Whether a book is a success of a failure is hard to tell, sometimes it takes generations before certain books are fully understood and appreciated. Reading some of the reviews of the book and the film, the negative ones are often written by authors who state quite bluntly that they find the idea of rebirth/reincarnation incomprehensible or simply nonsense, and therefore the whole plot of the 6 stories is confusing for them. This is not very surprising in a Western cultural context largely shaped by Christian and, more recently, materialist-scientific views on the nature of the individual (soul or no soul).
Some commentators try to approach it from a different -- political -- angle:Discussions about the meaning of the film on http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1371111/board/threads/
I cannot remember the last time I saw such an explicitly left wing film. For a start the two communities which Tom Hank's Zachry character experiences (the primitive and the futuristic) are marxist, collectivist and cooperative societies.
Next, it appears to me that each of the character strands represents some ideology or value although there are exceptions that do not fit. Here are my thoughts (I've only watched the film once and I need another watch to complete some character strands):
Hugh Grant's characters mostly represent the amoral, Randian, self-interested individualist (the oil executive, the self-interested brother, the slaverer etc)
Tom Hank's characters mostly represent altruism, selfless sacrifice and cooperation (the oil exec who sacrifices his career for the greater good, Zachry)
Halle Berry's characters represent freedom, knowledge and liberty (Luisa Rey, Meronym)
Doona Bae's characters represent enlightenment and the power of ideas (Sonmi 451, Tilda)
Hugo Weaving's characters represent fascism, totalitarianism and order (assassin, executioner, slaverer, demon)
Jim Broadbent's characters are a little more ambiguous,maybe greed? They're broadly amoral but will do the right thing if it furthers their own self-interest.
Capitalism is broadly represented by the Taylorist clone production process/life cycle (also a take on our industrial food manufacturing, animal slaughtering processes) and manifested in the emptiness of the consumer experience of the digitized restaurant.
There are exceptions to the character strands but this is what I perceived as the most powerful themes in the character strands that stuck with me. Additionally, themes of interconnectedness and lines such as 'your life is not your own' are common amongst left wing thought so the film represents a very unsubtle trashing of right wing ideas. If you're not left minded I doubt you would enjoy this movie, it trashes conservatism when the reality is a little more ambiguous. Saying that, it's spurred me to read the novel which I'm sure will explore the themes in greater depth.
The novel is much better than the film (surprise!) as it really fleshes out the worlds that the characters inhabit and is structured in a much more disciplined way. But the theme of the story is generally the same - it's about predacity.
I think to assign an overtly political stance limits the scope of the narrative, although I do agree that the actors seem to be assigned roles representing certain forces/ideals (although I'm tempted to say that there is a lack of consistency in these choices. There's apart of the formula that determines who play's whom that is missing).
A) Zachry lives in a community based on trade and cooperation - not a cooperative or a collectivist society. Trade happens between villages as well as individuals with different skill sets, and hosting the "prescients" is traditional.
B) Hugh Grant's characters are usually big corporation, yes; however, in the book (and the movie, subtly) it is made clear that he is a big corporation heavily tied with both gas corporation interests and government lobbyist interests (one of the new members of the board was part of the government's energy department, and it's made pretty clear that the entire Swannake project is an attempt to discredit the validity of nuclear energy to refocus the energy market on oil).
C) Tom Hanks is exposing corruption that would have killed thousands of people purposefully; the same corruption that Sixsmith was trying to eradicate by publishing his report.
D) Capitalism and the Corpocratic Unanimity have very little in common with one another, unless you believe that Capitalism is inherently fascist. That future represents a combination of Big Business and Big Brother - spiced up with a little agit-prop culture and guys in leather - that is strangely reminiscent of the Nazi regime. Capitalism requires free trade, and when everything you do is regulated by the Corpocratic principles (such as "honor thy consumer," lol) I don't think you can claim free association.
Exactly, Unanimity/corpocracy was shown not to be truly capitalist but totalitarian. It was a weird mix of pseudo-capitalism and pseudo-communism with a dash of general totalitarian governments (Nazi, black shirts, Soviet, etc.). The novel dove much more into how the society is structured, but I thought it was pretty clear, even in the movie, that the government wasn't really a capitalistic one.
"A common theme is how people can become either more good or more evil throughout their lifetimes. We start out with Tom Hanks as a really villainous and greedy guy, but by the end of the movie, he’s ultimately good. We witness him transform again and again along his own spiritual path. So some people end up OK in the end and get a second chance.
This is especially the case with the love between Tom Hanks and Halle Berry at the end of the movie. But some characters just can’t become good. The filmmakers have talked about how the soul Tom Hanks plays is able to transform itself, even as he clearly struggles in the postapocalyptic scene. But Hugh Grant does not — he becomes a barbaric, cannibalistic murderer."
Basically, the movie is designed as the Wachowski's brother's anti-conservative manifesto. That is the unifying theme of the movie(as much as it sounds like a cliche criticism instead of a unifying theme, but you'll see). Each of the 6 stories represents 6 different distinct assaults on conservatism. That is why those particular 6 stories were chosen.
Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing(1849): This one is about race and about how people in society get wealthy by exploiting minorities and those that benefit defend it as a natural order. By itself no one would think its designed as an assault on conservatism, but when you add in the other 5 themes it's clear that Wachowski's believe conservatives are racist.
Letters from Zedelghem 1936: This story is about homosexuality, and about society's treatment of homosexuals once they become known. The background letters to his lover is what really drives this point home, and the key moments are when composer to threatens to out him and tells him about how his reputation and work will suffer if it ever gets out.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery: This story is about energy(particularly oil) and about how companies are okay with harming anyone as long as they can continue to exploit the resources of the earth.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: This story is about the treatment of the elderly and how society prefers to lock them up and leave them to die. It's also about the lack of compassion towards the hardships of the elderly.
An Orison of Sonmi~451: This story is about the 'horrors' of capitalism its use of people as nothing more than tools to keep 'the system' running.
An Orison of Sonmi~451 is most definitely anti-capitalist. It's the focus on the technology, machinery, assembly lines, efficiency in killing, feeding themselves to themselves, your life is your job reality, etc. that really drive that one home.
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After: This story is the assault on organized/traditional religion. A key aspect to solidifying this is the constant presence of Old Georgie and the symbolic presence of having an alien with special technology come down. But the real kicker to this one is when they finally get into the observatory building at the top of the mountain. When Halle Berry asks Tom Hanks if he wants to hear "the true true", and then informs him that the messiah-like person they have been worshiping is actually a woman that lived a harsh life 200 years prior and has been dead since.
See? It should now be painfully obvious. The unifying theme of the movie is politics, and while some of the sub-stories could be construed as not that political when taken as a whole it's obvious they just represent different planks of the brothers' politics. And given the nature of the subjects this isn't a movie showing the Wachowski's political desires exactly, but instead opposition to a different ideology--conservatism. This becomes obvious when you realize that the main themes of the each of these segments are anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-dirty energy, anti-abandonment of the elderly, anti-capitalism, and anti-organized religion. Which makes this movie probably the most political movie ever made and was the goal of the Wachowski brothers.
Interpretation 1: The secular way of talking about Cloud Atlas' themes, which might include things like the participant-observer effect, determinism, game theory, wave function collapse, and (in in a very general way) quantum entanglement.
Interpretation 2: Or the spiritual lens, which might include such Buddhist concepts as different formulations of karma, soul families (jati), liminal spaces between lives (bardo), and hungry ghosts (preta).
Neo from "The Matrix" was The One. Get it? "Neo" is an anagram of "One". Neo-Seoul is "New Seoul", as in the city that was built next to "Old Seoul" when it flooded. Of course, one of the themes of the movie is possible reincarnation, so "Old Seoul" sounds just like "old soul".