28 August 2022

First Impressions: 3000 Years of Longing

I can sum up my reaction to this film as a great overwhelming, "huh. Okay." I genuinely can't tell if I liked this or not. I think I did. There were some parts I really did. I'm not sure if I will revisit this film's brilliance in later years but I can't recall going from being so high on a film to such a crater in recent memory. Let's talk spoilers for Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)!

This got a lot of hype for being George Miller's first film since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). I wasn't totally expecting a non-stop thrillride since I know this is also the dude who made Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and the Happy Feet movies. He crafts great stories, but it's not like he ever ties himself down to one genre. In fact, as soon as you do that, he explodes and does something really wacky. Like this!

The premise centers around a Narratologist, played by Tilda Swinton, who likes being alone with stories. She travels to the Levant, in and around Istanbul, unleashes a Djinn, and then they spend most of the film chatting about life in a hotel room while the Djinn narrates his previous three incarcerations. It's all a brilliant set-up, a BOTTLE story (my wife came up with that one), and works well as a film centered around storytelling. I am typically someone who finds no use for narration, but this film is almost all Idris Elba narration, but it works somehow, because the whole premise is that this is a fairy tale.

Swinton and Elba are two of the best in the game right now and you totally lose yourself in their characters. The idea of a central conflict growing out of a woman who is granted three wishes and doesn't really want to use any of them is also a fantastic concept. The film starts off immeasurably strong, with hallucinations (OR ARE THEY), a dynamic color palette that's vibrant and contrasting without resorting to neon, and a camera that feels sneaky and floaty, composing each shot with intention and thoughtful framing. There is some dodgy composition work, particularly a shot where Tilda is in the foreground and a massive, room-filling Idris is in the background, but it's nothing egregious.

Most of this flows through the first story, which is Djinn's love for the Queen of Sheba and her leaving him for King Solomon. It's engrossing, full of intriguing mysticism, and brings us into the ancient magic of the olden days. This ends up being the peak of the film. The middle story is stretched overlong and starts to feel disconnected with the narrative. What narrative is this movie even supposed to have? It is a story about stories I suppose, but even a collection of stories should have some kind of momentum or propulsion towards some kind of unifying theme or point. Tilda argues this in one instance, suggesting that all wish stories end up being cautionary tales. There is that vibe in the Suleiman Era stories, but it's not as strong as it could be because the focus is never on the wish-maker, but rather on the family she falls in love with (on that note, since that was her wish that Tilda later repeats, she doesn't seem to be learning or growing from this fable).

It got me thinking a lot of whose movie this was supposed to be. Ostensibly Tilda is our focal point character, and our gateway to this world. And she's fantastically interesting, even if it's through her un-interestingness. We get a lot of hollow connections. Zefir mimics her study habits. A woman in her modern entourage reappears suspiciously as an Ottoman. But there's never any learning or irony from these strands. The movie seems to introduce many of these concepts and then drops them, like the ghosts that bring her into this world in the first place. They never return or are mentioned again, which means they're just there for the sake of being cool, a mystery with no pay off, a tease with no fulfillment. It's frustrating.

But Djinn's story is literally the story that most of this story tries to tell. It's his 3000 year life we're flashing back to at points. It might be more his story than hers. And dual protagonists aren't anything new, it just leaves this particular story a little cluttered. This comes to a head in the final act (which might be Act 4? 5?). Tilda, out of nowhere, decides she wants to wish for longing, and decides to focus on the Djinn himself. It is a bit too much of a stretch, not only because it's weird to think of this Djinn banging all these white girls (he definitely does in every story, and his lovecraft is apparently pretty hot). But the pairing feels very forced and rushed and it's hard to grasp that these characters would love each other. Djinn was impressed by the strength of Sheba and the drive of Zefir. Tilda exhibits some of these characteristics but is far more demure than either. She admired her ex-husband, Jack, but maybe wants to exploit the forced loyalty of Djinn? That gets into some really fun toxic stuff, I dunno, it's kind of murky.

Should we jump into the problematic section? Always tricky when a white dude is portraying Middle Eastern cultures, but nothing seems too stereotypical here, everyone is fleshed out, but it did strike me that in a movie inspired primarily by 1001 Arabian Nights (itself subsequently spun through the lens of "The Djinn in the Nighingale's Eye" by A.S. Byatt), we get a white girl and a black guy as our focus and all the Arab characters are largely without lines or a real spotlight. I get it, as I said, Tilda and Idris are both fantastic, and their names are what is greenlighting this movie, but it just seemed like there were obvious opportunities here to not further a colonial narrative.

And there it is, like, these stories are out there. There are so many stories available for marginalized communities and we're just on the tip of accessing them, but these gatekeepers are still strong. We just aren't as far along as some folks think we are. And I get it, like, there ARE interesting white people stories where it wouldn't always be appropriate to cast people of color. But that argument falls apart because here is a story just begging for representation but roles are yet denied to say, Turkish people for an opportunity to have a big speaking role in a major Hollywood production. It's just more and more bizarre the more you can see the cracks and the dwindling excuses.

Anyway, Tilda wishes them to be in love! And then the movie breaks its own cool attempt at a Djinn bottle movie and heads back to London where we get a flurry of title cards and events that rush towards an ending where we see the Djinn broken down by the electromagnetic pulses in the air caused by our modern infatuation with cell towers and satellites. All this is ham-fisted as hell, it works better as a metaphor. Tilda at the beginning said that legendary figures and gods are reduced to mere myth as our technology increases. Man, just do that here instead of trying to explain him away as made of electromagnetic pulses. Like, that doesn't explain his magic, so just let it be magic It felt LOST-y and weird. But the Djinn starts dusting and eventually Tilda wishes him to go home (basically wishing him free like in Aladdin [1992]). Then he visits from time to time, presumably banging her.

There's some genuinely good commentary here about our technology lessening our ability to joyfully consume stories and magic and I liked all that stuff. But it felt like it needed an entirely new movie to fully develop instead of racing towards the end.

I'm really torn on this. It looks gorgeous, although I'm again split on whether it's actually good cinematography or just a good guy sitting at a computer. Still a good skill set I suppose. It opens so strong, in my head I was like "Movie of the year candidate!" then it biffs its landing so hard. Remarkable, really. There were moments I really dug and moments that completely baffled me. Like I said, I wonder if its brilliance will show itself in time but for now, I don't think it becomes something worth recommending.

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