Hyperlink Cinema and the Prevalence of Intertwining Stories


Coined by Alissa Quart in her review of the film Happy Endings, the term ‘Hyperlink Cinema’ is an umbrella expression that has gained popularity for films “in which the characters inhabit separate stories, but (we) gradually discover how those in one story are connected to those in another” (Quart 1). Since then, the term has been applied to a number of films that sport multiple plot lines such as Crash (2004), Syriana (2005), Babel (2006), Cloud Atlas (2012) and Magnolia (1999). Yet the underlying requisite for a film to be deemed “hyperlink” goes beyond merely possessing multiple plotlines.

“Hyperlink” films are often recognized by an overarching atmosphere or stimulus that actively encourages interconnection. In this sense, each film in discussion is able to create situations, sensibilities and perspectives through various cinematic techniques, tying what is by nature separate together. Since its inception, the term itself has influenced various other genres such as the hyperlink crime drama stemming from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the ensemble drama under the directorial hand of Paul Thomas Anderson. In having such an array of films to analyse in the realm of hyperlink, three stand out as effective forerunners of the term in postmodern cinema, the likes of which i will discuss in this article.

What is Hyperlink?

The basic and most recognizable form of hyperlink cinema is that of intertwining stories, though the term encompasses other similar ideas such as “multi-plot cinema” and movies with “interlocking narratives.” Multiple plot lines are formed within a single film that forces the viewer to draw parallels between them. Quart further iterated that she believed the structure and effectiveness of hyperlink originated with the works of Robert Altman and identified elements such as split screen and captions (as used in Happy Endings) as key aspects of hyperlink. The world of film is no stranger to the notion of multiple narratives: the use of them in the world of literature dating as far back to the Victorian era, most notably through Dickens and Hugo. Yet it is the emergence of such on-screen devices like the footnoting in Happy Endings and the complex interplay of cinematic elements that ultimately define hyperlink.

21 Grams: An Exercise in Emotion and the Coloring of Space

Keith Booker’s work Postmodern Hollywood touches on and analyzes postmodern films as well as hyperlink, a prominent work within his study being Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. In it, he describes the film as “present(ing) the lives of its main characters as separate narratives that gradually merge and intermingle… ultimately insist(ing) that no one lives a life that is entirely separate from the lives of others, so that even the most private of experiences must be understood in social context” (Booker 19). He subsequently emphasizes that the characters are “all richly realized human beings, all damaged, but all decidedly able to feel, even if the conditions in which they live make it impossible for them to convert those feelings into rewarding human relationships” (Booker 16).

It is thus this quintessential human position conveyed so proficiently by Iñárritu that pulls the strings of his narratives together. In having his character’s lives hinge on one another’s actions- we further empathize with each of them. Traditional binaries of protagonist and antagonist are eradicated, and the audience is free to interpret and fully understand the complexities of their dilemmas, the liminal space brought on by their circumstance, their helplessness in the world.

The stylistic highlight of 21 Grams, however, is not merely in the presentation of its damaged characters but in the omission of concrete plot points in favour of genuine emotion, as Iñárritu frames the worlds of his individuals in visually distinctive colour palettes, creating overlaps to indicate their convergence. In Deborah Shaw’s The Three Amigos, 21 Grams’ cinematographer Rodrio Prieto mentions that the three stories are divided by colour, visually cueing the audience as to whose narrative they are following. Paul’s (Sean Penn) world is that of a sterile, muted, cool blue, whilst Jack’s (Benicio Del Toro) is a yellow-red. Cristina’s (Naomi Watts) is a blend of both, a red-gold: indicative of how the actions of the both of them have ultimately shaped her life. Throughout the film, then, are instances of overlap that signify a conflict in emotion or a consistency in feeling: whether or not the emotions are of hatred and anger or defeat and reluctance. Shaw emphasizes that orange is the tone that links Jack and Cristina: “connot(ing) the emotional world of the family home” and “producing the required emotional warmth” (Shaw 127) in the birthday scenes of Jack and Cristina’s daughter respectively. These orange and reddish tones similarly “serve to connect Jack and Cristina in their most abject and painful moments”, and is ultimately the predominant colour palette for the only scene in which all three characters are in a singular space. “It indicates that its function is to connect the characters emotionally, with the suggestion that they are sharing a common space of pain, and to seek audience sympathy for them” (Shaw 129).

Magnolia: An all-affecting Fortean Metaphor


In alarming contrast and similarity in tone and subject matter is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece ensemble drama Magnolia, whose sheer immensity and emotional force makes it a prime candidate of hyperlink cinema. Described in Roger Ebert’s review as “an interlocking series of episodes that take place during one day in Los Angeles,” Magnolia is a tour de force. Much like what we have in 21 Grams, Magnolia’s “characters are linked by blood, coincidence and by the way their lives seem parallel. Themes emerge: the deaths of fathers, the resentments of children, the failure of early promise, the way all plans and ambitions can be undermined by sudden and astonishing events” (Ebert 1). Yet the manner in which Paul Thomas Anderson creates “hyperlinking” is certainly very different from Iñárritu’s.

In Magnolia, the themes overlap but what brings them together is chance, and what sets the tone for the intertwining is not simply the obstacles these characters face, but the notion that they are helpless against the forces that control them, the idea of cognitive mapping. Paul Thomas Anderson begins the film with a sequence of three stories of coincidence: all of which essentially creating a backdrop for the characters themselves, “show(ing) people earnestly and single-mindedly immersed in their lives, hopes and values, as if their best-laid plans were not vulnerable to the chaotic interruptions of the universe” (Ebert 2). Of course, the universe retaliates, and their lives are shattered in the process. The hyperlinking then becomes concrete in a later part of the film, wherein all the characters within the film join in a singing of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” whilst at their wits’ end, establishing a literal connection between them all in spite of their separate positions and transcending the divisions through storytelling.

Atop the various manner of hyperlinking as mentioned above, the unifying moment of the film is nevertheless its climax: an occurrence of almost biblical proportions in its supposed sheer impossibility. The “rain of frogs” can therefore be interpreted as a Fortean metaphor (strange, mysterious events, anomalous phenomena) for the coincidental interactions of the characters, a physical embodiment that prompts the viewer to question what is possible and what is not. If this event is real, actual, and happening in real time, why not the seemingly unconnected string of events that the various characters face? This all-affecting event has direct impact on several main characters: Jimmy Gator’s suicide is prevented as frogs fall through his skylight, Donnie falls and smashes his teeth, and after the rain of frogs has ended, Jim Kurring’s lost gun falls from the sky. The audience watch as the characters attempt to pick up their lives after this miraculous incident: their weltanshauung inevitably changed, and the event, whether interpreted religiously or not, nonetheless has had a profound effect on the characters, all of whom are now united in their extent of their free will and corresponding lack thereof.

Hyperlinkage in the Two Films

Through their similarities, Booker deems both films as “exercises in…cognitive mapping, or the process of making sense of one’s world and one’s place in it” (Booker 22). They thus create a mindset in which the characters are constantly navigating the forces which occur around them: whether it be obstacles within themselves (21 Grams) or external forces (Magnolia). Regardless of which, both act as stimuli that allow audiences to draw parallels and conclusions between plot lines within the same film through themes, fully fleshed characters and cinematic techniques.

Cloud Atlas : Intertwining made real

Cross-cutting: the 6 narratives are cut and edited into one another seamlessly to further reinforce connection Screenshotted from Cloud Atlas

Since the beginning of the century, postmodern cinema in Hollywood has been constantly growing and developing. It is no surprise that in itself, films of multiple plot lines and intertwining stories have since evolved both cinematically and narratively, culminating in the intensely ambitious Wachowski/Tykwer adaptation of David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel. Here, hyperlink seems to have taken a turn. The stories are more disparate than ever: differing excessively in time, space and themes. Yet in spite of this, the earlier notion of cognitive mapping is still present: wherein the stories are edited and cut into one another like a frantic mosaic, whilst symbols and motifs of recurrence and connection are now intensely apparent. Each character in one narrative directly or indirectly influences the next: often through physical creations and literal things. Adam Ewing’s Journal (the 1st narrative) is found by Frobisher, and the subsequent symphony he composes (The Cloud Atlas Sextet) becomes inspiration for Luisa Rey, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, instead of the subtle notion of coincidence in MagnoliaCloud Atlas adopts the motif of a comet birthmark that links all its central characters together. As written by Mitchell: “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future”.

The Comet birthmark features heavily as a motif: all 6 central characters of the multiple narratives possess it.

Atop that, the Wachowskis and Tykwer decided on the use of actors in multiple roles all across the different narratives, reinforcing the notion of connection, reincarnation, repetition and recurrence. It is in this manner that Cloud Atlas embodies hyperlinking, such that it is no longer simply the characters that are intertwined nor their stories, but the elements that make the film itself. The intertwining is made tangible through the directorial choices: the editing, motifs, use of elements and the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds. Elements that were once divorced from the stories in an effort to maintain the illusion of reality are used blatantly by Tykwer and the Wachowskis to further encourage connection whilst abandoning narrative continuity, a step in the postmodern cinema of Hollywood.

Cloud Atlas: The Poor Man’s Cognitive Mapping

Conversely, Cloud Atlas presents a different form of cognitive mapping as compared to the two aforementioned films: and follows more accurately Fredric Jameson’s definition of the “Poor Man’s Cognitive Mapping”, in which there is “an omnipresence of the theme of paranoia”, a prevalence of “conspiracy theory” as a degraded version of cognitive mapping. “Conspiracy theory” therefore emerges as the latter cannot adequately represent the complexities of social interactions that exist in the multinational age. We see this in the narratives of Luisa ReyTimothy Cavendish and most clearly in Sonmi-451, where all of them wrestle with a notion of exposing oppressive power systems by exposing their falsities and discovering the truth.

In Fran Mason’s “A Poor Man’s Cognitive Mapping“, he details the following: “conspiracy theory can be seen in terms of the production of grand narratives in its impulse to totalize reality as a system of connections while it also arranges new events according to its existing thesis and thus has mapped reality in advance” (Mason 44). This supposed postmodernizing process occurs when there is an abundance of “mutually exclusive knowledge systems each of which has a monocentric belief in its own truth but whose internal logic cannot be measured against any existing reality” (Mason 45).

Cloud Atlas charts this through time, making the point that a struggle against contemporary social relations and their corresponding web of connections, is something fundamentally human. Luisa Rey believes in a truth that has not yet fully materialized, and thus seeks to make into reality an exposure of the Swanekke Nuclear Reactor, in which capitalistic oil executives have attempted to utilize to cause a nuclear accident that would benefit them. Sonmi-451 grasps at an entirely different system of connections: one that encompasses fabricants (clones that are used as slaves), an upper working class that serve multinational corporations, one of which creates fabricants, and an underground rebellion attempting to expose the fact that the clones are not released into society at the end of their term but used as food for other fabricants.

Adam Ewing struggles with the notion of slavery and eventually becomes an abolitionist, whilst Frobisher, despite having composed The Cloud Atlas Sextet, realizes he will not attain recognition for it due to his homosexuality. In each timeline, the main character is forced by existing social conventions and conventional wisdom to sacrifice some part of themselves: and the aforementioned few are put in a position of adopting the “poor man’s cognitive mapping”, to fight for truth hid by conglomerates, to support the creation of a reality that does not yet exist, even if it means a great deal of loss on their own part.

This is Cloud Atlas’s ultimate hyperlinking: the notion that truth, freedom and free will must remain and always will be the centre of all universal human traits, the blood of the existing system of connections, and that if the populace has been deceived, one must make sacrifices to change it.

So What Next?

It is difficult to imagine what the next step might be in postmodern cinema, let alone this small subset of narrative phenomena known as hyperlink, but what we do have is an existing database of incredible, stunning movies that all approach hyperlink differently (take City of GodNine Lives, Gomorra) and possess vastly differing tones and ideas (contrast Pulp Fiction and Amores perros). So I suppose, at the end of the day, it is most comforting that “we are always one click away from a new life, a new story, and new meaning, all equally captivating but no better or worse than what we have just left behind” (Quart).


Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood: What’s New in Film and Why It Makes Us Feel so Strange. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Magnolia Movie Review & Film Summary (1999) | Roger Ebert.” All Content. N.p., 07 Jan. 2000. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Quart, Alissa . HAPPY ENDINGS: The Post‐nuclear Family According to Don Roos (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Shaw, Deborah. “The Three Amigos.” Google Books. Manchester University Press, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.

Diehl, Carl. “Metaphortean Research.” N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.

Mason, Fran. “A Poor Man’s Cognitive Mapping.” A Poor Man’s Cognitive Mapping (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Cloud Atlas. Dir. Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Lilly Wachowski. Perf. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent. Warner Bros’ Pictures, 2012. DVD.

Ainsley. Comet Birthmarks from the 6 Cloud Atlas Narratives. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. <https://www.pinterest.com/pin/456341374717617908/>.

Babel Poster32. Digital image. Babel 2006. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://movies.film-cine.com/babel-m853#>.

Moritz, Aaron. Magnolia – Wallpaper. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.aaronmoritz.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Magnolia-1999-Wallpaper-5-550×309.jpg>.

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  1. Satyajit Ray made Kanchenjunga in 1962 arguably the first one to make hyperlink cinema. Lucidity in communication is often a challenge for the makers of this genre. I think ‘Love Actually’ did a very good job.

  2. Long Nunn

    Very glad to see the inclusion of Magnolia.. I personally would have included Kangchenjunga.

  3. For me, the Hyperlink cinema has its modern roots in one person’s film: Robert Altman’s Nashville. That’s the hyperlink movie par excellence. 24 main characters (yes, they are ALL important; no, it’s not difficult to follow), 5 days in the lives of each character and their comings-and-goings as a political rally is being organized in Nashville, TN. It’s, imho, one of the best films ever made. It revolves around country singers, political pundits, managers, wanna-be celebrities, reporters, cooks, groupies, chauffeurs, etc., etc. It has an ending that I guarantee you won’t forget. If you like it, definitely check out Altman’s other films; he specializes in these interlocking narratives in his best films like MASH, The Player, Short Cuts, and California Split.

    • Nashville just got bumped up my watchlist a bit.

    • Damn that sounds pretty incredible, adding Nashville to my backlog, thanks for the recommendation!

    • Matchbox

      Altman’s works are true treasures of the cinema. His style and deft interweaving, and his sheer skill at doing so, makes him a master of his own craft of film- hyperlink or not.

  4. Malik Law

    ‘Snatch’ is an excellent example.

  5. The negatives of this genre is that it’s attractiveness can be lost on viewers less concerned with the plot and more with the characters.

  6. It can be hard to define what is a hyperlink film. Is any film where characters diverge and are covered concurrently a hyperlink film? I guess it’s not that simple. Common sense should be able to clearly define where this plot device is in effect, I guess.

  7. Babel is probably my favourite work of this subgenre. The director, Alejandro González Iñárritu of Birdman fame, made three films in this format, as a trilogy. The other two being Amores Perros and 21 Grams, both good films as well.

    • Matchbox

      Many people don’t realize that Iñárritu’s been doing amazing work before Birdman, and his death trilogy remains, to me, his most outstanding achievement.

  8. I think Satojit’s Film- ‘Kanchonjongha’ is the perfect example of Huperlink Cinema.

  9. Inarritu’s ’21 Grams’ and Paul Haggis’ ‘Crash’ are great.

  10. Traffic is a very good one, the stories in it never actually overlap, but they cover the drug war from different perspectives, allowing the viewer to really immerse themselves in the themes of the film from all angles. Cloud Atlas is also a very good film, dealing with this format in a unique matter: Each story is not taking place concurrently, instead each story takes place in a different time period, and the characters are reincarnations of their previous selves, and often have dreams and visions of their future selves – stories taking place later on. All six stories have ripple effects across each other, forging a rich tapestry.

  11. For horror, Trick R’ Treat borders between hyperlink and anthology.

  12. Brett Fierro

    My favourite films are all here.

  13. Matchbox

    Big thanks to all who’ve read and commented so far! Kanchenjunga was one of the first films i came across whilst researching hyperlink, haven’t gotten around to watching it but i hear it’s excellent.

    Special thanks to Misagh, Christopher Pottecary and the rest who edited, looking forward to writing more 🙂

  14. delsssse

    Magnificent films in the hyperlink tradition worth checking out include Soderbergh’s Contagion (2012), Inarritu’s Amores Perros (2000), Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973), Costa-Gavras’ Z (1969), and Satyajit Ray’s Kanchengjungha (1962). (Orson Welles’ F for Fake [1974] I consider to be proto-Hyperlink cinema, and I definitely recommend that as well.)

  15. Jae Fry

    How about Boogie Nights?

    • I was considering Boogie Nights too, but I think at the end of the day, despite the circuitous nature of most of PTA’s works, the film primarily follows the exploits of Dirk Diggler and those who are tied to him. What I’m gathering from this (hella excellent) piece is that ‘hyperlink cinemas’ generally don’t have such a clear-cut protagonist, forcing you to connect three or more narratives.

  16. Francie

    As a phlyarologist, this appeals to me. Personally, I consider the term ‘hyperlink cinema’ a misnomer. I suspect it arose because of the almost universal hyperbole about the Internet at a time when relatively few actually grokked the terminology. In such fertile ground, misinformation can all too easily spread.

  17. Gaither

    Nice piece.

  18. Marshall Jenkins

    Babel suffers from confusing intertwining stories with narrative convienience. The two prevalent stories (the local boys hunting with the rifle and a man tending to his wounded wife) is sidetracked by a third storyline thats primary purpose is to spark a connection the audience when the fathers connection to the other two storylines is revealed.

  19. Thank you. That is a really good and informative article. I’m researching hyperlink cinema for a film project and that also gave me directions for further reading. I would love to read more of your texts, so if you could give a link, I would be very thankful. Or just contact me.

  20. feelinglistless

    I wrote a very long dissertation about hyperlink cinema back in 2005.

    In my analysis, 21 Grams is not a hyperlink film. It’s an ensemble film with a traditional narrative which employs a more intricate flashback and flash forward structure than usual. Ensemble films are distinct from hyperlink films because the characters are drawn together by a single inciting incident and or familial connection or very localised location, whereas a hyperlink film has lots of separate stories in dispirate locations often with characters that have only loose connections and/or come from different social groups.

    Ensemble films: Parenthood, Deep Impact, Hannah and Her Sisters
    Hyperlink films: Love Actually, Short Cuts, Crash

    Basically 21 Grams is a CD-ROM. Magnolia is the world wide web / Twitter. Cloud Atlas is a blog.

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