If you’ve watched Cloud Atlas and you’re still a bit confused, it’s easy to see why. Each of the six intertwined stories takes place in a different era and assumes the tropes of completely different genres. Actors play multiple roles across the film, switching ages, races, and even genders from tale to tale. Tracking those actors is somewhat key to understanding the connective plot, in which various souls are reincarnated or migrate over time — crossing the ages like clouds cross the skies. (In the book, you could track the reincarnation by the bodies that shared a comet-shaped birthmark; in the film, the birthmark just signals our protagonists, and the actor triggers the reincarnation.) See Hugo Weaving? Then you’ve got the bad soul who will only get worse over time. See Tom Hanks? Then you’ve got the recovering soul who starts off bad but will become (mostly) good over the course of his journey. Here is a guide to the karmic chameleons of Cloud Atlas. (Note: to avoid confusion we will mostly refer to the characters by the names of the actors who play them.)
A ship crossing the Pacific in 1849; the home of an elderly composer in 1936 Edinburgh; San Francisco and a nearby nuclear power plant in 1973; London and an Edinburgh nursing home in 2012; Neo-Soul, the capital of a half-ruined Korea in 2144; a valley and a mountain on a post-apocalyptic Hawaii in 2321.
Who he plays: A doctor poisoning Jim Sturgess in 1849 in order to rob him; a hotel manager in 1936 who extorts Ben Whishaw’s composer; a physicist working at a shady nuclear power plant in 1973 who agrees to help investigative journalist Halle Berry; a roughneck author in 2012 who throws a critic off a balcony; an actor playing Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent’s character) in a movie watched in 2144; a cowardly (and birthmarked!) goatherd in 2321 who helps Halle Berry’s Meronym, a representative of the last vestiges of advanced civilization who reside on an off-world colony — the film’s bookmark scenes of an elderly Tom Hanks take place on a different planet.
His soul journey: He goes from a shady murderer who says, “The weak are meat; the strong do eat,” to someone who learns courage and selflessness.
Onscreen connections to other characters/story lines: His movie inspires a clone in 2144 to set off a revolution; that clone, Sonmi-451 becomes a goddess to his post-apocalyptic tribe; the turquoise buttons he steals from Adam Ewing’s vest in 1849 are around his neck in 2321, Hanks’s character having found them in the forest; Hanks’s goatherd has a nightmare in which he sees all the other timelines.
Who he plays: Young and gullible (and birthmarked) lawyer Adam Ewing, on a journey from the South Pacific to notarize a contract between plantation owner Hugh Grant and Ewing’s father-in-law, Hugo Weaving. Ewing helps an escaped-slave stowaway (David Gyasi) and ultimately condemns slavery; a hotel guest in 1936; a father in 1973; a soccer fan in 2012 who gets in a pub fight to help some senior citizens; a Korean freedom fighter in 2144 who saves clone/slave Doona Bae and starts a revolution; a doomed tribe member in 2321, whose brother-in-law Tom Hanks is too scared to save him from cannibal Hugh Grant.
His soul journey: He starts off reluctantly helping one slave to becoming an abolitionist and ultimately becomes a revolutionary dedicated to ending all slavery.
Onscreen connections to other characters/story lines: He keeps a journal that Ben Whishaw’s 1936 composer becomes engrossed by.
Who he plays: A cabin boy in 1849; bisexual (and birthmarked!) composer Robert Frobisher in 1936, who apprentices himself to Jim Broadbent while sleeping with Broadbent’s wife, Halle Berry, and writes the beautiful Cloud Atlas Sextet; a record-store clerk in 1973 who can’t get the Cloud Atlas Sextet out of his head and helps Halle Berry find it; the wife of Hugh Grant in 2012 and sister-in-law to Jim Broadbent; a tribesman in 2321.
His soul journey: He doesn’t seem to learn much over time, remains morally ambiguous, and will sleep with anyone, no matter whom it hurts.
Onscreen connections to other characters/story lines: He writes letters to his true love, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), in 1936, which Halle Berry reads in 1973; strains of his Cloud Atlas Sextet recur throughout several timelines.
Who she plays: A slave from an aboriginal tribe in 1849; the white Jewish trophy wife of Jim Broadbent in 1936; the gutsy (and birthmarked!) journalist Luisa Rey who follows in the footsteps of her famous reporter father (David Gyasi); a hip Indian chick at a party in 2012 who intrigues Tom Hanks; a male Korean doctor in 2144 who helps free a clone; an advanced being in a primitive post-apocalyptic world in 2321.
Her soul journey: She goes from being someone with no power to humanity’s last hope, and she evolves into a higher being as she follows her impulse to help other people.
Onscreen connections to other characters/story lines: Her 1973 story becomes a manuscript that Jim Broadbent reads in 2012; she wears the same necklace in 1936, 1973, and 2012; her 1973 line “For the last half hour, all I could think about was throwing you off your balcony” literally comes true with Tom Hanks’s 2012 character.
Who he plays: An arrogant ship’s captain in 1849; a composer in 1936 who takes on apprentice Ben Whishaw and attempts to claim the younger man’s work as his own; the morally ambiguous (and birthmarked!) vanity press publisher Timothy Cavendish, who benefits from the death of a critic at the hands of his author, Tom Hanks; a Korean street musician in 2144 and an advanced being known as a Prescient in 2321.
His soul journey: He starts off by being pompous and self-serving but learns humility over time.
Onscreen connections to other characters/story lines: His grand mansion in 1936 is his nursing home in 2012; the film of his “ghastly ordeal” in 2012 is watched by a clone slave in 2144; his 1936 character has a dream of the Papa Song café in which Sonmi-451 works.
Who she plays: The white wife of Jim Sturgess and daughter of Hugo Weaving in 1849; the wife of Jim Sturgess and mother of James D’Arcy’s niece in 1973; a Hispanic woman working at a factory in 1973; Sonmi-451, a (birthmarked!) clone or “fabricant,” who is genetically engineered to be a worker drone but starts to think for herself and sparks a revolution when she’s aided by freedom fighter Jim Sturgess.
Her soul journey: She goes from being a powerless figure to a goddess revered by a simple tribe, the only link they have to their pre-apocalyptic past.
Onscreen connections to other characters/story lines: Her recorded statements become the tribal wisdom of a tribe in 2321.
Who he plays: A reverend and a plantation owner in 1849; a hotel clerk trying to collect from Ben Whishaw; the owner of a nuclear power plant in 1973 who wants it to fail and kill millions; the cuckolded brother of Jim Broadbent who tricks him into committing himself to a nursing home; a Korean restaurant manager in 2144 who sleeps with his clone workers; the leader of a band of cannibal warriors in 2321.
His soul journey: Despite a charming exterior at first, he never really cares about anyone, and this only gets worse over time; he devolves into a pure savage.
Who he plays: The father of Doona Bae and father-in-law of Jim Sturgess in 1849, who is involved in the slave trade; a Nazi in 1936 who is a friend of composer Jim Broadbent; an assassin in 1973; a female nursing home orderly in 2012 who torments elderly Jim Broadbent; a Unanimity authority figure in 2144; a Devil-like figment of Tom Hanks’s imagination in 2321.
His soul journey: He’s a figure of evil, control, and enslavement who never displays any loyalty or learns anything over time, and eventually devolves until he’s just an idea.
Onscreen connections to other characters/story lines: His line as Nurse Noakes, “Because you’re new, I will not make you eat soap,” mirrors the food that fabricants eat in Neo Seoul; his line, “There’s a natural order to this world,” which he utters as a futuristic functionary, is repeated at film’s end by his slave-owning businessman.
Who he plays: Like Halle Berry, a slave in 1849 working for Hugh Grant; the security chief at Hugh Grant’s nuclear power plant in 1973, who goes rogue to protect Halle Berry; the leader of a resistance movement in 2144; a Prescient working alongside Halle Berry in 2321.
His soul journey: He goes from being a slave to a leader, someone who throws off the shackles of evil employers/bad governments.
Onscreen connections to other characters/story lines: He appears to be a kindred spirit with Halle Berry.
Who he plays: Ben Whishaw’s lover in 1936 and recipient of his letters; an older version of his previous character Rufus Sixsmith, who gives Halle Berry damning evidence that his nuclear power plant is unsafe; an orderly at Jim Broadbent’s nursing home in 2012; and finally, a patient Archivist in 2144 who interrogates clone Doona Bae.
His soul journey: A little muddled. He goes from being a passive listener to someone who takes a stand against a big wrong back to a passive listener of a tale of injustice.
Onscreen connections to other characters/story lines: The letters he receives from Ben Whishaw in 1936 are read by Halle Berry in 1973; Hugo Weaving’s assassin shoots him in the mouth, which mirrors the suicide-by-gun death of his lover, Frobisher.