Film is a stubborn bastard. As time progresses, people change, technology evolves and the world transforms, but film never goes away. There was a time in the ‘50s when television was said to be the film killer. Why would anyone go to the movie theater if they could stay at home and watch the same thing for free? So studios brought new technological advances to the theater – 3D, color, surround sound. You couldn’t get that at home! When streaming became the hot new thing, why would anyone want to go to the movie theater when countless hours of content, old and new, were at your fingertips? So filmmakers pushed even further, making massive budget films that demanded to be on the biggest screen possible.
Then came one of the biggest world-altering events we’ve seen in the 21st century: the Coronavirus pandemi. Not only did this disease claim the lives of millions of people, it also single-handedly decimated countless businesses and industries. Restaurants shuttered. Retail stores closed. Theaters, well… The film industry faced both long and short-term changes, but none so quickly realized as the difficulty of making normal movies with decently sized casts and multiple locations. No, with the regulations put in place by the government, unions and production companies, the process of production itself massively shifted the film set from a hustling and bustling zoo to a library with only a few guests. The “COVID-19 film” was born.
We’ve seen single-location, micro-cast films before, but those were born from artistic choice. COVID films were modestly scaled out of necessity, and created out of desperation for the art form to survive in even the direst of times. Some were good (Good Luck, Leo Grande), and some were bad (Malcolm and Marie), but all were admirable because they existed in a period that filmmaking nearly couldn’t. Three Thousand Years of Longing is a Covid film only George Miller could make, so epic in scope, laughing at the cramped setting of a hotel room and telling a story that outscales time itself. Although some of the emotional plot points may not resonate the way Miller hopes they do, Longing is still a marvelous film about everyone’s deepest desire: to be loved.
Three Thousand Years of Longing starts off by introducing narratativologist Alithea (Tilda Swinton). She spends her entire existence analyzing stories from an academic point of view, and she’s seemingly fine with a cold, lonely life lived only vicariously through her sped-read stories. While on a business trip (the one time a year she ever travels), her life completely changes when she discovers a Djinn (played by the perfectly cast Idris Elba) trapped in a bottle. In order to gain Alithea’s trust, Djinn tells her of his past – stories about his past lovers, their wishes, and his time imprisoned in the bottle.
I’ll admit I’m not the biggest fan of anthology story structure in films, with The French Dispatch being a recent outing by a filmmaker I admire that fell flat, but Longing’s choice to have Elba narrate keeps the stories from ever becoming grating. I can’t think of many other actors who I’d want to listen to for almost an hour straight. It’s surprising how much of the film is voiceover work, and with most other voices it would potentially lose its charm, but Idris’s silky-smooth tenor carries the film’s structure.
The stories themselves are also fascinating – each one plops itself into a fantastical version of real places and mostly real people, only the colors and decadence are dialed up to 11. These stories are where Miller’s vision really shines through, and the flashes of mythical creatures, stunningly beautiful humans, and eye-popping visuals truly make this feel like a modern fairytale. It seems that Miller has taken a page out of Guillermo Del Toro’s book, and the fast pace of Mad Max meets the mysticality of The Shape of Water to create Longing, and it truly is a sight to behold.
Once the Djinn’s stories are done being told, it’s now Alithea’s turn to make her own, and this is where some of the cracks start to show. Swinton is perfectly cast as a reclusive academic, but her character has jumps in logic that happen much too quickly. It seems the writers focused too much on the Arabian Nights-like stories instead of spending time on the overarching one, and a story-altering decision seems too hastily made. Three Thousand Years is a fairytale, and I know Cinderella only spent a few hours with the prince, but the emotional points in Longing don’t feel quite as earned as they should. Once the choice is made and the film moves on, the story progresses well and is interesting enough, but the moment itself is so jarring that I am still thinking back on it and wonder why the writers didn’t bother to make clearer character progression rather than choosing a sudden jolt.
That being said, I still admire Three Thousand Years of Longing not only for what it attempts to do with its ambitious scope, but what it achieves in overall storytelling. It is a completely unique film, even more so when comparing it to other “COVID films.” Elba is perfect, and Swinton shines as always. Although character motivation does get a little lost near the end of the second act, the film’s final act and resolution deliver on the promise of a modern fairytale. I just hope it doesn’t take 3000 more years for George Miller to make another original film.