Cloud Atlas Explained (An unofficial faq)


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”?


19 thoughts on “Cloud Atlas Explained (An unofficial faq)

  1. Anonymous

    Thanks for the explanation. Looking forward to the next part of your spoiler. This movie was difficult to digest, especially for someone who had never read the book or had any idea what the movie was about going into it.

  2. Em

    Oh my gosh I need more. More more more. This was amazing and so helpful but I have a million more questions gnawing at me that need to be answered!

  3. Jacoby Ford

    Thanks, and please keep it going, nobody else on the google search is giving any useful information about the story line or the meanings and metafors behind this movie. I just got out of the movie theater and I need some answers!

  4. Keith

    Old Georgie was Tom Hanks bad side, his bad thoughts. Most of Tom Hanks life’s had been evil and greedy. This was to show that he didn’t have to listen, he had a choice to be good or bad.

    The prescients were just people who had not lost or abandoned technology in the post apocalypse. They would come some times to learn about the simple ways, like people visit the Amish. But Ms. Harried character was there to try to help her people. They had a sickness or disease that was killing them.

    The satellite was a call for help. Remember she said people used to live up there. She meant people from earth colonized another planet. She was asking them for help. At the end they are on another planet, so the call for help was answered.

    The comet birthmark are the good characters. To show they are all linked…this is a reincarnation movie, shown by the same actors in multiple rolls.

    The cloud atlas sextet is the beautiful music that links this all. Sextet is used to read the stars. Atlas is a map. Clouds are like godly. So you get the music of this great plan, music of the stars. So it is the music behind all this, the music of reincarnation, the music that binds all six lives.

  5. Morpheus Horatio

    Thank you for your explanations which have helped to clear up some loose ends that I didn’t understand. I love this movie and its message with all of my heart. It has evoked tears every time I watch it and made me appreciate the lives of those around me and to love my own life. I cannot understand why it wasn’t nominated for Oscars. It is a work of brilliance that is not understood by the main stream corporate whore establishment.

  6. brian

    the communications facility was where Meronym and Sonmi before her send message to the offworld colonies

  7. brian

    ‘The prescients were just people who had not lost or abandoned technology in the post apocalypse. They would come some times to learn about the simple ways, like people visit the Amish’
    in the book, Sonmi tells the Archivist that purebloods having come to depend on fabricants, were losing basic skills that meant any collapse of civilisation could be disasterous

  8. kerry

    I would like to contribute my take on some of your unanswered questions. Symbolism on the comet birthmark (movie) is to keep a continuance on who’s who. Being that the story continues on a string of reincarnations, the birthmark helps the audience to keep in mind who may be who. Symbolism on the cloud atlas. If you think about it, a cloud is everchangins. An atlas has always been used for direction, if not also location. If a choice you make today is the seed that’s to grow in your future, but could change at anytime, is to be like a cloud. To think you have it down to a t, but alas, it changes. Just like our future/fate with the choices we make. So our mutlitude of reincarnatedives are like a cloud atlas-ever changing. My take on ol georgie as a possibilty of the collected unconcious’ shadow. The part we all have, but not necessarily have to listen to. The part we label “devil” cause we could never fathom doing such a thing.

  9. justsomeguy

    the ‘Ole Georgie” is an amalgamation of various lores and truths. One, it points to the eople the Celts called “the tu’atha de Dana’an” whom were supposed to have inhabited what is now Ireland and parts of what is now called England. Recognize that Gaelic as it is called is a tongue that is almost indistiguishable from the language of BerBer tribes in north-western Africa, such tribes would necessarily have come from the middle east areas and like from further east before that. The name ‘Dan’ resonates throughout history, the Macedonian tribe and the Danites before them from Canaan (Cain + An – meaning sons of Cain), whom were spread out over the world during what modern ‘jews’ call the ‘diaspora’ which was actually an abandonment by the other Hebrew tribes of the warlike tribe Judah, whom could not get along with any neighbouring tribes, including the other Canaanites considered part of the 12 tribes, even to this day, Judah is hateful and spurs much of the trouble in the world today, but that is an entire other story. Hank’s character refers to Georgie as ‘the devil’ at one time and also Georgie refers to the territory they encroach on as the devil’s, but more importantly and totally hidden in plain site of humanity is the entity that we are symbiotes with, what ‘scientists’ call ‘the limbic system’ or the ‘lizard brain. The ‘inner voice’, the ‘light-bearer’ that exists in total darkness, the ‘pineal gland’ is much revered among the ancients and even modern mystics and the ‘elite’ or ‘elect’ as it is the ‘brain of the brain’, when it is in fact the generally dormant brain of this creature inside of us, this doubtless is also where the legend of the serpent i nthe garden of Eden comes from, ;on your belly you shall go all the days of your life’ easily transforms into ‘in their belly you shall go’ and this entity is also where the legend of the phoenix rising from the ashes comes from and other tales, such as St George an the dragon, which is also mentioned in the movie when the aspiring composer spots a statuette in the older composer’s home. Fear is what drives draconian society and this is also why Solzhenitsyn is mentioned, regarding the mis-quoted “You only have power over people as long as you don’t take everything away from them. But when you’ve robbed a man of everything, he’s no longer in your power–he’s free again.” – essentially, it is the love of money and things that drives people to madness and acts of war, when life is all that there is of any value on this planet or anywhere else in the ‘universe’. I urge people to study the Latin language and then apply those words and their meanings to modern English words, then the light truly comes on. There is more, but I have rattled on enough. Georgie is ‘Old Scratch’, the itch you can never scratch, ‘the splinter in your mind, driving you mad’. The prisoner desires control of the guard until such time as the prisoner can escape and imprison their tormentor, as seen when the old man locks the biddy nurse in his room. Only our physical death can release the snake, then it is disembodied and reviled and hunted for all of it’s days and so returns to the earth itself. Worms of the earth.

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