George Miller’s is a strange career as directors go, mostly because despite Mad Max coming out in 1979, he only has a dozen or so credits, and for every effort in the Mad Max universe there’s a Happy Feet, or Babe: Pig in the City. Now he follows up the incredible success of Mad Max: Fury Road with Three Thousand Years of Longing, and there’s something about that transition that makes you feel like he lost a bet and had to try to make the exact opposite movie.
MM:FR delivers a new definition of “high octane,” and 3000 Years is a film that is almost entirely just two characters in a hotel room talking. Worse still, when we do leave it’s to relive a Djinn’s life through his retelling of it, giving him the chance to wax poetic on his loves and loses, which, objectively speaking, isn’t less boring for Djinn than it is for mere mortals just because there’s magic and war. The film of a teenage girl whining about how she has “loved more than anyone has ever loved,” and bemoaning the fact that, “no one knows how she feels,” has a lot of bullet points in common.
Our Djinn (Idris Elba) has spent most of the last 3,000 years in a bottle, occasionally managing to be released temporarily, but never achieving his freedom by performing the seemingly simple act of granting three wishes. Now he finds himself tied to the will of Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a professional student of myths and storytelling who isn’t about to fall victim to a tricksy genie and the trap that comes from making a wish that always results in ruining a person’s life.
In order to convince his latest potential liberator to make wishes, the Djinn tells her the story of his life, going back to the time of his first love and the wizard who trapped him in the first place. His stories create new fables, with layered, if sometimes simplistic, morals on the hows and whys of love, the surprising weight of loneliness, and the folly of man.
But, for all that it is ultimately a collection of stories hoping to expose various truths of the human condition, not least what people could possibly be trying to refer to when they speak of love, it doesn’t quite manage to clear the hurdle of becoming a story itself, and that’s a glaring flaw for a film that professes nothing quite so much as the idea that it is. The story of this unique pair is one that only raises questions about them and their own self-reflective beliefs, but they not only don’t manage answers, they don’t approach them. The Djinn is sure of nothing so much as that he has loved. But, has he? Alithea declares herself content in her life and has her thesis defense prepared. But, is she?
In a film that is style over substance by design, a primer on dazzling visuals and wonderous display as storytelling to an extent that rivals the nearly perfect Tarsem Singh treasure The Fall (which should have made Lee Pace one of the biggest stars of our time), events seem to obviously answer these questions and many more, but they don’t. These are characters of all but unrivaled intellectualism, the sort for whom merely spending one’s entire adult life dissecting the minutiae from writings that have been studied for hundreds of years already is only the entrance fee. They do not take unspoken, unexamined, one-word answers as a relaying of information. These are characters whose very identities are hopelessly entwined with despising the notion, and though forsaking such might well be its own story, it doesn’t get there accidentally.
Similarly, while our story ends at some point, it doesn’t have an ending, and though that, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t the kiss of death for a fairy tale, this one does demand one. It’s a story without purpose bearing the title, “A Story with Purpose,” that is ultimately as much a story as a recounting of any random person’s random day. It ends when darkness falls, which is indeed when this one ends, but that doesn’t mean it has an ending.
And yet, it is somehow the film’s glaring flaws which make it shine. Perhaps in the sense of the woman in the story who wishes to become pregnant, which is at that point akin to simply declaring herself hopeless, so perfectly embodying her own humanity. At the same time, though not directly put under the film’s microscope, she shows that the Djinn is not actually so different from her, despite his exasperation at the request. In these brief moments the story is all questions and odd connections, and the thought experiment rivals the impossibly saturated colors of un-Earthly landscapes that are meant to be on Earth.
When the Djinn declares that he is in love during his stories, and then does so again, and then in a truly curious sense simply “is,” despite the circumstances being so different, and indeed almost meaningless, there is nothing to connect the talk and that is its own genius of narrative. Clawing through both the magic and dizzying beauty of the Djinn’s recounting of events, and Alithea’s cold logic, is an effort to explain the senseless.
When Alithea finally makes a wish, it’s for love, and she eventually realizes that love can never actually be the result of such a wish, though perhaps the appearance of love can, and now we’ve only started the conversation all over again, because even in such a statement we can’t be sure what the hell love is. Is Alithea even after love, or does she realize that she’s just after the idea of being in love? Does someone love simply by deciding to act in all ways like they are in love? Isn’t love just “an emotion,” and if so what can it even mean to wish that someone have that emotion “at us?”
In the second half of the film there are times that it gets bogged down in trying to legitimize itself. It has spun its yarn and it has repeatedly set off its fireworks, but it seems to feel that once sucked in the audience wants to attend Alithea’s lecture, and it goes wrong there in its lack of confidence. There is so much in the Djinn’s various takes on love. The magic. The horror. The joy. The pain. And the film wants nearly infinite statements, some that it doesn’t come close to earning, on the what ifs and the hows and the whens, but it should have tightened up and not lost track of its most crushing question, “Why would you not… make a wish?”
Three Thousand Years of Longing Podcast Review