We discover that the actions taken hundreds of years before can impact the future. Ultimately, Valley-man Zachry and Prescient Meronym get together (the first time in the film people from different races/classes/genetics succeed in peaceful cohabitation) and leave Earth, where Zachry is telling the stories of his life (lives?) to his grandchildren as they look up at the stars.
This film tackles six stories over six different time-periods and locations. The actors play different roles (and sometimes different genders, races, nationalities, and religions) in different time-periods. In the movie, the stories are inter-cut, but I have presented each story separately here. The "heroes" in each period's story have a comet-shaped mark on their bodies, suggesting they possess the same heroic soul as those who bore that mark in the past. Also, certain objects, locations and dialogue are utilized/repeated in different time periods. The whole point is to show that our actions, no matter how small, can cause greater effects than we can imagine generations into the future. The movie essentially believes in reincarnation, our ability to love the same person in different generations, and our ability to change from evil to good in future lives
We open with a very old man named Zachry (Tom Hanks) telling a story to many children as they sit around a campfire.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1849):
Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is a lawyer who is managing business for his father-in-law Haskell Moore (Hugo Weaving) involving the slave trade. He has some sort of malady and, while at the home of the people he is doing business with, he meets a doctor named Henry Goose (Hanks) who begins to treat him. Ewing is uncomfortable with the mistreatment of the slaves he witnesses at the home of the businessman, but says nothing. Ewing begins the journey home to his wife, accompanied by Dr. Goose, who continues to treat him. While on the ship, he is approached by an African-American named Autua (David Gyasi) who is a slave from the estate Ewing just left. Autua had been savagely beaten on the estate, but recognized that Ewing may be sympathetic to his plight. Realizing he can't stow away the entire journey, Autua asks Ewing to request that the ship's racist Captain Molyneux (Jim Broadbent) to take him on as a sailor so he can work-off his passage on the ship. Ewing initially refuses to "intertwine his fate" with Autua, but ultimately relents. Captain Molyneux says that Autua must prove that he can handle himself on a ship, but tries to shoot Autua while he is doing the requested tasks. Ewing fights with Captain Molyneux and saves Autua's life. Meanwhile, Autua's proficiency in working the ship so impresses the crew that Captain Molyneux is forced to relent and allow Autua to work for him.
Ewing continues to grow ever-sicker. It turns out that Dr. Goose is actually poisoning Ewing so he can steal Ewing's valuable possessions and the gold he is transporting back to Moore. Autua eventually realizes Dr. Goose is killing Ewing and the pair manage to overpower and kill Goose before he can administer the final, lethal dose of poison. Autua then nurses Ewing back to health by the time they reach home. When Ewing arrives home, he runs to see his wife Tilda (Doona Bae) and tells her his story. Together, they go to see her father and Ewing burns the contract he had procured. They tell an incensed Moore that they are leaving to join the abolitionists. Moore spits out that abolition is a lost cause and their actions will be mere drops in an ocean. Ewing responds that an ocean is simply a body of water comprising of millions of drops.
Letters from Zedelghem (1936):
Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is a brilliant but troubled composer. He is having an illicit love affair with another man, Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy). Frobisher is hired to act as an assistant to a revered but very old and highly temperamental composer, Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent). Frobisher moves to Ayrs' palatial estate named Zedelghem and writes many love letters to Sixsmith recounting his experiences. The two composers manage to inspire each other, though Frobisher notes that Ayrs is taking credit for some of his ideas. Frobisher also begins reading the diary of Adam Ewing (although the second half is missing).
Frobisher eventually writes the "Cloud Atlas" symphony, which is a true masterpiece. He shows it to Ayrs, who then demands credit for the work, claiming he transferred the orchestra to Frobisher while dreaming. When Frobisher threatens to leave the estate, Ayrs threatens to destroy him by revealing him as a homosexual and accusing him of being both a thief and a charlatan. Ultimately, Frobisher wounds Ayrs with a gun and escapes with his still-unfinished symphony. Sixsmith attempts to locate and save Frobisher as the police are after him, but Frobisher stays one step ahead of them both while finishing his masterpiece. Upon completing the symphony, he commits suicide. He leaves his works and one final love letter for Sixsmith, who finds his body just moments after the suicide has occurred. We learn that the Cloud Atlas symphony was eventually played, recorded, and attributed to Frobisher.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1973):
Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a journalist stuck reporting fluff pieces despite being the daughter of an accomplished (though now-deceased) investigative journalist (Gyasi). By chance, she gets stuck in an elevator with a now-elderly Sixsmith. The two bond while they are trapped and it is clear Sixsmith wants to tell her something, though he refrains from doing so in the elevator. After re-reading the love notes of Frobisher, he calls Luisa and asks her to meet him. Before she arrives, Sixsmith is murdered by a hit man named Bill Smoke (Weaving). Together with her young neighbor Javier Gomez (Brody Nicholas Lee), Luisa decides to honor her father and investigate the murder. She eventually begins investigating Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant), the head of a nuclear power company that Sixsmith worked for. She also meets an employee named Isaac Sachs (Hanks) who falls immediately in love with her. Sachs gives her a report written by Sixsmith that Hooks tried to have destroyed. Before she can read the report, Smoke tracks her down and almost kills her by crashing her car off a bridge. Smoke also kills Sachs using an airplane bomb.
Luisa manages to survive the ordeal, though the report is destroyed. She is contacted by Joe Napier (Keith David), the head of security at the nuclear plant who once worked with her father and now wants to help her. The threesome ultimately determine that Sixsmith had sent a copy of his report to his niece, Talbot (Xun Zhou) (who is also a descendant of Adam Talbot). After getting the report from Talbot, they discover that Hooks is actually a patsy working for the oil companies. Since Hooks knows nothing about nuclear plants, he is building a shoddy nuclear reactor that will fail (and kill/endanger many people). The meltdown of the nuclear power plant will cement nuclear power's reputation as a too-dangerous energy source and oil will therefore remain the fuel of choice well into the future. Napier knows that they must kill Smoke as the oil companies will stop at nothing to prevent Sixsmith's report from being leaked. The pair set a trap, but Smoke survives and ultimately corners them both. Before Smoke can pull the trigger, he is killed by a woman (Bae) whose dog he shot and whom he had insulted earlier in this segment. Luisa is then able to publish her story and Sixsmith's report, thus defeating the plans of the oil companies.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2012):
Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is an old publisher who strikes it big when an ex-Mafioso named Dermot Hoggins (Hanks) writes a book that becomes a best-seller after Hoggins publicly kills one of the critics of his book. After the book becomes a sensation, Timothy is violently approached by some of Hoggins' associates who demand a large lump-sum payment... or else. Having already spent the vast majority of the book's proceeds, Timothy realizes he must run away. He contacts his estranged but wealthy brother, Denholme (Grant), to help him. Denholme sends Timothy to a "hotel" he owns while he claims to be raising the money to pay off the mafia. In reality, the hotel is actually a nursing home, where Denholme has Timothy forcibly committed in revenge for an affair Timothy had with Georgette (Whishaw), Denholme's wife. The nursing home is the same location as the house that Ayers had trapped Frobisher. While in the nursing home, Timothy thinks wistfully of Ursula (Susan Sarandon) - the woman who got away. He also reads a novel about Luisa Rey, which is a part of popular mystery series based on Luisa and written by her friend Javier.
Eventually, Timothy meets several other seniors who wish to escape from Denholme's nursing home. They eventually hatch a plan and put it in action. Though Timothy has the opportunity to abandon his friends, he never does. Ultimately, the seniors are tracked down by vengeful nursing home staff to a pub. The seniors escape when they convince soccer hooligans to beat up the staff by accusing the staff of rooting for the other team. Timothy writes a best-selling book of his experiences, emphasizing that he refused to be denied his liberty and rights. His book is later turned into a film. He also finally looks up Ursula and the two begin a relationship.
An Orison of Sonmi-451 (2144):
The story takes place in Neo-Seoul, a City built in the clouds as most of the Earth is now under water. Sonmi-451 (Bae) is a fabricant - a human clone genetically engineered to work in a restaurant with fellow fabricants. Their lives are strictly monitored with no free will - they have the same sleep cycle, diet, and tasks. The fabricants are constantly sexually harassed while they work at the restaurant and they are overseen by fabricants named Seers. The world is ruled by one government called the Unanimity. When fabricants serve for 12 years, they are selected for a religious ceremony where they ascend to a higher realm. Prior to the ceremony, they wear collars that will kill them if activated by the Seers . Relations between fabricants and real humans are forbidden, as are fabricants learning anything of the world outside their employer.
One night, Sonmi-451 is awoken in the middle of the night by another fabricant, Yoona-939 (Zhou). It turns out that Yoona-939 has engaged in a sexual relationship with their Seer, Rhee (Grant). After Yoona-939 and Rhee have sex, he passes out and Yoona-939 takes Sonmi-451 to a place where she has hidden a computer. In the computer is a clip from the film about Timothy Cavendish's incarceration and freedom. The two fabricants are deeply affected by the film clip and become friends. One day, after being harassed, Yoona-939 assaults her harasser and tries to escape. Seer Rhee hesitates, but ultimately activates the collar and kills his lover. That night, Sonmi-451 is again awakened, where she finds Seer Rhee dead via suicide. A human man named Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess) (these actors were married in the Adam Ewing story) has come to free her. He releases her from her collar and they live together while she learns about Earth's history at a rate far faster than is possible to a true human. Eventually, the Unanimity find and capture her. After mocking Sonmi-451 for her pretensions of understanding humanity, Boardman Mephi (Weaving) sentences her to death.
Chang breaks into the prison and rescues Sonmi-451, before taking her to a still-surviving underwater city. She meets General Apis (David), the leader of the "Union" resistance that seeks to restore equality and dignity for all (Chang also works for the resistance). Apis believes that Sonmi-451 can be the key to turning the public to support them, but she does not wish to take a stand. Soon, however, she falls in love with Chang and she soon recognizes the links in humanity from generation to generation. She also learns that the Unanimity ceremony for fabricants is a hoax - with the fabricants simply being euthanized and their bodies used to feed new fabricants. Sonmi-451 writes a list of rights to be enjoyed by all beings, human or not, and the Union hacks into the airwaves to broadcast her story and her declaration. The Unanimity forces track the broadcast and assault the Union forces, killing all of Sonmi-451's bodyguards, including Chang. They capture her, where she confesses her story to the Unanimity's interrogator (D'Arcy). Sonmi-451 notes that the actions of individuals, no matter how small, can effect great change, even if they change only one person (the interrogator is clearly on board with Sonmi-451's message by the end of the segment). She also notes that she has always been in love with Chang, and will be in love with him again someday in the future. Sonmi-451 is then publicly executed.
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin After (2321):
A much younger Zachry lives in the "Valley" in a very tribal future. The humans of the Valley are very religious, worshipping "Sonmi " as a god. Zachry's community is led by the Abbess (Sarandon). Zachry is guilt-ridden after he doesn't try to prevent some of his relatives from being killed by a cannibal tribe (led by Hugh Grant) and sees visions of a satanic spirit named Old Georgie (Weaving) who wants Zachry's soul. Another group of humans, who are technologically advanced, are called the Proficients. Most of the Proficients have abandoned the Earth, but some chose to stay behind and are now stranded and dying off. Meronym (Berry) is a Proficient who believes the Valley-people may be able to help her find some lost technology that can allow them to contact the Proficients in space to rescue them. They also know that Sonmi was simply a human killed many years ago.
Meronym journeys to the Valley to try and recruit some of the villagers to guide her into the forbidden hills. She bonds with Zachry when he saves her from falling off a bridge. While there, Zachry's niece takes il. Zachry agrees to take Meronym to the forbidden hills if she will save his niece's life. Meronym provides the needed medicine and Zachry takes her to the hills. Along the way, Old Georgie tries to persuade Zachry to kill Meronym as he claims the Proficients simply want to destroy all the Valley people. After finding the lost technology, Zachry confronts Meronym, who says that the Earth is dying and they simply wish to leave. She also says the Proficients will take the Valley people with them if they choose to leave too. Meronym activates the machine and sends a distress signal (Zachry calls it a prayer) into the stars. When they return, they find the village has been invaded and destroyed by the cannibals. Zachry finds only his niece still alive. He ignores the Abbess's spiritual advice to not kill the cannibal leader and takes his revenge. The cannibal tribe therefore discover Zachry's presence and pursue him while Old Georgie laughs that Zachry will soon be his. Meronym discovers what has happened and goes to rescue him. With her advanced technology, they are able to kill all the cannibals. Meronym and Zachry fall in love and when the Proficients arrive from space, Zachry and his niece leave Earth with them.
We then learn that Zachry is telling this story from the new planet and the children are the descendants of he and Meronym -who calls them inside. Before going in, Zachry points out Earth's location in the starry sky and notes that Meronym is the best thing that has ever happened to him.