The film was produced by Grant Hill, Stefan Arndt, the Wachowskis, and Tykwer. During four years of development, the project met difficulties securing financial support; it was eventually produced with a $102 million budget provided by independent sources, making it one of the most expensive independent films of all time. Production began in September 2011 at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany.
It premiered on 8 September 2012 at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival and was released on 26 October 2012 in conventional and IMAX cinemas. It polarized critics, and has been included on various Best Film and Worst Film lists. It was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score for Tykwer (who co-scored the film), Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil. It received several nominations at the Saturn Awards including Best Science Fiction Film, winning for Best Editing and Best Make-up.
Tribesman Zachry Bailey begins to tell an epic tale.
Adam Ewing, an American lawyer, has come to the Chatham Islands to conclude a business arrangement with his father-in-law and Reverend Horrox. In Horrox's plantation, he witnesses the whipping of a Moriori slave, Autua, who later stows away on the ship. Autua confronts Ewing and convinces him to advocate for Autua to join the crew as a free man. Dr. Henry Goose slowly poisons Ewing, claiming it is the cure for a parasitic worm, to steal Ewing's gold. As Goose administers the would-be fatal dose, Autua saves Ewing. Returning to the United States, Ewing and his wife Tilda denounce her father's complicity in slavery, and leave to join the abolition movement.
Robert Frobisher, a young 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." Frobisher begins reading Ewing's journal, which he has found with the latter portion missing, among the books at Ayrs's mansion. Ayrs demands credit for "The Cloud Atlas Sextet" and threatens to expose Frobisher's homosexuality if he refuses. Frobisher shoots Ayrs and goes into hiding from the police, using the name Ewing. He finishes "The Cloud Atlas Sextet" and commits suicide with a gun just before his lover Rufus Sixsmith arrives.
Journalist Luisa Rey meets an older Rufus Sixsmith, now a nuclear physicist. Sixsmith tips off Rey to a conspiracy to create a catastrophe at a nuclear reactor run by Lloyd Hooks, but is killed by Hooks's hitman, Bill Smoke, before he can give her a report that proves it. Rey finds Frobisher's letters to Sixsmith and tracks down a vinyl recording of Frobisher's "Cloud Atlas Sextet." Isaac Sachs, another scientist at the power plant, passes her a copy of Sixsmith's report. Smoke kills Sachs by blowing up his plane, and runs Rey's car off a bridge. She escapes but the report is destroyed. With help from the plant's head of security, Joe Napier, Rey's father's comrade during the Korean War, Rey evades another attempt on her life, which results in Smoke's death. With another copy of the report obtained from Sixsmith's niece, she exposes the plot to use a nuclear accident for the benefit of oil company executives, who are indicted as a result.
Sixty-five-year-old publisher Timothy Cavendish reaps a windfall when Dermot Hoggins, the gangster author of Knuckle Sandwich, murders a critic who gave the novel a harsh review, generating huge sales. When Hoggins's brothers threaten Cavendish's life for Hoggins's share of the profits, Cavendish asks for help from his wealthy brother, Denholme, who tells him to hide at Aurora House. On the way there, Cavendish reads a manuscript of a novel based on Luisa Rey's story, and recalls his relationship with a woman named Ursula. He visits the house where she lived with her parents and discovers that she still lives there. Believing Aurora House is a hotel, Timothy signs papers "voluntarily" committing himself; in fact, Aurora House is a nursing home (in Ayrs's old mansion). Denholme reveals to Timothy that he sent him there as revenge for Timothy's affair with Denholme's wife Georgette. The head nurse, Noakes, is abusive, and contact with the outside world is denied. Cavendish escapes with three other residents. He resumes his relationship with Ursula and writes a screenplay of his experience.
Sonmi-451 is a "fabricant," a human cloned for slave labor, living as a server at a fast food restaurant in a dystopian Neo Seoul, Korea (sea level rise has sunk today's Seoul). She is exposed to ideas of rebellion by another fabricant and friend, Yoona-939. After witnessing Yoona being killed for rebelling, Sonmi is rescued from captivity by rebel Commander Hae-Joo Chang. 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, and shows her that clones are not freed at the end of their contract but killed and recycled into food for other clones. Sonmi makes a public broadcast of her story and manifesto. The authorities attack, but not before the world hears her manifesto; Hae-Joo is killed in the firefight and Sonmi is recaptured. After recounting her story to an archivist, she is executed.
Zachry Bailey lives in a primitive post-apocalyptic society called the Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii. The Valley tribespeople worship Sonmi-451; their sacred text is taken from the broadcast of her manifesto. Zachry is plagued by visions of a demonic figure called Old Georgie, who urges him to give in to his fears. Zachry, his brother-in-law Adam, and his nephew are attacked by the cannibalistic Kona tribe. Zachry runs into hiding and his companions are murdered. His village is visited by Meronym, a member of the Prescients, an advanced society using the last remnants of high technology, but who are dying from a plague, and whose only hope is to get off Earth. Meronym's mission is to find a remote communication station on Mauna Sol, to send an SOS to off-world humans, asking them to rescue the people on Earth. Catkin, Zachry's niece, falls sick, and in exchange for saving her, Zachry agrees to guide Meronym to the station, which they find still the same as it was when Sonmi-451 made her broadcast, and where Meronym reveals the true story of Sonmi-451. Returning, Zachry finds his tribe slaughtered by the Kona. He kills the sleeping Kona chief and rescues Catkin, and Meronym uses her gun to save him from the returning Kona and is in turn saved by Zachry. Zachry and Catkin join Meronym and the Prescients as their ship leaves Big Island.
Zachary finishes telling the story to a gathering of his many grandchildren, points out to the children where about Earth is in the night sky, and joins Meronym on their porch.
Bold type indicates the main character of the story.
Author David Mitchell makes a cameo appearance as a double agent in the futuristic Korea section. In addition, minor members of the cast also appear in more than one segment, including Martin Wuttke, Brody Nicholas Lee, Alistair Petrie, and Sylvestra Le Touzel.
The film is based on the 2004 novel Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Filmmaker Tom Tykwer revealed in January 2009 his intent to adapt the novel and said he was working on a screenplay with the Wachowskis, who optioned the novel. By June 2010, Tykwer had asked actors Natalie Portman, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, James McAvoy, and Ian McKellen to star in Cloud Atlas. By April 2011, the Wachowskis joined Tykwer in co-directing the film. In the following May, with Hanks and Berry confirmed in their roles, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, and Jim Broadbent also joined the cast. Actor Hugh Grant joined the cast days before the start of filming.
It was financed by the German production companies A Company, ARD Degeto Film and X Filme. In May 2011, Variety reported that it had a production budget of $140 million. The filmmakers secured approximately $20 million from the German government, including €10 million ($11.8 million) from the German Federal Film Fund (DFFF), €100,000 ($118,000) development funding and €1.5 million ($1.8 million) from Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, a German funder, as part of their plans to film at Studio Babelsberg later in 2011. The project also received €1 million ($1.2 million) financial support from Filmstiftung NRW, €750,000 ($887,000) from Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung, €30 million ($35.5 million) from UE-Fonds (the biggest proportion of the budget), and €300,000 ($355,000) from FFF Bayern, another German organization. The Wachowskis contributed approximately $7 million to the project out of their own finances. The budget was updated to $100 million.
The directors stated that due to lack of finance, the film was almost abandoned several times. However, they noted how the crew was enthusiastic and determined: "They flew—even though their agents called them and said, 'They don't have the money, the money's not closed.'" They specifically praised Tom Hanks's enthusiasm: "Warner Bros. calls and, through our agent, says they've looked at the math and decided that they don't like this deal. They're pulling all of the money away, rescinding the offer. I was shaking. I heard, 'Are you saying the movie is dead?' They were like, 'Yes, the movie is dead.'... At the end of the meeting, Tom says, 'Let's do it. I'm in. When do we start?'... Tom said this unabashed, enthusiastic 'Yes!' which put our heart back together. We walked away thinking, this movie is dead but somehow, it's alive and we're going to make it." "Every single time, Tom Hanks was the first who said, 'I'm getting on the plane.' And then once he said he was getting on the plane, basically everyone said, 'Well, Tom's on the plane, we're on the plane.' And so everyone flew [to Berlin to begin the film]. It was like this giant leap of faith. From all over the globe."
Tykwer and the Wachowskis filmed parallel to each other using separate camera crews. Although they shot scenes all three together when permitted by the schedule, the Wachowskis mostly directed the 19th-century story and the two set in the future, while Tykwer directed the stories set in the 1930s, the 1970s, and 2012. Tykwer said that the three directors planned every segment of the film together in pre-production, and continued to work closely together through post-production. Warner Bros. Pictures representatives agreed to the film's 172-minute running time, after previously stating that it should not exceed 150 minutes.
Filming began at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany, on 16 September 2011, the base camp for the production. Other locations include Düsseldorf, in and near Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland, and the Mediterranean island of Majorca, Spain. Glasgow doubled for both San Francisco and London. Scenes filmed in Scotland feature the new Clackmannanshire Bridge near Alloa. The "Big Island" and "Pacific Islands" stories were shot on Majorca, mostly in the World Heritage site of the Serra de Tramuntana mountains. Scenes were shot at Cala Tuent and near Formentor, amongst others. The opening scene, when Adam Ewing meets Dr. Henry Goose, was filmed at Sa Calobra. Port de Sóller provided the setting for the scene when the 19th-century ship is mooring.
Some German journalists called it "the first attempt at a German blockbuster".
The soundtrack was composed by director Tom Tykwer and his longtime collaborators, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. The trio have worked together for years as Pale 3, having composed music for several films directed by Tykwer, most notably Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and The International, and contributed music to the Wachowskis' The Matrix Revolutions. Work on the score began months before shooting commenced. The music was recorded in Leipzig, Germany with the MDR Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Radio Chorus.
The film contains approximately two hours of original music. WaterTower Music released the soundtrack album via digital download on 23 October 2012 and CD on 6 November 2012.
The Cloud Atlas soundtrack received universal critical acclaim. Film Music Magazine critic Daniel Schweiger described the soundtrack as "a singular piece of multi-themed astonishment ... Yet instead of defining one sound for every era, Klimek, Heil and Tykwer seamlessly merge their motifs across the ages to give Cloud Atlas its rhythms, blending orchestra, pulsating electronics, choruses and a soaring salute to John Adams in an astonishing, captivating score that eventually becomes all things for all personages ..." Erin Willard of ScifiMafia described the soundtrack as "cinematic, symphonic, and simply, utterly, exquisitely beautiful ... in the wrong hands the opening theme, which is picked up periodically throughout the entire soundtrack, could easily have become cloying or twee or sappy, but happily this hazard was avoided entirely." Jon Broxton of Movie Music UK wrote, "Scores like Cloud Atlas, which have an important and identifiable structure that relates directly to concepts in the film, intelligent and sophisticated application of thematic elements, and no small amount of beauty, harmony and excitement in the music itself, reaffirm your faith in what film music can be when it's done right." Daniel Schweiger selected the score as one of the best soundtracks of 2012, writing that "Cloud Atlas is an immense sum total of not only the human experience, but of mankind's capacity for musical self-realization itself, all as embodied in a theme for the ages." The film's soundtrack was nominated for a 2013 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, and for several awards by the International Film Music Critics Association, including Score of the Year.
The film premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, where it received a 10-minute standing ovation.
It was released on 26 October 2012 in the United States. Warner Bros. distributed the film in the United States & Canada and the United Kingdom, and Focus Features International handled sales and distribution for other territories. The movie was released in the cinemas of China on 31 January 2013 with 39 minutes of cuts, including removal of nudity, a sexual scene, and numerous conversations.
A six-minute trailer, accompanied by a short introduction by the three directors describing the ideas behind the creation of the film, was released on 26 July 2012. A shorter official trailer was released on 7 September 2012. The six-minute trailer includes three pieces of music. The opening piano music is the main theme of the soundtrack (Prelude: The Atlas March/The Cloud Atlas Sextet) by composing trio Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil, followed by an instrumental version of the song "Sonera" from Thomas J. Bergersen's album Illusions. The song in the last part is "Outro" from M83's album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming.
The film was released on 14 May 2013, on home media (Blu-ray, DVD and UV Digital Copy).
The film has had polarized reactions from both critics and audiences, who debated its length and editing of the interwoven stories, but praised other aspects such as its cinematography, score, visual style, ensemble cast, and originality. It received a lengthy standing ovation at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered on 9 September 2012. Review aggregator Metacritic collected the "top 10 films of 2012" lists from various critics and the film was number 25.
Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 66% of critics have given it a positive review based on 252 reviews, with an average score of 6.6 out of 10. The site's consensus was "Its sprawling, ambitious blend of thought-provoking narrative and eye-catching visuals will prove too unwieldy for some, but the sheer size and scope of Cloud Atlas are all but impossible to ignore." The film holds a Metacritic score of 55 out of 100, based on 45 reviews, indicating 'mixed to average' reviews.
Film critic Roger Ebert praised the film for being "one of the most ambitious films ever made", awarding the film four out of four stars. He wrote "Even as I was watching Cloud Atlas the first time, I knew I would need to see it again. Now that I've seen it the second time, I know I'd like to see it a third time ... I think you will want to see this daring and visionary film ... I was never, ever bored by Cloud Atlas. On my second viewing, I gave up any attempt to work out the logical connections between the segments, stories and characters." He later listed the film among his best of the year.
Conversely, Slant Magazine's Calum Marsh called it a "unique and totally unparalleled disaster" and commented "[its] badness is fundamental, an essential aspect of the concept and its execution that I suspect is impossible to remedy or rectify". The Guardian stated "At 172 minutes, Cloud Atlas carries all the marks of a giant folly, and those unfamiliar with the book will be baffled" and awarded the film 2 out of 5 stars. Nick Pickerton, who reviewed the film for The Village Voice said "There is a great deal of humbug about art and love in Cloud Atlas, but it is decidedly unlovable, and if you want to learn something about feeling, you're at the wrong movie." English critic Mark Kermode on his first viewing called it "an extremely honourable failure, but a failure" but then on a second viewing for the release of the DVD in the UK stated "Second time around, I find it to be more engaging – still not an overall success, but containing several moments of genuine magic, and buoyed up by the exuberance of high-vaulting ambition." Village Voice and Time Magazine both named Cloud Atlas the worst film of 2012.
Variety described it as "an intense three-hour mental workout rewarded with a big emotional payoff. ... One's attention must be engaged at all times as the mosaic triggers an infinite range of potentially profound personal responses." James Rocchi of MSN Movies stated "It is so full of passion and heart and empathy that it feels completely unlike any other modern film in its range either measured through scope of budget or sweep of action." The Daily Beast called Cloud Atlas "one of the year's most important movies". Michael Cieply of The New York Times commented on the film "You will have to decide for yourself whether it works. It's that kind of picture. ... Is this the stuff of Oscars? Who knows? Is it a force to be reckoned with in the coming months? Absolutely."
Despite expectations that the film could be a success, the film opened to only $9,612,247 from 2,008 theaters with an average of $4,787 per theater, ranking #2 at the U.S. box office, an opening described as "dreadful". The film ultimately grossed $27,108,272 in the U.S. and $103,374,596 internationally for a total of $130,482,868.
On 25 October 2012, after the premiere at Toronto (and despite the standing ovation it received there), Andy Wachowski stated "(a)s soon as (critics) encounter a piece of art they don't fully understand the first time going through it, they think it's the fault of the movie or the work of art. They think, 'It's a mess ... This doesn't make any sense.' And they reject it, just out of an almost knee-jerk response to some ambiguity or some gulf between what they expect they should be able to understand, and what they understand."
In the same interview, Lana Wachowski stated "(p)eople will try to will Cloud Atlas to be rejected. They will call it messy, or complicated, or undecided whether it's trying to say something New Agey-profound or not. And we're wrestling with the same things that Dickens and Hugo and David Mitchell and Herman Melville were wrestling with. We're wrestling with those same ideas, and we're just trying to do it in a more exciting context than conventionally you are allowed to. ... We don't want to say, 'We are making this to mean this.' What we find is that the most interesting art is open to a spectrum of interpretation."
David Mitchell stated he had been impressed by the screenplay, saying the film was "magnificent". He was very satisfied by the casting, especially by Hanks, Berry and Broadbent, and stated he could not even remember now how he was originally portraying the characters in his mind before the movie. He also supported the changes from the novel, impressed by how the Wachowskis and Tykwer successfully disassembled the structure of the book for the needs of the movie.
The advocacy group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) criticized the film's use of yellowface to allow non-Asian actors to portray Asian characters in the neo-Seoul sequences. MANAA president Guy Aoki also called the lack of blackface being used to portray black characters a double standard. The directors responded that the same multi-racial actors portrayed multiple roles of various nationalities and races (not just Asian) across a 500-year story arc, showing "the continuity of souls" critical to the story.
The film was pre-nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, but was not nominated in any category.