Even after a career spanning 50 years, it felt like Miller came right the fuck out of nowhere and took over the world with Mad Max: Fury Road. That movie swept the technical Oscars, dominated the box office, and there’s a good argument to be made that it ranks high among the greatest movies made in the last ten years. So naturally, anticipation for Miller’s next movie was at a fever pitch.
Then came word of Three Thousand Years of Longing, in which Miller would collaborate with Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton. Elba plays an anonymous Djinn trapped in a bottle until Swinton’s character — name of Alithea — unwittingly releases him. She’s offered the standard deal of three wishes, but Alithea is a world-renowned literary scholar all too familiar with tragic stories of wishes coming true.
We’ve got a solid premise, two actors and a director at the top of their game, and a massive budget for a sprawling epic tale. On paper, this looked like it should be an unmitigated success. In practice… I’m honestly not 100 percent sure.
To start with, the film makes a big deal of portraying science and magic as two sides of the same coin. Near the start of the film, Alithea presents this huge lecture about how ancient myths were created as a means of explaining what we recognize as mundane phenomena today. Indeed, it’s shown that to some extent, Djinn himself is composed of the same electromagnetic waves that we’ve harnessed to create television, radio, the internet, and so on.
Thus Alithea represents modern intellectual thought, but through the prism of storytelling through the ages. Meanwhile, Djinn represents ancient magic and mysticism, but in such a way that he can readily observe and interact with modern technology. Together, they put a refreshing new spin on an old concept, capably exploring the question of why we still need stories and the old myths when we have modern science and technology.
As to what the characters have in common, they’re both chronically lonely. The difference is that Djinn is alone by force. He wants companionship, he wants to be loved, but he’s spent whole eons imprisoned by himself in a tiny little bottle. Compare that with Alithea, who’s made the conscious decision to live a solitary life.
Speaking of which, Alithea is purportedly happy with her life, to the point where she’s got everything she wants or needs. That’s a big problem for Djinn, a being fundamentally incapable of conceiving any kind of life without desire. More importantly, Djinn desperately needs to figure out Alithea’s most deep-seated desire — something Alithea herself doesn’t want to do — if Djinn is going to earn his freedom.
What’s more, because Alithea is a skeptic and an intellectual at heart, she insists on trying to think outside the box. What happens if she simply doesn’t make any wishes? What happens if she wishes she never met Djinn or forgot all about him? This is where we get to the vast majority of the film, and also of the film’s problems.
It’s right there in the title, folks: Three Thousand Years of Longing. The story itself is literally three thousand years long. Granted, Djinn is stuck in the bottle through the vast majority of it, but we’re still stuck listening to Djinn as he tells us about his previous owners, how and why he got imprisoned, his failed attempts at getting free, and so on.
Yes, this is all fascinating stuff and beautifully presented. Yes, this is all vital information to help us understand who Djinn is, how he works, and why he’s the way he is. The unfortunate downside is that this means the central Djinn/Alithea relationship amounts to what’s basically a framing device.
This becomes an especially huge problem in the third act, when Alithea finally takes center stage. So much of the third act depends heavily on her relationship with Djinn, and it comes up short because Alithea and Djinn weren’t given the necessary breathing room to develop themselves or their relationship. Hell, I’d even go so far as to say the third act felt like a totally different movie altogether.
It certainly doesn’t help that the filmmakers stop just short of justifying Djinn’s flashbacks and how his storytelling led Alithea to choose her wish. I guess it’s kinda there, but it could’ve and should’ve been a lot stronger. In point of fact, this movie goes sprawling in so many directions — spanning across three millennia, numerous kingdoms, and potentially hundreds of characters — yet the movie fails at tying them all together into a single cohesive overarching plot.
The same thing goes for all the various themes, as well. Yes, I understand and appreciate the film’s statements about science and storytelling. Yes, I get the pathos of two characters trying to grapple with their loneliness. As to how those two themes connect with each other, or how exploring one brings revelations about the other, your guess is as good as mine.
Oh, and let’s not forget those weird visions Alithea gets at the start of the film, long before she ever meets Djinn. I have no fucking clue what those were all about, there’s never any explanation for any of that.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is a tough one to gauge. Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton are both incredible and the whole cast is fantastic. The production design is all aces and the film is loaded with elegant artistic statements about a wide variety of poignant and profound subjects. Each individual part on its own is incredible, but the film falls tragically short at combining those pieces into something greater than the sum of its parts.
The film is still absolutely worth a recommendation, if only because it’s creative and intelligent and heartfelt in ways that you could never hope to see in any other picture. Also, cramming so much into a mere 100 minutes is a great accomplishment. Even so, this movie really should’ve come together into something more coherent and cohesive than it ultimately was. It’s a frustrating near-miss, but one you’ll definitely want to see for yourself.