Three Thousand Years of Longing will be the subject of debate. The themes are a little tricky, to the point some might call them messy, and a sense of ambivalence leads to inevitable contradictions. But, as with Jordan Peele’s Nope, the option exists to set aside the figurative elements and simply enjoy the film as a blockbuster from a bygone era.
Just as Scheherazade placates her bloodthirsty emperor husband with one thousand and one tales in The Arabian Nights, Idris Elba as an enormous djinn must kill time telling the story of his three thousand year entrapment to a somewhat passionless literary scholar named Alithea (Tilda Swinton) who summons him from his lamp in an Istanbul hotel room. This acts as the frame around an epic period fantasy, but also as a philosophical underpinning which doesn’t necessarily transition all that smoothly into the stories within stories.
To take the title as a jumping off point, one of the many things the film examines is, of course, longing, or yearning, or what many authors will say forms the basis of storytelling. And to be sure, Three Thousand Years of Longing primarily acts as a self-reflexive exercise. However, tales involving the Djinn’s affair with the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum), a series of power struggles amongst ancient Turkish royalty, and a doomed emotional attachment to one of his masters, a woman named Zefir (Burcu Göldegar) who wishes for all the knowledge in the world while trapped in domestic solitude, comprises the bulk of the film. It’s a movie about stories, and also about telling stories, and also about talking about telling stories.
As a literary scholar, Alithea approaches storytelling as a search for meaning, an attempt to make sense of the world before it could be explained by science. In our modern world, this lack of mystery may stifle imagination. In one sense, that seems very true. IP dominates the film market, with superhero franchises often pushing even mid-budget studio films off screens. Alithea’s colleague, during a lecture, throws up a picture of Marvel and DC characters and proclaims them as our new pantheon of Gods, a comparison that does double duty. The comic book figures both fulfill the established archetypes, but also, in our highly technical and analytical age, pale in comparison due to being over-focus-grouped, tested, and algorithmed into smothering banality. Movies, like stories, have no more questions to ask, it seems. Only audiences to placate.
The ubiquity of scientific knowledge forms an adversarial to the Djinn and to George Miller; it accounts for a lack of wonder when true creativity hinges on the unknown. But knowledge can be inspirational, as well. The more we learn about science, the more we discover, the more there is to talk about, to tell stories about. The Djinn, a storyteller and relic, a stand-in for the sense of wonder and magic of the past, struggles to understand present-day technology. There’s less to wish for in a world with the internet and smartphones, with knowledge at everyone’s fingertips and the ability to be practically omnipresent through broadcasting and social media. Alithia represents all that makes him obsolete. She’s dry, content to a fault, and does not tell stories, but simply talks about telling stories. It takes her wishing to love the Djinn and be loved by him in order to give his purpose back.
The Djinn becomes accustomed to the modern world but also suffers in it, hearing all the airplanes and cars and soundwaves and radio signals at once. Part of his existence seems to be intertwined with electromagnetic fields, suggesting the magic of the past has a scientific basis, and therefore that magic is just unknown science, but also that science is magic should we choose to look at it as such. Here, George Miller seems both to reject modernity and to reluctantly accept it, attempting to rediscover the sense of wonder lost one when knows just a bit too much. He provides a lot to chew over, but a solid conclusion may not be easily reached, and the connective tissue may just be a little too thin. But when looked at straightforwardly, this doesn’t really matter. The stories are too fantastical and exciting to be dismissed.
Of course, these stories, steeped in myth, offer up a panoply of impressive visuals. For fans of George Miller’s work, especially the practical effects in Mad Max: Fury Road, Three Thousand Years of Longing will be well worth watching. On the outermost level it’s an ecstatic fantasy, a work of blinding creativity and detailed execution. A cinematic arabesque from a man with a seemingly infinite imagination for visually captivating characters and worlds. Miller refreshingly directs the film with both indulgence and prudence. It’s a Where’s Waldo of an aesthetic but with clarity of vision, no incoherent editing or over-reliance on CGI. It’s used, of course, but only when necessary.
It’s a return to original storytelling, to the kind of blockbuster that can be both a technological marvel and an emotional one. It’s movie magic. | Nic Champion