TEXAS, USA — The primary forces at the center of George Miller’s ambitious “Three Thousand Years of Longing” tango and tug against one another, harmonizing as often as they clash while attempting to achieve the illusory balance by which the world of the movie can happily keep on spinning. I’m talking about the two individuals at the film’s center, comfortably single narratologist Alithea (Tilda Swinton) and the immortal djinn portrayed by Idris Elba ready to grant her three wishes following his release from magical incarceration.
I am also talking about logic and emotion, the two main ingredients of cinematic clarity that can just as easily create chaos when incorrectly mixed (or with disproportionate fervor). The early scenes of “Three Thousand Years” – cowritten by Miller and Augusta Gore, adapting at least a portion of the 1994 short-story collection “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” – explicitly categorizes this elemental tête-à-tête as being between myth and science, the infrastructure of story and the building blocks of knowledge. When the djinn explodes out of the colorful bottle Alithea buys at a Turkish bazaar, an encounter that the talented sound design team infuses with hair-raising wonder, we’re meant to understand that her disarmingly calm and collected response reflects how the cultural imaginations she studies can occasionally poke its way into reality.
This is all well and good, insofar as “Three Thousand Years” doesn’t spotlight its thematic baseline so much as it hangs on for dear life; neatly and succinctly does Miller’s first movie since the seismic “Mad Max: Fury Road” reveal its nature as a surreal two-hander between a motivated storyteller and a strict researcher of storytelling tradition, backdropped by parabolic sojourns never less than mystical and often beyond the limits of delirium.
But when it comes to intertwining purpose and method – logic and emotion – “Fury Road” this isn’t. Are those hard-love expectations to levy against Miller after he journeyed into filmmaking hell and returned with what's considered to be among the greatest action films ever made? Perhaps. But “Fury Road” thrives and thrills on the economy and sheer momentum of its storytelling. Much of “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” by comparison, lurches through its bedazzling motions, at once not paying much mind to the heartbreaking scope suggested by its title while massively overcompensating its reach for it. Desires can only be glimpsed, and truly felt, as much as the movie’s frustrating reliance on rules deem it so.
But my, what overcompensations they are. You’re unlikely to watch a more ferociously imaginative, unrepentantly strange movie this year; even if “Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar 2” meet the highest of expectations awaiting them, Marvel and James Cameron approach their missions with such militant drive that some creative restraint is inevitable.
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” doesn’t sidestep such expectations so much as it files a restraining order against them. There’s no predicting what you’ll see on a minute-to-minute basis as Elba’s regal deity recounts his experiences amid tales of sultans and princes, falling empires and debilitating fetishes, inky monsters and icky betrayals. There’s little genuine investment to be had in how these stories actually reshape Alithea’s characteristic apathy, but it matters just a touch less when Miller has provided one of the best excuses this year so far to return to the big screen. “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is a bonafide example of pop cultural displacement, one that sees the Australian filmmaker taking his deepest cinematic whims and running with them, for better (a grand-odyssey scale and flexible aesthetic foundation) and for worse (a foundational disconnect in a screenplay about the deepest kind of connection).
It’s almost inaccurate to call it an epic, seeing as most of “Three Thousand Years” technically unfolds in a hotel room, our protagonists cheekily clad in bathrobes. By the same token, to call it a love story puts its motivation and racial lens into question. For a movie that ultimately – and far too late – gives in to the sweep of cosmic romance, it’s more than a little dubious that Elba’s deity is only referred to and credited as “Djinn," as if the character were not worthy of the basic attributes of characterization. Thus the movie's intentions are awkwardly lopsided, and lacking in self-interrogation that one imagines might have enriched it elsewhere.
Even if this were by design in a screenplay lightly (but only lightly) brushing with the role biases play in the telling of familiar stories, that schematic is tarnished by how “Three Thousand Years” unspools through a Black genie’s memories but to the tune – and, ultimately, at the service – of Alithea’s faintly beating heart. The movie loses some of its essence when curiosity is waylaid by ill-shapen love, and Swinton, talented an actress as she is, lacks support in the writing to make her character’s evolution believable.
And yet the movie from here flourishes into its most full-feeling self. “Such a mess of contradictions all over you,” Djinn tells Alithea as things hesitantly begin to wrap up and the movie remains firmly in the urgent present. Yes; yes, indeed. You can sense Miller feeling his way through the beguiling and often-beautiful mess he’s created in the last 20 minutes of his movie – at once the film’s most moving stretch and also its most hesitant, speaking of contradictions – for the right last impression, which may be fitting for a movie that suggests stories never really end, lest logic and emotion finally see eye to eye.
"Three Thousand Years of Longing" is rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity and brief violence. It's now screening in theaters. Runtime: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
Starring Tilda Swinton, Idris Elba
Directed by George Miller, written by George Miller and Augusta Gore
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