Cloud Atlas, based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, tells six different stories in 172 minutes: that of a sick American aboard a ship in 1849, a gay composer in the 1930s, a danger-seeking journalist in the 1970s, an out-of-luck publisher in the present day (the best plot of the six, featuring a hilarious Jim Broadbent), a human clone in 2144, and a preyed-upon goat herder in a distant future.
You wonder how the three directors can keep all those stories bobbing in and out and alongside each other but they do, masterfully, and without tying all the plots into neat bows. In the meantime the film earns its R rating with a lot of graphic sex—one of the first scenes is a man in bed with another man—and gore. We watch one character bash a head in with a wrench and cannibals doing what cannibals do.
The clone storyline is the most disturbing, and the most “pro-life.” In a futuristic Korea, the government creates genetically perfect clones to serve as waitresses and then slaughters them to harvest their organs for “pure-bloods,” the humans born naturally. The heroine, a clone named Sonmi-451, becomes aware of her humanity and states at one point: “No matter if you’re born in a tank or a room, we are all pure blood.”
The directors’ storytelling is overshadowed by their preachiness on reincarnation. One character tells another that he believes in reincarnation, then he meets her in a future life. The movie is about that subtle the whole three hours. Every few minutes, a character explains karma with a line like, “Our destinies are all connected.”
The audience got the point already, since the same actors play different roles throughout time (with varying degrees of success—Tom Hanks’ attempts at non-Midwestern American accents are distractingly bad). Christian audiences flocked to the Wachowski siblings’ earlier offering, 1999’s The Matrix, for its gospel themes of self-sacrifice and resurrection. This time the director siblings are crystal clear that they aren’t peddling Christian themes.