The truest sign of a great director is that even their failures are fascinating. That brings us to George Miller's Three Thousand Years of Longing. The man behind the Mad Max franchise and Babe has made a bold, ambitious, and endlessly imaginative picture that never fully engages on an emotional level. Visually, every single second is stunning to look at. Beyond the shiny surface, the story has promising elements it doesn't fully capitalize on. You've got to admire the movie, although it proves to be a slightly empty experience.
Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is a scholar traveling in Istanbul. She has no family to speak of, and she seems okay with that. In a shop, a curious blue glass bottle catches her eye. She buys it, takes it back to her hotel room, and begins to polish it. The thing breaks, unleashing “The Djinn” (Idris Elba). He wants – actually needs – her to make three wishes so that he can finally achieve freedom. Alithea is skeptical, so, in an effort to convince her that he's not the “trickster” she fears, Djinn tells her several stories about how he became trapped in the bottle more than once over the centuries.
You can perhaps see the structural problem with Three Thousand Years of Longing right there. Swinton and Elba spend almost the entire time in a hotel room. Not a whole lot of interaction occurs between them, because it's primarily Djinn telling Alithea stories, which are shown in flashback. And since those stories have to be fairly short to fit into 108 minutes, they aren't particularly deep. We don't get to know the characters in them very well, either. Generally, they don't even speak. Djinn simply narrates the tales. Rather than delving into the Alithea/Djinn encounter, the movie keeps going down other roads that are less interesting than the idea of this woman buying a genie in a bottle.
Having said that, the visuals in those stories are gorgeous. Miller weaves together Solomon and Sheba, a would-be sultan's orgy with his plus-sized concubines, a magical stone, a guy whose head falls off and turns into a swarm of bugs, and more. Using a mixture of eye-popping CGI design and his trademark inventive camera movements/angles, the director creates a fantasy world with a lush, dream-like quality. There isn't a shot in this movie that isn't captivating to look at. Miller's images mitigate the thinness of Djinn's stories to a degree, making them vivid and earnest, if not entirely riveting.
The last act of Three Thousand Years of Longing does focus exclusively on Alithea and Djinn. Finally, we get what we want, but not enough of it. The film rushes through what should have been a meaningful payoff. Thanks to the work of the lead actors, you do feel a touch of connection between the characters. Here's where it becomes most evident how much better the movie would be if it lingered with them longer. Some of the plot's potential is left on the table.
Gripes aside, Miller shoots for the moon, and that's always exhilarating to see. He takes risks, bends rules, and goes for broke. Originality of this sort is in short supply lately. Knowing a director is still willing to pursue a strong vision offers hope that cinema will continue to thrive, in spite of endless sequels, prequels, reboots, etc. Three Thousand Years of Longing, for good and bad, is undoubtedly unique.
out of four
Three Thousand Years of Longing is rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.