The film consists of six interrelated and interwoven stories spanning different time periods. The film is structured, according to novelist David Mitchell, “as a sort of pointillist mosaic.”
South Pacific Ocean, 1846
Adam Ewing, an American lawyer from San Francisco, has come to the Chatham Islands to conclude a business arrangement with Reverend Gilles Horrox for his father-in-law, Haskell Moore. He witnesses the whipping of a Moriori slave, Autua, who later stows away on the ship. He confronts Ewing and convinces Ewing to advocate for him to join the crew as a freeman. Meanwhile, Dr. Henry Goose slowly poisons Ewing, claiming it to be the cure for a parasitic worm, aiming to steal Ewing’s valuables. When Goose attempts to administer the fatal dose, Autua saves Ewing. Returning to the United States, Ewing and his wife Tilda denounce her father’s complicity in slavery and leave San Francisco to join the Abolition movement.
Cambridge, England and Edinburgh, Scotland, 1936
Robert Frobisher, a bisexual English composer, finds work as an amanuensis to aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” While working for Ayrs, Frobisher begins reading the published chronicle of Adam Ewing’s journal which he has found among the many books at Ayrs’s mansion. He never finishes reading the journal and notes in a letter that “A half-finished book is, after all, a half finished love affair.” When “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” is revealed to Ayrs, he wishes to take credit for Frobisher’s work, claiming it is the result of their collaboration and threatens to expose his scandalous background if he resists. Frobisher shoots and wounds Ayrs and flees to a hotel. Perhaps spurred by his inability to complete Ewing’s book, he finishes “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”, then commits suicide, just before his lover Rufus Sixsmith arrives.
San Francisco, USA, 1973
Journalist Luisa Rey meets an older Sixsmith, now a nuclear physicist. Sixsmith tips off Rey to a conspiracy regarding the safety of a new nuclear reactor run by Lloyd Hooks, but is assassinated by Hooks’ hitman Bill Smoke before he can give her a report that proves it. Rey finds and reads Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith, resulting in her tracking down a vinyl recording of Frobisher’s “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Isaac Sachs, another scientist at the power plant, passes her a copy of Sixsmith’s report. However, Smoke kills Sachs by blowing up the plane in which he is flying, and later also runs Rey’s car off a bridge, but she is able to escape. With help from the plant’s head of security, Joe Napier, who knew her father, she evades another attempt against her life which results in Smoke’s death and exposes the plot to use a nuclear accident for the benefit of oil companies.
United Kingdom, 2012
65-year-old publisher Timothy Cavendish reaps a windfall when Dermot Hoggins, the gangster author of Knuckle Sandwich, publicly murders a critic who gave the novel a harsh review. When Hoggins’s brothers threaten Cavendish’s life to get his share of the profits, Cavendish asks for help from his wealthy brother Denholme. Avenging an old affair with his wife, Denholme tricks Timothy into hiding in a nursing home, where he is held against his will and abused by the head nurse, Noakes. While there, Cavendish reads a manuscript of a novel based on Luisa Rey’s story. Plotting with three other residents, Cavendish escapes and goes on to write a screenplay of his story.
Neo Seoul, (Korea), 2144
Sonmi~451 is a genetically-engineered fabricant, a human clone and slave worker living a compliant life of servitude as a server at a fast food restaurant. She recounts her memories before an interviewer, an archivist whose purpose is to document her thoughts and story for the future. Sonmi begins by recounting a day in the life of a fabricant like herself. She tells how she was exposed to ideas of rebellion and liberation (based on Cavendish’s adventures), and how she was rescued from captivity by Commander Hae-Joo Chang, a member of a rebel movement known as “Union”. He smuggles her to a residence in Neo Seoul where he exposes Sonmi to the larger world, including the banned writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a film version of Timothy Cavendish’s “ghastly ordeal”. They are found and Sonmi is captured. Hae-Joo rescues her, introduces her to the leader of the rebel movement, then shows her that fabricants are not freed at the end of their contract as she believed, but are killed and “recycled” into food for other clones. She decides that the system of society based on slavery and exploitation is intolerable, and makes a public broadcast of her story and manifesto. Hae-Joo is killed in a firefight and Sonmi is captured again. After telling her story to the archivist, she is executed.
The Big Island, 2321
(This section is dated “106 winters after The Fall” in the end credits and book cited as 2321.) Zachry lives in a primitive society called “The Valley” after most of humanity has died during “The Fall,” a largely-unexplained apocalyptic event. The Valley tribesmen speak a degenerated form of English, and worship a goddess called Sonmi (Sonmi~451), their sacred text taken from the broadcast of her manifesto. Zachry is plagued by hallucinations of a demonic figure called “Old Georgie” who manipulates him into giving in to his fears. One day, Zachry, Adam (Zachry’s brother-in-law)and Zachry’s nephew are attacked by the cannibalistic Kona tribe. He runs into hiding and watches as his companions are murdered. His village is visited by Meronym, a member of the “Prescients”, an advanced society still using the last remnants of technology. Her mission is to find a remote communication station called Mauna Sol and send a message to Earth’s off-world colonies. Catkin, Zachry’s niece, falls sick, and in exchange for saving her, Zachry agrees to guide Meronym into the mountains to find the Atlas. At the station, Meronym reveals that Sonmi was not a deity as the Valley tribe believes, but a normal human who died long ago. After returning, Zachry finds his tribe dead, slaughtered by the Kona. He kills the Kona chief, rescues Catkin, and Meronym saves them both from an assault by Kona tribesmen. Zachry and Catkin join Meronym and the Prescients as their ship leaves Big Island.
Prologue / Epilogue
A seventh time period, several decades after the events on Big Island, is featured in the film’s prologue and epilogue: Zachry is revealed to have been telling these stories to his grandchildren on a beach near a city on an extraterrestrial Earth colony. The epilogue also confirms that Meronym succeeded in sending the message and traveled to the off-world colony where she lives with Zachry.