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‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ review: The plot could really use a wish right now

Ryan Oquiza

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‘Three Thousand Years of Longing’ review: The plot could really use a wish right now

Courtesy of Go Asia Entertainment

George Miller invites us to a vibrant and ambitious epic that says it’s about the love of storytelling but seems to forget about giving love to its own story in the process

Three Thousand Years of Longing centers on three wishes provided by a Djinn (Idris Elba), who is summoned after an electric toothbrush from an English woman named Alithea (Tilda Swinton) is used to clean a scorched glass lamp. Alithea, who prides herself on being a narratologist, doubts the sincerity of the unnamed Djinn due to her knowledge of his trickery across myths and fables.

In order to placate her concerns, the Djinn recounts his life story to her in a plain hotel room while both are still enrobed in bath clothes. Shortly thereafter, the film morphs into a vignette of short stories ranging from Biblical legends to Turkish monarchies. Flashy sequences and fiercely beautiful landscapes seize the audience’s attention for the better part of the film. The editing, cinematography, and visual aesthetic are at their A-game, enough to lull me into a fall sense of confidence in the film’s qualities.

But, in actuality, George Miller’s latest film gets so wrapped up in loving the idea of storytelling that it forgets to give love to its actual story. Because while I appreciated the structure of the film and the three stories it wishes to portray as a means to develop the Djinn’s own fallibilities, the main throughline connecting all of its disparate parts just never once hooked me. 

Despite being a fantastic actress, Swinton seems somewhat out of place in this epic. Her character seems plucked from an unserious, unconventional, and atypical story. The kind wherein the characters’ emotions are deliberately deficient, and part of their appeal is operating in a world that seems to shun them. Think of a Yorgos Lanthimos film (The Lobster, Dogtooth) or a Wes Anderson one (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom). 

So while Alithea may look bobbed and unabashedly academic — a fitting match for any of the above-stated directors’ films — none of her character attributes seem to match the tone and mood the film is going for. If anything, she’s quickly overshadowed once the century-spanning fables draw attention away from her. By the one-hour mark, the film is just about wrapping up the second of three total short stories, and the last time we heard any semblance of character development from Alithea was 27 minutes into the film. 

Miller, who co-wrote the film along with his daughter, Augusta Gore, made sure to position the script that was adapted from the English short story collection, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, as the “anti-Fury Road.” He mentions in an interview that although his acclaimed Mad Max film occurred over just three days and two nights, this film obviously dwarfs that time frame with 3,000 years. He also adds: “That film [Mad Max: Fury Road] was outside, very few interiors. This is virtually all set in interiors. There are very few words spoken in Fury Road. This is a lot of words, and so on.”

Apparent in the film’s formulation is how Miller is a master of aesthetic flair and dynamic movement. If you give him the budget to make a silent film without subtitles, chances are you’d still understand it because of how adept he is at telling stories through visual language. And so, because this film has such a focus on dialogue and the act of storytelling, Miller has to defer to the strengths of the script to give meaning to his preferred style. The problem is that the script attempts to juggle way too much, abruptly ending plot points at crucial crossroads and introducing new motivations without much context.

In a flashback scene where the then-Sultan is treated to oral narrations from the best storytellers of the land as a ploy to prevent his barbaric nature from erupting, Miller clearly packages the scene with strong camerawork, exquisite production design, and meticulous blocking. For once, the narration shuts up and lessens its prominence. The scene is able to do the talking for itself, and Idris Elba’s voice barely interjects. It leads to an actual “moment,” one that is unencumbered by the weight of a mediocre script.

As for the Djinn, there has been much discourse surrounding his ethnicity and the dangerous implications it brings in relation to a white storyteller who concerns herself with exoticizing the “Other” and engaging in outdated orientalism. Add to the fact that the Djinn mentions how he is less like a genie and more like a prisoner, held bondage to the whims of whoever opens his bottle. Without completing the wishes, he is eternally doomed to the ether, to float and never to be seen again.

This predicament just screams power imbalance. An article from Mashable notes how Alithea actually functions more as a villain as a consequence of this reading. But separate from the bad optics of a white British tourist holding the fate of an enslaved person, the film fails to generate the empathy or chemistry that could have made Alithea’s romantic plea and subsequent anguish pack stronger punches.

Alithea says that she can read feelings through stories, but with the caveat that she can’t read people directly. The Djinn arrives as the complete embodiment of storytelling, a persona who is defined and forged by the immortal tales from ages past. So the film tells us that it was fated that the two would be compatible and end happily ever after. But of course, if it were that easy, why would this be a two-hour film? 

It’s why the final third of this film feels the most precise and forward-moving because we finally get to see tension and obstacles thrown at the two lovers. The problem is that all of this occurs in the final third of the film. It means that conflicts introduced a mere five minutes ago have to be resolved immediately in the interest of time, leading to anticlimactic releases that could have benefitted from a little bit more time. 

There’s a good film inside of Three Thousand Years of Longing, and it’s a shame that it’ll be known as the one box-office bomb sandwiched in between Mad Max: Fury Road and the upcoming Furiosa prequel. But every now and then, filmmakers are allowed to get a $90-million budget and go crazy with their cinematic visions. Because storytelling is never absolute, and though there are stories we prefer more than others, witnessing any film come to fruition is like seeing a wish be fulfilled. Let’s hope George Miller uses his wish wisely for the next one. –

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.