernism, individual responsibility, and political anthropology are difficult to convey in the movie and lend some intellectual weight behind the major themes in the book.
What are the main differences between the film and the book?
Here are a few key differences:
- The book has much deeper plotlines for the Lousa Rey storyline, and provides much more explanation in the Sonmi-451 storyline
- In the book the various story lines are told in the form of a palindrome, rather than with the movie’s interleaved stories
- Souls are handled a bit differently in the movie than in the book
Plot point: Why on earth is this lawyer (Ewing) on a ship in the South Pacific? Why is the doctor poisoning him?
Ewing is an attorney pursuing a trade agreement between a slave plantation in New Zealand and his father-in-law. He is a bit of a hypochondriac, and a dishonest doctor (Goose) is poisoning him in order to try to steal his personal possessions. Goose is an exile from Victorian England, who ran into debt.
Plot point: What is SonMi-451 exactly? What is a fabricant?
Sonmi is a “fabricant”, which is basically a genetically modified clone custom designed to be a slave in a future dystopian future. Sonmi-451 was designed to be server in a fast food restaurant called Papa Song’s. The book describes that fabricants have been genetically modified to live about 12 years, and work very long 18 hour days. They do not eat (they intake “soap” to sleep), and their memories are erased every night. They are grown in tanks.
Plot point: What is “exaltation”?
The book explains that “exaltation” is an important social contract that the society of the future has created with fabricants. In return for 12 years of service, fabricants are said to retire to special homes in Hawaii. This point is reinforced over and over during their mental conditioning. The fabricants boarding the ship in the movie believe they are going on to their “next life.” The idea of exaltation justifies the practice of human slavery to consumers in Neo-Seoul (and presumably other places around the world where genomed slaves are used.)
Plot point: Why is Sonmi-451 kidnapped by Union?
As the movie explains, Union is a rebel/revolutionary group that is trying to end “Unanimity”, the corporate and political organization that runs Neo-Seoul. This form of political organization where corporations and govornment are fused together is called “corpocracy” by both the film and the book.
What the movie does not explain is why Union needs a fabricant in the first place to help bring down Unanimity. However, the book does address this question and we can infer a few things about what the directors intended when they adapted the story. In the future Neo-Seoul, corpocracy is basically a form of slavery, both for the “consumers” as well as for the “fabricants.” Union believes that a powerful message, delivered by someone at the very bottom of this food chain will help provide a beacon to the oppressed in the form a broadcast of principals. They believe that the message will be clearer and stronger if delivered by a fabricant, a being the most clearly in bondage. They also want to reveal the moral horror of the fact that fabricants are recycled.
This idea that those at the very bottom of a political structure see the reality of oppression more clearly than others is frequently considered by political anthropologists and philosophers, such as Michel Foucault and Engels.
Plot point: Why is Sonmi-451 in particular chosen and not some other fabricant?
The movie does not explain this point at all, but the book provides a very lucid explanation. Songmi-951’s mix of hormones and food was being altered by an experimenter during her time at Papa Song’s restaurant. Apparently, in the future fabricants are often subjected to experiments for the purposes of better understanding how to genetically engineer new fabricants. In the book, Songmi-951 actually spends most of her time in a university as a research subject. The process of a fabricant “waking up” is called “ascension” in the book.
Plot point: Is Union really doing any good with this “revolutionary fabricant broadcast”? Why go through so much effort?
One interesting theme shared by the book and the movie is the idea that cemented political and knowledge systems are often overpowering and very difficult to overthrow because they create their own strong justifications. In the book, it is broached that the Union rebels actually are really just acting as part of a set-up by Unanimity to advance their own cause of slavery. The book and the movie both pose a question of individual action: If you know you are part of a system, and stuck in a field of power/knowledge from which you cannot really fundamentally change, what is the morally responsible action? This theme is explored by Songmi-451 as well as the composer storylines.
Plot point: In the “far future” story, does Sonmi-451 become a godess? What happens after the events of her storyline?
Sonmi-951 does not become a godess in reality, however the Valley People (Zachery/Hanks’s tribe) believe that she is basically their “God”. This happens over many years after the Fall. In both the movie and the book, Sonmi-951’s philosophy of politics and oppression become widely disseminated by various human groups that outlive “corpocracy”. Sonmi-951 is sort of like an Abe Lincoln rather than God, but her legend has become distorted over the course of many years and so for the Valley People, she is considered a deity.
Questions to be answered
Who is “Ole Georgie”?
Who are the prescients?
Why do the prescents come to the valley people to barter?
Symbolism: What is the significance of the comet birthmark [book]?
Symbolism: What is the significance of the comet birthmark [movie]?
Symbolism: What is the “cloud atlas”?