The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is partly due to those people who don’t learn from history and are therefore doomed to repeat it. While most movies usually span a short timeframe, there are a few out there that manage to cover almost the entirety of human existence. Some even go so far as to speculate what the future would bring for humanity. After all, if humans keep making the same decisions and mistakes in the past, what could possibly change that habit in the future? These parallel storylines are often used to prove some point to the audience. While it can be interesting to see how people in ancient times acted in the same way we do, sometimes the message the filmmaker is trying to make is beaten home too much. This week’s two films use multiple stories throughout time to tell a story.
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 197 minutes / 3.28 hours
In telling multiple stories that span a long time period, each individual story is practically a short film in itself. The epic scale of the run-time for these films is merely a product of the multitude of stories that need to be told. During the early days of movies, short films were the norm, so stringing four of them together to tell a larger narrative was certainly doable. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) manages to span a timeframe from 539 BC all the way to 1914 AD, stopping off around 27 AD and 1572 AD in the process. This film was so impactful, not only as a form of apology for The Birth of a Nation (1915) but for inspiring at least one parody: Buster Keaton’s Three Ages (1923). Both films highlight the fact that humans have remained the same for a very long time.
Throughout the ages, intolerance has been a problem for humanity. The similarities between Cyrus the Great of Persia (George Siegmann), the Pharisees of Israel, and the Catholics of France all show how being intolerant of others leads to great destruction, pain, and death. Sometimes, the people being affected by the intolerance have their own intolerance against their persecutors, with a few notable exceptions. Even in modern times, money fuels the prejudice between businessmen and the workers they exploit. In the end, this intolerance isn’t necessarily based on the color of one’s skin, but instead on how one group of people has a prejudice against a different group of people who might threaten the wealth and power they’ve grown used to over the years. Aside from the obvious lesson that intolerance has been around for a long time, we also see that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Length: 172 minutes / 2.87 hours
While Intolerance covered about 2.5 centuries of stories, some modern films have gone from the beginning of time to the present day. The Tree of Life (2011) didn’t have nearly as many stories to tell, but the range was much greater. In contrast, Cloud Atlas (2012) only covers just over 450 years. However, Cloud Atlas examines the future as well via its parallel stories. While other movies that cover long timespans in short chunks will use the collective history lesson to sell a moral, Cloud Atlas speculates what the distant future will be based on what we know about human behavior. More to the point, Cloud Atlas shows us how individuals can span centuries in various forms, sometimes taking the spotlight or sometimes acting in a supporting role. Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, I think we can all agree humans have the same basic thought processes that affect global history.
Actions have consequences, even if they’re not immediately apparent. Individuals who support the abolition of slavery in 1849 could affect the post-apocalyptic world of Hawaii in 2311. For instance, the 1849 journal of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) could influence Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who gains credit for “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” via blackmail. This piece of music could influence Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a journalist in 1973 San Francisco who escapes an assassination attempt after uncovering a nuclear conspiracy. Rey’s life could be novelized and read by Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), who is accidentally committed to an asylum. Cavendish’s memoir could be turned into a movie that helps shape the revolution of the human clone known as Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) in 2144 Seoul. This revolution leads to Zachry (Tom Hanks) and his tribal people worshipping Sonmi-451 in 2331.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 timeless tales