It’s the 1800’s. We open with a slave running down the dirt road with a white woman. A plantation owner is pursuing them on horseback. After a brief chase scene, the two are finally able to escape. The slave reveals that he stole several bars of gold from the master. The woman is impressed, and they kiss passionately.
Title Card: 500 Years of Summer
The rest of the movie is a haphazardly edited mosaic of storylines that span five centuries. There are parallel sequences (i.e., similar dramatic moments intercut in the same montage), as well as conflicting sequences (i.e., thematically opposing moments intercut in the same montage). And within the myriad storylines, there are multiple actors playing multiple characters – a variety of races and ages that check all the requisite Oscar boxes.
At the heart of each story are two core narrative threads. One is a complex romance between a renegade male and his ‘edgy’ female lover. Their relationship is focus-group-level quirky: offbeat enough to earn critical recognition for its nuanced depiction of mental health, but safe enough so as not to alienate the masses. The other plotline is an authority vs. outlaw chase – there’s always a higher power who’s trying to catch the hero and stop him from being with her. Said antagonist ranges from malicious to misunderstood. Luckily, the good guy is always one step ahead of him.
To be clear, the same actor does not always play the same character. Each antagonist is played by a different actor each time, and each pair of lovers is always a different actor/actress combination. Even so, the three main ‘characters’ have distinct quirks and mannerisms, so it’s easy to tell who’s who in every substory.
With that structure in mind, here are the different narratives:
America, mid 1800’s, historical drama: a slave and his lover flee from the plantation owner for a better life in the North.
Germany, early 1900’s, period piece: a bisexual pianist romances a courtesan while being pursued by his jealous former lover, a wealthy composer.
America, 1960’s, crime thriller: a con artist falls in love with a hippie while on the run from an FBI agent.
Canada, 2000’s, slice-of-life dramedy: a melodramatic writer starts dating his boss’s assistant, but her ex tries to break them up and ruin his life.
Scotland, 2100’s, surreal psychological thriller: an elderly man tries to escape from a high-tech, prison-like nursing home with his dying wife – but the evil British nurse plays mind games and keeps them trapped.
Korea, 2200’s, sci-fi dystopia: a robot prostitute discovers she has feelings for a human political prisoner, and the two of them go on the run from the chief of the Thought Police.
Hawaii, 2300’s, gritty futuristic fantasy: a goat farmer speaks to his deceased wife in dreams, while being hunted by a telepathic super-human who wants to exterminate him.
The storylines weave a tangled existential web. Many themes are explicitly discussed and dissected: reincarnation, Nirvana, interconnectivity, and the merging of souls. Humanity is depicted as both a helpless boat and a ruthless storm. Literally – that visual shows up periodically, because this is high art, or something like that.
And then the finale. For the first time, we see a storyline set in the late 2300’s, five hundred years after the first encounter. The latest incarnation of the hero is sitting on a distant planet with his lover – both are in their early 20’s. They have a conversation about their goals, dreams, and aspirations, and they realize that they’re destined for different paths.
As they realize that they’re no longer compatible, the female lover exhibits traits of the antagonist – suggesting that those two characters have finally melded into one (a true merging of souls). Mind you, this is something that only the audience notices. The characters themselves are blissfully unaware of the larger narrative tapestry they’ve woven over the centuries.
With that, they bid farewell. The hero embarks on a new quest as the hybrid lover/pursuer contemplates the meaning of life on the beach. The end.