Six distinct but loosely related stories are told during the nearly 3-hour running time of Cloud Atlas, the New Age-ey, science fiction-flavored romance directed by the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). The most compelling gimmick the film offers is its unique casting in which the principle actors in its ensemble play different roles in each of the stories. In this simple way (really only possible in film and theater), Cloud Atlas reinforces an idea explored in the 2004 source novel by David Mitchell, best described by the movie's pivotal character, Sonmi-451:
Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future.The repetition of familiar actors influencing successive stories with varying impact is one of the most attractive ideas explored in Cloud Atlas. But it is also one of its most frustrating flaws because you soon find yourself scanning the periphery of every scene to see if you spot the next recurrence of someone changing his/her appearance to—not always successfully—blend in with the demands of the plot fragment at hand. It takes you out of the movie. It is undeniable, however, that Cloud Atlas—at over $100 million, perhaps the most expensive independent picture ever made—is a monumental achievement of some kind. What follows is my attempt to unravel some of the more distracting/confusing elements of the film... to create a liberating mini-guide, if you will. that should allow the viewer to more closely follow this fantasy's more pertinent themes.