3000 Years of Longing

I am not sure why this movie was released the last week of August. It is a quality piece of film making with a thoughtful theme and delicate performances from the two leads. This feels like a Spring or Fall release, not something that you dump with the action/horror trash that makes up the usual fare at this time of year. When the Lion in the MGM logo that came up in front of the film did not roar in the traditional way, I wondered what was happening. Maybe someone at MGM decided it would be triggering, or maybe that Idris Elba had enough lion roars from his film out just two weeks ago. It did make me question the thinking at the studio, and after seeing the film, I believe I was right in thinking someone in marketing has screwed up.

George Miller has been responsible for some odd films over the years. The two “Babe” pictures run in the opposite direction of his Mad Max films, and “Happy Feet”, the less said about the better. “3000 Years of Longing” is a non-traditional narrative about narratives. Alithea, the subject of the initial story is a character who studies, records, interprets and investigates literary narratives. The idea that this person should be the one to discover the story revealed when a Djinn gets released from his captivity is a good one. By making her the receiver of the story, she can stand in for the all of us as skeptic and captivated audience. Idris Elba as the ancient Djinn with a story to tell is a more compelling character than the doctor he played in the recent “Beast“. It feels odd to have him in back to back weeks as the lead of the major film opening that Friday. The character here is more compelling and he requires the skills of an actor to keep us enthralled in the story.

This movie reminds me of a movie from almost thirty years ago, Wayne Wang’s “Smoke”. The subject matter is completely different, but the films both feature narrators telling stories that pull us in. The stories may not be essential but they are compelling. What Miller has done is ladled on the visuals to go with the stories that our protagonists are sharing. This works especially well in the setting of the hotel room in Istanbul. As the two characters converse and we see the story being told by the Djinn with magic, color and incredible visual detail. Solomon’s musical instrument, the concubines of the imbecile brother who will become king, the inventions of his greatest love, all are amazing images that Miller and his team deserve credit for. The three stories told in this sequence are fascinating, but sometimes they feel arbitrary, like they have to evoke the cautionary tales of wishes being granted. The problem is that the rules seem inconsistent, and that matters because when the location of the story moves to modern London, the film runs out of steam and it does not have a clear set of rules to fall back on.

Tilda Swinton plays the most normal character I have seen her as in a movie in a long time. Her career justifies her willingness to engage in the stories, but the change in her desires at the close of the middle section was abrupt, and the ground rules were ambiguous, in spite of her exposition then and at the end of the movie. As I look back on the film, I see some foreshadowing of the final outcome that I noticed but did not connect to the story. That’s because we get side tracked in a totally superfluous side story about a couple of busy body old ladies living next door. Their only reason for being there is to provide a completely unnecessary woke moment, but as a piece of misdirection, it works to make the Djinn’s physical shift a surprise. 

In the end, I was glad I saw the film and I liked the slightly melancholy happy ending. The plot is supposed to be told to us as a fairy tale, so I suppose that can excuse some plot contrivances and holes in the logic of the story. I mostly did not care because the two leads engaged in conversation, with the advantage of a visual palate to complete the stories that are being shared, was compelling enough for me. It may be a languid trip for some, but it was a pleasant journey with a nice fairy tale feel.   


If you look at the masthead of this site, or count the number of posts relating to the 1975 classic, you will know how much I love Spielberg’s “Jaws”.  In fact, in a couple of weeks there will be more posts because it is getting a release in IMAX and 3D. That may make it a little unfair to compare today’s film to the beloved shark story, but in many ways it is the same story, simply adapted to a different environment. “Beast” is a nature gone malevolent film where instead of a shark we get a lion. There is an initial attack, and then the slow burn discovery of the continuing danger, followed by an extended sequence where man is pitted against nature in a single vehicle that is crippled. There are plenty more comparisons to come but I’ll save those to first talk about whether the film works.

Idris Elba has been in 30 films in one form or another in the last 10 years. Before that he was in a bucket load more and some essential television shows, so it is not a stretch for him to have to hold the attention of an audience for 90 minutes. The part of Doctor Nate Samuels is low key and calm in the face of overwhelming danger. The Doctor has two children that he has brought to South Africa to visit the home of their deceased mother. The husband and wife were separated at the time of her death and as a doctor, he feels guilt about not being able to do more about the cancer that killed her. It is a cliched trope that a trip like this is designed to repair the estrangement he has with his teen daughters. That the relationships will have to be repaired under the most pressure filled scenario is typical in a movie like this [Bruce Willis and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Live Free or Die Hard is an example of the stress repairing parental bonds trope].  

The premise is simple, the family in emotional crisis suddenly finds itself under attack from an outside source. In this case the threat comes from a rogue lion, angry about the slaughter of it’s pride and reeking vengeance on all humans it encounters.  In the opening sequence we get a night time attack on the poachers left behind to clean up after the initial destruction of the pride. There are a couple of moments that feel like a mid-night swim and the CGI lion is pretty effective at providing jump scares. When Elba and his friend Martin, played by Sharlto Copley, come across a decimated village, it’s as if Brody and Hooper are finding Ben Gardner’s boat, only this time Brody brought his kids with him. Later, it turns out that Martin is also Quint, intrepid hunter of poachers and the victim of the creatures he tries to protect. 

The lion attacks on the vehicle that the doctor and his daughters are trapped in are pretty dramatic and scary. The idea that the lion is using one of our characters as bait is similar to the mysterious behavior of the shark in “Jaws” going under the boat. Animals are inscrutable, but they do follow their nature, and we were given a foreshadowing lecture on lion behavior that tips us to how this is ultimately going to be played out. Of course a couple of characters have to do some stupid things to keep the story going in a few spots and that does undermine the value of the film. 

I don’t know of anyone who wants to see animals harmed as a part of the story, but as this tale goes on, you really are rooting for something to happen to this lion. The most brutal violence on an animal is in the openings sequence, so if you get through that you will be OK. We mostly see the aftermath of the mauling that the humans get, but in the climax we are given a pretty graphic depiction of what happened to a variety of characters, and it happens in broad daylight, so night does not cover up what is going on. The locations look beautiful and there is some terrific nature photography early on, but once the peril starts, the plot takes over and most of the shots are about building fear rather than amazing footage.

Crawl” was a similar story from a couple of years ago. It was much more aware of it’s exploitation roots and leaned into them to make an effective summer entertainment. “Beast” has a little too much sincerity to pull off the entertainment value at an equally high level, but it mostly works. That is due to the two leads and the premise, more than anything else.