The Depiction of Reincarnation in Western Movie, Part 3 – “Cloud Atlas”



This is my independent study project which focuses on how moving image have been used as literature. For this topic, I carefully selected three films in different time of era, made in three different western countries. Every one of them is either based on a book or a script written by a famous writer. And most importantly, has a story somehow related to reincarnation. I will examine and analyze how these films depict reincarnation – an idea originally from eastern cultures, and how it been adopted by Western filmmakers.

Link to other two films:

Last year in Marienbad (1961)

Orlando (1992)


– Reincarnation

A philosophical or religious concept that an aspect of a living being starts a new life in a different physical body or form after each biological death. It is also called rebirth or transmigration, and is a part of the Saṃsāra doctrine of cyclic existence. It is a central tenet of all major Indian religions, namely Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.

Cloud Atlas is a 2012 German-American epic science fiction film written and directed by The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. Adapted from the 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell, the film has multiple plots set across six different eras, which Mitchell described as “a sort of pointillist mosaic.” The official synopsis describes it as “an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” (from Wikipedia page.)

Among the three films of my choice, Cloud Atlas has the most directly and explicitly depiction of reincarnation. This is rooted in the original novel. Compare with Last year in Marienbad and Orlando, the idea of reincarnation is a major premise for the story narration of Cloud Atlas. It could be seen as 6 individual stories, happened in 6 eras, have a group of people keep coming back and interact with each other, with slightly (or hugely) changed appearance, characteristics, role, relationship, or gender. In each of the 6 stories, viewers seeing the same person (an actor or actress) being a different character, playing a different role as the character does, in a different life, and took place in a different time/space. In other words, the plot emphasis the change and difference during such an endless journey – nothing reminds same, only the reincarnation itself. Such a concept matches one of the main teachings of Buddhism, “all compounded things are impermanent.” That’s what made this film as the closest depiction of reincarnation among the other two.

On the other hand, differed from the traditional understanding of Saṃsāra, the link between karma and reincarnation is weak and seems randomly in Cloud Atlas. Whether from the novel or the movie, what has been done in the past lives could be seen in a character’s future life, but only stay on a very superficial level and not quite influenced the choice or action of that character. For example, the half book Robert Frobisher was reading, the vinyl record and love letters Luisa Rey got from past, the manuscript that based on the story of Luisa Rey which Timothy Cavendish was reading … only to name a few. Apparently, one’s life experience became a story or legend and been discovered by another in a future life. Yet neither of them really caused or changed anything in the future, nor any character’s current life been hugely affected by what he/she did in past life. Therefore, it can’t be said their reincarnations are pushed by the cycle of karma. The best word to describe the 6 stories and the relationship of those characters is “intertwined”, not “connected”.

Moreover, the role that reincarnation plays in Cloud Atlas is not a natural phenomenon or a result of karma. But the motivation behind the evolution of human society – abolitionism, liberalism, anti-dictatorship or tyranny, fight for freedom and equality, and etc. Just like what been said in the actor’s lines: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we’re bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, rebirth our future.” It is because the author chose not to emphasizes what the causality of karma did to an individual person, but the action and interaction of human being as a whole. It’s an attempt to find a position for reincarnation in the long history of human civilization. Such an interesting choice could be seen as a handshake between the Eastern and Western philosophy. A hybrid of Buddhism and Christianity.

Overall, the depiction and use of reincarnation in Cloud Atlas is based on the original definition from the Eastern culture, but modified and adjusted to fit into the narration structure and the frame of the Western culture. These transformations can be seen as a necessary cultural adaptation, also as an understanding from the original novel’s author and filmmakers. As one of Sonmi-451’s lines in the film, “separation is an illusion … I believe death is only a door, when it closed, another opens.” Such a manifesto is the best way to summarize the understanding and adaptation of reincarnation from the creators of Cloud Atlas.



A film is a cultural production. My analysis of these three different films from the Western world led to an interesting conclusion. While the use and depiction of reincarnation in the three films are all different, none of them stick to its original definition or concept. It clearly shows that these films are results of cultural integration in the age of globalization. Whatever you want to call such a result – a compromise, a hybrid, or a recurrence, what cannot be denied is, a new culture is forming and merging from the intensive clash between the Eastern and Western culture. Maybe we shall say, it is a reincarnation of traditional human culture in the contemporary human world.


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