A film based on David Mitchell's (no, not thatDavid Mitchell) 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas is a sweeping epic that connects wildly different genres and writing styles into a single narrative. The film consists of six nested stories, each set in a different place and era, moving forwards in time from the 19th century all the way to the future After the End. Each story and style is a pastiche of the most recognizable examples of the genre, and lovingly combines old clichés with new twists. A comet-shaped birthmark appears in each story on the protagonist, and the characters reference names, places, and experiences from other stories. In chronological order, the six stories are:
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1859): An American notary, returning by ship from the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, keeps a journal of his journey through the Pacific Ocean accompanied by a Moriori stowaway. Ewing has been infected with a parasitic worm, of which Dr. Henry Goose is trying to cure him. A partial copy of the edited and published journal is found and read by Robert Frobisher...
Letters from Zedelghem (1931): Robert Frobisher is a tremendously snarky English musician and aspiring composer, formerly Rich In Pounds, Poor In Sense and now penniless after a bad game. On the run, he charms his way into a job as an assistant to a retired composer, settling with his employer in Zedelghem, Belgium. He records his experiences in a series of letters, which he sends to his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith. Much later in life, the letters are read by Luisa Rey...
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1973): Luisa Rey is a reporter for a fluffy media magazine in Northern California, when she crosses paths with the old Dr. Sixsmith. She starts investigating reports of ongoing corruption connected to the local nuclear power plant, and winds up with Sixsmith's collection of letters. Her story is presented as a mystery novel manuscript, submitted to Timothy Cavendish...
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2012): Cavendish is an old, glum British vanity press publisher who gets in trouble with a client and ends up trapped by his brother in a retirement home in a rather undignified Kafka Komedy. His experience forms the basis of a film, which is later seen by Sonmi~451...
An Orison of Sonmi~451 (2144): Sonmi is a fabricant, a genetically-engineered clone, employed at the Papa Song's diner chain. She lives in Neo Seoul in a dystopian near future. Fabricants have been created as slaves to a capitalist, totalitarian society — and Sonmi had the misfortune of developing intelligence far beyond the limits of her genetic engineering. Her story is told in a final interview, during which she's allowed to tell an uncensored account of her entire life. The recording of this interview, called an orison, is viewed by Zachry...
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After (106 years after the Fall): Zachry, an elder of a tribe in post-apocalyptic Hawaii that regards Sonmi as their god, meets Meronym, a member of Earth's last advanced civilization. His story is set in a distant future, where most of humanity has died out. In his old age, he narrates his experiences around a camp-fire.
Instead of being sequential, the film continually leaps back and forth between stories.
This film contains examples of the following tropes:
The Union is actually a true rebellion in the film, in comparison to the book in which it is just a fake.
Cavendish's more racist and misogynistic aspects of his personality aren't even brought in the film.
Adaptation Name Change: Nea So Copros (which presumably refers to all of Korea) becomes Neo Seoul. While the book makes it clear that none of the names he goes by are real, Hae-Joo Im is named Hae-Joo Chang in the film, as his film version is a Composite Character of Im and Chang.
Age Lift: In the book, Zachry is a young man who lives with his mother and siblings. In the film, he's a middle-aged man living with his widowed sister and niece. The change was necessary for Tom Hanks to play the part.
Alien Non-Interference Clause: Meronym in the final segment is from a more advanced Earth civilization, not an alien, but this still applies to her. Zachry manages to convince her to use her medical equipment to save Zachry's sister. To avoid potential problems, they inject her secretly, so she just appears to have a miraculous recovery; subverting the trope.
Alien Sky: This trope appears at the end of the film to show that an aging Zachry is narrating his tale from one of the off-world colonies long after being rescued.
Ambiguous Disorder: Frobisher suffers tremendously from bipolar disorder, but being from 1931, he has no idea that anything's wrong with him.
An Aesop: Spelled out for us by Sonmi's revelation: "To be is to be perceived, and so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other. The nature of our immortal lives is in the consequences of our words and deeds, that go on and impressionate themselves throughout all time. Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and Present. And by each crime and every kindness we birth our future."
Arc Words: There are all kinds of repeated references across the six eras. Hydras, feeding ducks, a "crocodile" of people, eating soap, cannibalism, etc. Frobisher's "Cloud Atlas Sextet" follows the same pattern the novel does, and he associates each of the six movements of his piece with an instrument.
"I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!"
"The weak are meat the strong do eat."
“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present.”
Artistic License - Geography: Given that California was admitted to the Union as a free state, it's highly unlikely that a family who works in the slave trade would have put down roots there.
Ate His Gun: The first time we see Frobisher, he is employing this trope.
Badass: Hae-Joo Im in the 2100s, bordering on One-Man Army levels. And Zachry when he has to fight Kona cannibals.
Back-Alley Doctor: The shady character of Ovid, who removes Sonmi~451's collar to allow her to appear to be a pureblood.
Berserk Button: The Mexican woman kills the assassin after he shoots her dog and calls her a wetback.
Big Bad: Pretty much any character played by Hugo Weaving. He's a slave trader in 1849, a Nazi in 1936, a murderous hit man in 1973, an oppressive battleax nurse in 2012, a politician who signs Sonmi's death warrant in 2144, and in 2321, he's literally the devil.
Birthmark of Destiny: Ewing, Frobisher, Rey, Cavendish, Sonmi, and Zachry all have the exact same birthmark, though the birthmark is placed in various dramatically appropriate locations for each character. This birthmark is one of the main manifestations of the reincarnation theme.
Bittersweet Ending: Each story ends ranges from tragic to uplifting, so in the end, the story as a whole is bittersweet. The very last chronological story involves civilization fleeing Earth and moving off-world toward an unknown but hopeful future, with Meronym and Zachry Happily Married..
Blackface: Inverted. Halle Berry plays a white woman, Jocasta Ayrs, in Frobisher's story.
A Bloody Mess: Frobisher does his best to avoid making a mess, but it leads to this trope regardless in the film, when Sixsmith clings to his lifeless body.
Body Horror: Ewing's parasite. Subverted. He's actually being poisoned, though the results of that aren't pretty either.
Bookends: The film starts and ends with a shot of the Milky Way in the night sky.
Breather Episode: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, while creepy in places, is funnier and more light-hearted than the other segments.
Brick Joke: Cavendish trying to rally his fellow nursing-home inmates with "Soylent Green is people!" gets an Ironic Echowhen Sonmi~451 discovers what really happens to Fabricants chosen for Xultation...
Broken Pedestal: Zachry and his people worship a goddess called Sonmi. It comes as a shock to him to learn that Sonmi in fact was a human being.
Brownface: Bae Doona plays a Mexican woman in one storyline. Jim Broadbent also shows up as a brown-skinned prescient.
Burger Fool: Papa Song's Dinery where Sonmi~451 and her fellow clones work is a nightmare version of a fast food restaurant. In the novel, it's strongly implied to literally just be McDonalds, with multiple references to its "Golden Arches", the red and yellow colour scheme, and the Papa Song mascot resembling a clown. The film (very likely to avoid getting sued into oblivion) avoids this, having Papa Song look like an obese, smiling yellow Buddha-like figure, which is strongly thematically relevant on its own, given that Sonmi eventually becomes a REAL Buddha-like being in history herself and Buddha is mentioned very prominently in her story in the novel.
Cloning Blues: Various types of fabricants are mass-produced to perform all sorts of tasks in Sonmi's era. As a result, human society has become dependant on the fabricants never questioning their lot in life. Indeed, fabricants are created specifically to be incapable of questioning their lot. How and why Sonmi (and her predecessor and friend Yoona) are different is an important plot point.
The Corrupter: Old Georgie, the future Hawaiian imagery of the devil. Zachry's tribe have a strong storytelling culture and smoke a whole lot of weed, so for them, seeing and hearing Old Georgie is as normal as anything. He very appropriately looks like a Hawaiian witch doctor in the film version.
Crosscast Role: Hugo Weaving, Halle Berry, and Ben Whishaw each have a role in another gender.
Crucified Hero Shot: In the film, the way the mechanisms of the fabricant recycling plant drag bodies along ends up with a different Sonmi (designated 351 in the credits, just to make it seem even more like our Sonmi) speared through the ankles with her arms spread-eagle.
Cult Classic: In-Universe, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is considered something like this by 2144. A scene from the movie also plays a role in Sonmi's revelation in the film version.
Deconstruction: Of a large number of tropes (see the entire page), maybe even storytelling itself, using Cross Throughs and Acting for Two to demonstrate the presence of the same tropes in six rather different stories.
Ewing is very progressive for his time period, but still a product of his age. He's initially frightened that a Moriori stowaway will eat him.
Frobisher is antisemitic and looks down on the working classes, as a typical son of wealthy British gentry of his period would.
Timothy Cavendish has the lingering racism and disgust for youth culture that you might expect a bitter old man to have in modern times.
Future Korea is a dystopia filled with deliberate values dissonance.
In future Hawaii, Zachry has a child at a very young age with a girl he barely knows. This doesn't seem to be considered abnormal, probably because life expectancies are so short.
Depraved Bisexual: Robert Frobisher — charming, hedonistic, manipulative, thieving, sees no problem with cheating, freely admits he'll never truly love anyone but himself (though in the end, he almost admits he loves Sixsmith... unless the "sole love of [his] short, bright life" he refers to is actually music.) and leaps easily from one conquest to the next. He's a true self-absorbed sensualist and opportunist.
Diner Brawl: When a rowdy customer at Papa Song's gets a little too frisky with Yoona, he gets a punch to the head. Unfortunately, Yoona's owner kills her on the spot a few moments later, however, as she tries to escape.
Doesn't Like Guns: Luisa says that guns make her sick. This might tie her story in with the pacifist Moriori tribe in the Adam Ewing storyline, and more prominently with Robert Frobisher's story.
Luisa Rey: "I promise I'll tell you everything that happened in the morning." Javier Gomez: "Okay, but I hope you realize you just said exactly what every character in any decent mystery says right before they get killed."
Immediately subverted with the dark figure waiting in her room, who turns out to be a friends.
Doomed Hometown: The Kona destroy Zachry's camp and kill or enslave his family and people.
Exact Words: Zachry once gets the chance to surprise a sleeping Kona, and prepares to slit his throat. But then he remembers the seer's words, warning him never to slit the throat of a sleeping enemy. So he wakes up the Kona, and then slits his throat.
Explosive Leash: The Fabricants are fitted with collars containing a small explosive, not big enough to cause anyone else harm but enough to burst the jugular of the Fabricant.
Faceless Goons: The police force in the New Seoul subplot with their black dresses and masks.
Fanservice with a Smile: Deconstructed in the film. The fabricant servers at Papa Song's wear quite revealing shorts and heels and receive sexual harassment as a result from some customers (and because "pureblood" humans treat fabricants like dirt).
Fantastic Racism: Against fabricants — just look at Sonmi's attempt to attend a university lecture. By her time, however, actual racism is completely gone.
Fictionary: In 2144, many spellings are truncated (particularly, "gh" seems to have been dropped entirely, resulting in "lite" and "thoro", etc.; additionally, "exactly" has become "xactly", etc.) and brand names have substituted several everyday terms ("disney" versus "film"). Both spelling and grammar have changed a good deal after the Fall, although Meronym speaks it in a more twentieth century form in her communication with her ship's captain.
Ayrs talks about a dream he has in "Letters from Zedelghem" — of a restaurant where all the waitresses have the same face, in a reference to "An Orison of Sonmi~451".
As Cavendish travels through the countryside, he mentions one area has been turned into a facility for "cloning humans for shady Koreans". A bit later, as Cavendish escapes Aurora House, he makes a crack about Soylent Green. The nurse also threatens to make him eat soap. These all apply to "An Orison of Sonmi~451".
And in Half-Lives, Luisa Rey and Dr. Sachs discuss the notion of past lives, and Sachs tells her about feeling the two have met before. But it turns out to be a Flash Forward instead, when characters played by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry meet again in Sloosha's Crossin'.
There's another moment in Ghastly Ordeal, when Hoggins flirts with an Indian woman. Again, they're played by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.
Five-Man Band: Cavendish is a part of one in his story to break out of Aurora House, though its more like a Four Man Band.
The Hero/The Smart Guy: Erine comes up with the plans to break out and Cavendish calls him "ruddy ruddy Genius" in a moment of panic.
The Lancer: Timothy Cavendish helps put Noakes at bay and drives the getaway car.
Sonmi's era has been hit hard by this trope. Anything that began with 'ex' now only starts with 'x', and everyday items are referred to by the brand we would most readily associate with them, only without the capital letter. Hence nikes (running shoes), sonys (computers), disneys (movies) etc. Explicitly an example of Brand Name Takeover on a global scale, as her world is run by corporations.
The humans of Zachry's era developed their own future slang as well, though it's more primitive.
Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex: In the book, between Sonmi and Hae-Joo after witnessing the fabricant recycling plant. In the film, this happens because they have escaped Unanimity soldiers.
Gorn: While there is quite a bit of blood in the film, it's much more restrained than one would think.
Yoona's slave collar slits her throat pretty graphically.
The fabricant slaughterhouse.
Frobisher's suicide is very bloody.
The Kona Chief's death has a lot of blood spewing out of his throat.
The critic's death after being thrown off the roof by Hoggins — he doesn't just land, he splatters.
Gun Kata: Hae-Joo Chang is pretty well trained in this, judging how easily he defeats multiple Mooks.
Happiness in Slavery: Pretty much the main theme of the novel and film. Slavery appears in some form or another in every story:
Adam Ewing slowly comes to realize that social darwinism is wrong. Explicitly referenced in the film, when Reverend Horrox, to prove a point, asks the slave serving them at the time if he is happier here working on the plantation than being free amongst his people. The slave says yes.
Van Ayres tries to blackmail Frobisher into remaining his assistant and supplying him with music to steal.
Luisa and Joe stumble on a sweatshop.
The retirement home that Cavendish is sent to is essentially a prison. Residents are expected to pretend to be happy with their "new life."
Sonmi and her fabricant sisters are engineered to be happy in slavery.
Heartbeat Soundtrack: Though it's somewhat difficult to hear over the score, the audience finally hears Hae-Joo's heart as Sonmi~451 does as it slows to a stop.
Hidden Elf Village: Meronym's civilization is strongly implied to be this, due to the fact that they've retained technology from Sonmi's time.
I'm a Humanitarian: Cannibalism, both literal and figurative, is a running motif through most of the stories. A few examples: In the first story Ewing is afraid the Moriori will eat him, and Dr. Goose remarks, "The weak are meat, the strong do eat." Cavendish jokingly references Soylent Green. In Sonmi's story Fabricants are recycled into food and other Fabricants, and the last story just has a tribe of outright cannibals.
Hypocritical Humor: Timothy Cavendish initially criticizes the manuscript of Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery sent to his publishing house for being badly written and obviously intended to be turned into a screenplay. His own story suffers from Stylistic Suck, and he ends up putting in explicit directions for its future director (whom he imagines as a reclusive Swede named "Lars").
Cavendish mounts a minor one in the retirement home.
Large Ham: Several actors get to have a lot of fun.
Tom Hanks really gets to let loose in several of his roles, especially with Dr. Henry Goose and Dermont.
Jim Broadbent as Cavendish is very fun to watch and his narration is the most playful than any of the other ones.
Most of Hugo Weaving's performances are pretty restrained, but he completely gobbles the scenery as Old Georgie.
Laser-Guided Karma: Occurs repeatedly, both for good actions (such as Ewing saving Adua's life, and then being saved by him) and bad (as when Smoke shoots a woman's dog and is later killed by her). Plays heavily into the theme that our actions create our own future.
Leitmotif: The film gives one to Cavendish; the other stories utilize Recurring Riff to the fullest as opposed to using character-specific motifs.
Lighter and Softer: Cavendish's story is the most comedic, though its narrator is also the most curmudgeonly.
Locked into Strangeness: Zachry tells a story about a man named Truman, whose black hair went white from the shock of seeing Old Georgie harvesting a soul.
Lonely Piano Piece: "The Cloud Atlas Sextet" in the film is a twinkly Debussy-esque piece. Strangely, the music only features one piano and one violin playing backup (i.e. not actually a sextet).
Lost Technology: By the time of Zachry's era, technology has mostly devolved back to the iron age, but a small group has access to some stuff on our current level and a even a few objects more advanced than anything we currently have.
Magical Negro: Shown as the technologically advanced elites in the far future setting. Notably, the white characters live a primitive, tribal lifestyle. In many ways this comes off as a satirical inversion of the classic Victorian White Man's Burden setup.
Sixsmith partially inspired Frobisher's creation (smithing) of the Cloud Atlas Sextet (a piece written for six players).
Jocasta, the composer Vyvyan Ayrs's wife. In Greek Mythology, the wife of King Laios of Thebes and mother of Oedipus. In the film, Depraved Bisexual Robert Frobisher (son figure) makes love with Jocasta (mother figure), the wife of Vyvyan (father figure)
A "meronym" means something that is part of a whole.
Meta Twist: Timothy mentions Soylent Green in connection with cloned Koreans before Sonmi's story even starts; the clones all drinking the same nutrients each day invokes the connection very strongly. But the plot thread seemingly gets dropped very early on in Sonmi's tale, to focus on political intrigue instead. Small hints are dropped — a reference to Malthus, for example. By the time Sonmi reaches the ship, it's of course a Foregone Conclusion that Xultation isn't real... but the sudden return of the Soylent Green theme is unexpected, if just because the story already includes such a large number of other famous sci-fi twists in its loving pastiche. And then it gets taken a step further when it turns out that not just the Soap is made of discarded clones, but also the regular food in Papa Song's diner.
Mind Screw: Each story initially appears to be set in the same universe as its predecessor. This is toyed with when Frobisher questions the veracity of Ewing's journal, then completely undermined when Cavendish receives Rey's story as a the manuscript for a fictional novel. Yet connections between the characters seem to bridge this fiction-reality divide, such as the shared birthmark of Frobisher, Rey, Sonmi, and Meronym. Similarly, the reader is led to believe that all of the protagonists are one reincarnated soul, marked by the distinctive birthmark, but this is disputed since the lifespans of Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish should overlap... unlessthey're two aspects of the same person, since they're the exact same age. Her being a fictional character in his universe might be a more significant barrier, unless she was real and "Half-Lives" is a story based on her adventures — which is entirely possible. The film implies this possibility more heavily than the book, because in the film the "Half-Lives" manuscript is written by Javier Gomez, the same kid who routinely drops in to visit Luisa and doesn't shut up about mystery tropes.
Cavendish and Luisa Rey may actually be of exactly the same age: she was born in 1947 (would turn sixty-five in 2012), and Cavendish is "65 and a half" in 2012. Can one soul be divided in two?
The Mourning After: It's implied Sixsmith lived forty-five more years, but never loved again after Frobisher. Ouch.
Multicolored Hair: What the novel implies to be white hair on the fabricants is instead normal Asian black hair in the film, but with two locks of some bright color.
Nested Story: With the relationship between the various narratives left deliberately unclear. Robert Frobisher thinks Adam's journal looks fake, the archivist interviewing Sonmi refuses to accept parts of her story, and Zachry's son thinks his dad probably made part of his story up. It's entirely purposeful, and it ties into what Isaac Sachs writes about virtual pasts and virtual futures.
Next Sunday A.D.: "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" takes place in 2012; the novel was published in 2004. Ironically, the movie was released in 2012, so the story became a contemporary one, even though it wasn't so in the book.
Powered by a Forsaken Child: Fabricants that serve out their time as workers are killed and recycled into Soap and food to feed fabricants and purebloods, respectively. Sonmi has the good fortune to watch this happen.
Pragmatic Adaptation: The movie, while retaining the six-story structure and basic premise, has many differences from the novel, with several characters and plot threads, such as Ayrs's daughter or Sonmi's brief stay at a Buddhist monastery, being cut wholesale. The new medium does allow us to actually see Cavendish's stage directions and hear Frobisher's music.
Frobisher has a short-lived infatuation for Ayrs in the film.
Hae-Joo and Sonmi have sex in the novel too, but the novel's incidence is emotionally sterile Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex. The sexual encounter in the film is on much better terms; the film also has Sonmi declare her undying love for Hae-Joo in her orison.
Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Shown both ways in the film with "Ghastly Ordeal" and its in-universe film version. The actual scene has Cavendish splutter and trip over his own words, because he's too enraged to speak straight and is resorting to making up legislation to justify his release from Aurora House. The film-within-the-film version has Tom Hanks as Cavendish flawlessly deliver these lines, even the one about the made-up-on-the-spot "Incarceration Act".
Recurring Riff: In the film, "The Atlas March" and the various melodies of "The Cloud Atlas Sextet".
Reincarnation: A recurring theme in the novel (though it is left ambiguous whether it is real). Also an explicit belief of the Valleysmen in "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After", of the Buddhist priests in Sonmi's era and of the Moriori. Luisa doesn't believe in it at all.
Released to Elsewhere: The fabricants believe Xultation means liberation, and look forward to it — except they're only taken away to be killed and recycled.
Rocket Ride: The speeders used by police force in Neo Seoul.
Stylistic Suck: The film that Sonmi~451 watches based on Cavendish's life is campy, over-acted (by an obviously made-up Tom Hanks) and bears only the loosest resemblance to the actual Cavendish we see in the film.
Sufficiently Advanced Alien: Meronym and the other Prescients are this, to the Valley folk. Subverted in that the Prescients are in crisis with no place to live.
Survivor Guilt: Zachry gets this twice — once when during his childhood a band of Kona kill his father and kidnap his brother, and again in his adulthood when the Kona destroy his camp and kill or enslave his family and people.
Technicolor Eyes: The Abbess' eyes flash various colours while she is trying to learn the meaning of Zachry's dream in the film.
Zachry talks about wishing he had some kind of map to track souls as they move across the ages, like clouds across the sky. He calls it an "atlas o' clouds".
Cavendish, in an oddly poignant moment, writes a passage about the futility of recording the ephemeral, once again referring to an "atlas of clouds".
The title of Frobisher's masterpiece is The Cloud Atlas Sextet. Its structure is described as extremely similar to that of the novel, with six individual parts slowly woven together into one greater whole. Frobisher himself isn't sure if it's clever or gimmicky.
Frobisher hopes that this will be the fate of himself and Sixsmith. Considering that the entire plot is about reincarnation, not the afterlife, this may be either false hope or they could be together in another timeline. Interestingly (in the film at least), they both die the same way - with a gun in their mouth.)
The film has Sonmi believe that she will be reunited with Hae-Joo in another life, and immediately cuts to Ewing and his wife (the same actor and actress) being reunited at the end of Ewing's voyage. Additionally, both actors played the parents of Rufus Sixsmith's niece. So it's more like they were already together in two very different, much earlier lives, unless Timey-Wimey Ball applies to the reincarnation of souls.
Translation Convention: Possible aversion in "An Orison of Sonmi~451": the archivist comments on how Sonmi speaks good "Consumer", and she replies in what sounds like futuristic Korean. Thus, we can infer that "Korean" exists but is viewed as the common people's parlance, whereas English (or Consumer, if English simply serves as a stand-in for the sake of storytelling) is what all the higher-class people and/or the government speak. This is akin to how Latin was used historically throughout much of Europe.
Translator Microbes: In the film. When Meronym and Zachry happen upon Sonmi's orison, the computer playing it translates her Korean to English in real-time. This wasn't present in the novel; when Zachry watches the orison he can't understand what Sonmi is saying.
Visions of Another Self: the same actors swap roles for each time period, but the same soul incarnates as multiple characters, as shown by a star-shaped birthmark.
The Voiceless: Technically, he's not literally voiceless, but until nearly the end of the Cavendish story, Mr. Meeks only utters the same phrase repeatedly: "I know, I know!" Meeks finally finds his voice when he shouts out to Scottish rugby hooligans in a pub and urges them to fight off the staff of Aurora House who have come to take his crew back to the home.
Waistcoat of Style: In the film, Robert Frobisher has to give his (borrowed from Sixsmith) up when he is desperate and broke.
Old Georgie in the film also wears an incredibly battered one, fitting as it takes place in a scavenger world.
Whole Plot Reference: The entire structure of the story bears a very strong similarity to Osamu Tezuka's manga Phoenix, including the time jumps, the themes of resurrection and of intertwined fates, the denoument set After the End and much more. The individual stories also qualify:
"An Orison of Sonmi~451" has several key similarities to Brave New World, such as the foundation of a dystopia following a Great Offscreen War, mandatory consumer quotas, tailor-made clones, a populace kept happy with psychoactive drugs, and a rebellion informed by modern literature. Sonmi actually reads Brave New World halfway through her story.
Yellowface: All the non-Asian main cast members (including the black actors) except for Hanks and Whishaw appear in yellowface in "An Orison of Sonmi~451". Bae Doona and Zhou Xun also invert the trope by playing white and Latina women in two stories.
Your Cheating Heart: In the film's "Ghastly Ordeal", this along with all the unpaid loans is Denny's motivation for shutting up Timothy in Aurora House — Timothy had slept with Denny's wife. In the book, Cavendish wonders whether this is the case, but it's left ambiguous.
You Wouldn't Shoot Me: In the film, Vyvyan Ayrs tries this on Frobisher when the latter decides he's not going to let Ayrs take the credit for the Cloud Atlas Sextet. And then gets shot anyway, although the bullet only "kills his appetite" by passing clean through his stomach and not fatally injuring him.