For this unusual film in form directed by Tom Tykwer, one can check the Wikipedia summary for the six stories in David Mitchell's book (2004). The characters seem like near or possible reincarnations, spaced about a generation apart. And in each story but the first, a lead character reads or views the story of the previous generation through some sort of media device (although no Kindles!) And the corresponding characters are faced with similar problems, trying to escape something, just like in a dream. The actions in one story inspire similar activity in succeeding episodes (often by discovered artefacts or even manuscripts), so everything is connected. The stories are all presented continiously, as the movie jumps back and forth among them to show more connections, rather than as the typical presentation of six short films as distinct, in just one sequence.
The second story centers around a young composer Robie Frobisher, struggling to work, and dealing with a landlord suspicious of his homosexuality since he sleeps sometimes with Rufus (James D'Arcy) in 1930s Britain. Actually, both young men can chase women, too, so that complicates what happens. Frobisher gets a job with an older composer (James Broadbent) as an amanuensis, transcribing what the old man sings, as if he were a human 'Sibelius' or 'Finale'. When he outs himself, the older man is offended, and tells Robie that his music will never get heard if he leaves and doesn't change. The composition, the 'Cloud Atlas Sextet' becomes the musical leitmotif for the movie.
The third episode involves a reported investigating a nuclear power plant in 1973, and the fourth is a bizarre story of a vanity press publisher (who received the previous story as a manuscript) who winds up having to escape from a nursing home. The fifth is in a dystopian future Korea where a clone acts as if the whistleblower, as if a manufactured human being could take on a reincarnated soul.
The last shows a tribe (with Tom Hanks, who also played a dishonest doctor in the 1850s opening, which will take us into 'Lincoln') in a post technological world where most people died in 'The Fall', perhaps from an EMP attack (maybe 'because of a 'Revolution' after the fifth episode). On Hawaii, a remnant tribe hosts visitors from the lost world and try to figure out what happened.
The photography of the 'new Korea' and race scenes were indeed stunning.
It's useful for me to compare the structure of this movie (2 hours, 45 minutes) with my own screenplay, 'Do Ask Do Tell:Second Epiphany'. I have a three-way layering, centered around the idea that a character likes me finds himself abducted into some kind of ashram, which might be the afterlife or might be a job interview. He learns he is on another planet, and that his kindly, generally likeable and largely (though not entirely) young adult captors call themselves angels (maybe even Matt Damon and Ben Affleck from 'Dogma', without Wisconsin), who have learned that not all of them are immortal and who are going to let Bill help them decide how an elimination ritual (sort of like reality TV, maybe 'Apprentice') turns out. In the “reality” layer, Bill has to be trained in 'real life', and once he learns certain physical and interpersonal tasks, he finds that he can ride a Mobius tram train and go back to earlier periods of his own youth and reexamine himself. The lowest level is a fiction screenplay (shown in black and white in the movie) in which he gets into legal trouble as a teacher when 'surrenders' to one of the angels posing as a high school student. The middle layer is his own true history (which he can revisit on the tram, with the help of one of the 'geek' angels (not in a 'Nightmare Alley') who operates a special ashram computer), largely centered around what happened when a student (while he as substitute teaching after layoff from his career) found his screenplay on the Internet with Google. The 'lawyers' dug out the rest of his history (as they vacillate both directions, from litigation to prosecution), which Bill can re-experience from the work-sites along the tram. Finally, Bill learns how he got there, and that a 'purification' on Earth will lead to a thinning of people (a “contraction”), more of less like 'The Fall' in 'Cloud Atlas' – but this hasn’t even happened yet as my movie unfolds. Bill has to revisit one more critical point in his life (in a miniature of New York, maybe as in Las Vegas) where his own values – what is important to him in other people and whether he can stay with someone – map to resolving the 'battle' among the angels. At the end, he goes back to 'Earth” to face a more 'aesthetically real' future.