Three thousand years of desire is a difficult movie to describe. The latest film from the versatile George Miller – whose previous films are unlikely to be the… Mad Max series and Babe: Pig in the City — is a fantasy. It’s a fairy tale for adults. It’s a romance (a surprisingly bland one) and a fable, and a beautifully loving tribute to millennia of storytellers. It’s a lot of things. And usually it’s just a lot.
The film — which stars Tilda Swinton as a mouselike, lone “narratologist” who accidentally unleashes an old jinn (Idris Elba) — is the kind of uninhibited story you’d expect from Miller. It runs along rabbit trails and meanders in unexpected directions and invites you to ride along. Above all, it creates a world where every sense is enhanced, where you can almost smell the spices and feel the textures. You are shrouded in a whirlwind and when it is all over you come out of the daydream blinking. Movies like this take you to another universe.
Three thousand years of desire is far from the first movie to spin this kind of web; the great power of cinema is that it takes us to other worlds. But the jinn and narrator’s story holds nothing back, and it’s a fitting end to a summer of similarly maximalist stories, a trend that may tell us something about where movies are headed.
Think about Elvis, for example Baz Luhrmann’s fantasy about a biopic. It’s not a great movie, though it has moments of grandeur – but boy, is it a lot of movie, from the moment a rhinestone-embellished Warner Bros. logo appears at the very end of the credits. Luhrmann is a reigning master of maximalism; you wouldn’t expect anything less. But even for him it’s a ride, a blood-curdling montage from start to finish.
Put that next to a few other movies: RRRthe Indian movie with the explosive title (it stands for Rise Roar Revolt) that will be a revolution into a huge, dazzling, cathartic thriller. Or Top Gun: Maverick, which ups the ante on its predecessor with even more daring and death-defying stunts, a heartbreaking one if there ever was one. Or Resurrection, in which Rebecca Hall and Tim Roth’s twisted cat-and-mouse game ends with one of the strangest, most bombastic images I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. Or Menwho, now that I think about it, plunges into the same pool of images as Resurrection and goes even further. Or nowhich mixes up a horror movie, a western, and an alien invasion movie, with some scenes so terrifying (and gory) and downright mind-boggling that you’ll keep them spinning in your head for days.
Could be the king of all Everything everywhere at once, with its utter maximalist title that could serve as an accurate summary for the whole trend. It was a hit with the public because of its huge heart. But to get to that heart, you first traveled through a few million universes, piles of peeping eyes, some kung fu, some threats to the universe, some rocks having a conversation, tributes to Wong Kar Wai’s movies, and a giant anything bagel representing the ultimate nihilism. And a lot of things that I probably forgot even though I saw it twice.
That’s the problem with maximalist cinema: it asks you to watch it again. An overcrowded movie is not meant to be shot all at once. You have to see it to figure out what it is, and then see it again to look around the edges, to look at what’s in the background, to catch the subtle jokes and innuendo and musical cues. You want to experience that sense of liberation, sucking all the air in the world into your lungs and then letting it all out with a deep, deep sigh. To make your heart beat against your rib cage, slide down your throat, dive into your stomach, and do it all over again. To feel wonderfully, wonderfully overstimulated.
For nearly 15 years, American cinema has been increasingly dominated by movies that want just that, with superheroes of extraordinary abilities and brightly colored clothes and big robot suits popping. But even those have had to raise the bar, with bigger and bigger casts, more crossovers, more casting announcements. They cannot contain too many surprises, as they are derived from existing creative properties with a huge fan base and the expectation that characters will not deviate from their essential nature. So one of the biggest “cinematic events” of the last decade actually involved a whole bunch of characters from a whole bunch of movies appearing on the same battlefield, and we got to see them all together. Cool!
But it’s telling that in the aftermath of that movie, the MCU has kind of failed; once you go to 11it’s hard to turn back the volume, and besides, everyone has gone a little deaf.
That’s why this summer’s maximalist trend is so interesting. On the one hand, it shows signs of attempting to replicate the cameo-happy fixation of big-budget franchise cinema (see bullet train‘s many pieces of evidence).
On the other hand, going over the top and off the rails is a rather refreshing response to the homogeneity of the multiplex offering, the same equality of the sequel-and-reboot culture. Secure, Elvis is about the life of a real person, and Top Gun: Maverick is technically a sequel (although one that starkly avoids the pitfalls of its ilk). But the maximalist trend in general emphasizes original ideas without a clearly built-in audience. They are unpredictable; they are new stories; they are surprising and enchanting. They’re not fun because you see something you expect – they’re the exact opposite.
And audiences seem to be hungry for it, whether they see a movie about a multiverse mother or an alien terrorizing a ranch, or a jinn and a narrator. The familiar and derivative will always have a place in Hollywood – and perhaps too big one. But maybe after years of being forced to feed on what the giant corporations already know we’ll be eating, we’re finally ready to try something new.
Three thousand years of desire, Elvis, Top Gun: Maverick, noand Resurrection play in theatres. RRR streaming on Netflix. Men and Everything everywhere at once are for rent or for sale on digital platforms.