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George Miller Has Never Compromised

From his debut short to ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ to his latest film, ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing,’ the Aussie director has proved himself to be a master of illusion. Sometimes, though, that can have a numbing effect.

Ringer illustration

In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, George Miller waxed philosophical about his approach to cinematic storytelling. “In mythology, the trickster leads you into the forest,” he said. “Film is, to me, the trickster. I think I can be around a thousand years and never understand the process.”

It’s impossible not to think of this quote while watching the Australian director’s new fantasy opus Three Thousand Years of Longing, a film that could be described as the character study of a trickster with nothing up his sleeve. Unexpectedly released from several millennia’s worth of entrapment in a series of small and very well-traveled bottles, a nameless djinn (Idris Elba) flashes uncanny superpowers (including briefly resurrecting Albert Einstein from the dead) yet finds himself stymied by his new client’s lack of desire. Middle-aged, long divorced, and fiercely proud of her own independence, buttoned-down narratologist Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), by her own account, wants for nothing; when pressed, she can’t think of even one wish for the djinn to grant, much less three.

Alithea has arrived in Istanbul flying “Scheherazade Air,” a sight gag that tips us to the nature of the tale unfolding before us: Like The Arabian Nights, this is a story about the act of storytelling. It’s also mainly a chamber piece, plunking the characters down in a first-class hotel room—the same one, a bellhop notes, where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express—and having them try to talk each other out of their absurd impasse. The immortal djinn longs for emancipation from eternal servitude; granting Alithea’s wishes is the only way to realize his own. As he recounts his lifetime’s worth of adventures—a series of cautionary tales about love and its consequences—Alithea begins to ponder what her own form of liberation might look like, and whether it’s less that she truly doesn’t want anything than that she’s afraid to want anything.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is based on a novella by the Booker Prize–winning British writer A.S. Byatt, whose fascination with the historical sources and structures of fantasy literature provide its heavy underlying themes. This is not an unpretentious movie: At times, the dialogue sounds like it’s been transcribed from an undergraduate seminar. But on a stylistic level, it’s a movie that only Miller could have made: kinetic and heady, sublime and ridiculous, confident and undisciplined, ambitious and cringy. Even in the sterile confines of the hotel room, the director’s camera swoops and lurks and pushes in for extreme close-ups on the stars’ impossibly beautiful faces. In the flashbacks, it floats disembodied through battlefields and catacombs, and soars above the ocean in the talons of a hawk. For every image that feels like it might stand the test of time, there’s another that’s strangely disposable, while a few sequences near the end featuring a pair of elderly, racist English women are so bizarre that they seem to belong to another movie entirely.

Such is the paradox of Miller’s singular—and sometimes singularly exasperating—talent. He’s got a great imagination, and he’s willing to let it run away with him.

At one point in Three Thousand Years of Longing, Swinton holds court in front of a PowerPoint presentation depicting characters from the Marvel and DC universes—an illustration of Alithea’s thesis that such figures are the modern equivalent of “gods and monsters,” as well as Miller’s distance from the superhero-industrial complex. On some level, the director always has been an academic. In 1971, at the age of 26, he made his debut with the startling, self-reflexive short Violence in the Cinema, Part 1, a movie that’s very hard to find these days (the only clip on YouTube is 12 seconds long). In it, a fusty intellectual lecturing on the gratuitousness of movie carnage gets shot in the face mid-sentence, only to calmly bandage himself up and commit several atrocities of his own. Released in the same year that films like A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, and Dirty Harry forced critics and audiences alike to consider the consequences of onscreen brutality, the short was simultaneously a provocation and a meditation: Miller got to have his blood and spray it, too.

If Miller’s early-life background as an emergency room doctor figured subliminally into the bloody chaos of Violence in the Cinema, Part 1, it spilled over even more viscerally into the cheapjack, future-shock 1979 thriller that made his (and Mel Gibson’s) name. Like most genuinely great genre movies, the original Mad Max was, above all, a triumph of less-is-more ingenuity. Without much actual value to place in front of the camera, Miller and his collaborators (including producer Byron Kennedy and several cast members recruited from Melbourne-based biker gangs) created a memorably stripped-down narrative space in which the absence of shiny objects and elaborate structures was a signifier of apocalyptic authenticity. After all, the upshot of Mad Max was that, following the collapse of the global economy, nobody—especially Gibson’s shell-shocked, quasi-law-enforcement officer Max Rockatansky—has anything to their name. In this parched, desert dystopia, there’s nothing to buy, or to buy into; provided you’ve managed to hotwire a discarded car, the only thing to chase is the horizon.

Besides appearing at the crest of the Australian New Wave, Mad Max’s timing with regard to world cinema couldn’t have been better. In a moment when Hollywood products like Star Wars and Superman were going deluxe and family-friendly, the film’s lean, hungry aesthetics and unapologetic bloodletting aligned it with an inglorious B-movie tradition. In truth, Miller was reaching back even further, engineering propulsive silent-movie slapstick in the tradition of Buster Keaton, whose daredevil deadpan is evoked in Gibson’s acting. The thing that truly elevated Mad Max and its magnificently pumped-up 1981 sequel, The Road Warrior, was Miller’s innate understanding that comedy and intensity are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, by surrounding Gibson with a company of gibbering, leather-clad grotesques and treating them like a shipment of human crash test dummies, Miller had global audiences shrieking so hard they forgot to laugh (and vice versa).

Reviewing The Road Warrior in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael was dazzled by Miller’s craft and the stunt crew’s heroic efforts, but perceived a certain pretentiousness in the script, writing that the film’s “attempt to tap into the universal concept of the hero makes [it] joyless.” There’s something to that reading. Originally, Max had been a feral survivor only marginally less ruthless than the marauders around him; in The Road Warrior and 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, though, he was portrayed unambiguously as a savior figure, riding to the rescue of settlers like the Man With No Name. Without necessarily sanitizing his pop art—and certainly without slowing it down—Miller had, to an extent, simplified and sanctified it for a mass audience. Leaving aside the classic fight sequences featuring the piggy-backing gladiator “Master Blaster,” Thunderdome is notably bloated and tacky, qualities summed up in costar Tina Turner’s over-the-top anthem “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome),” a shameless tie-in suggesting Miller’s gritty outsider sensibility had been subsumed into the same blockbuster system that was churning out stuff like Flashdance or Top Gun.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is shameless, but it isn’t unhinged—a description that better fits Miller’s segment in 1983’s ill-fated omnibus Twilight Zone: The Movie. Remaking one of the most famous episodes of Rod Serling’s original series—1963’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” about an airline passenger who sees a monster on the wing of his plane—Miller applied the same white-knuckle tactics as the Mad Max movies in service of pure, giddy terror. The results were extraordinary: Lined up beside entries from John Landis, Joe Dante, and even Steven Spielberg, Miller’s emotional roller-coaster ride was clearly best in show. In addition to the potent, existential menace of the premise, with its perfectly paranoid scenario of bearing futile witness to a horror nobody else can see, the installment’s ace in the hole is its star, John Lithgow, whose sweaty, bug-eyed performance belongs in the canon of strategic over-acting. Few performers have so convincingly embodied the sensations of a panic attack, and the nauseous, in-your-face camerawork and relentless editing keep pushing him closer to the edge. When he finally grabs a gun and shoots out the window of the plane, it feels less like he’s trying to take down the gremlin than explode the pressurized tension of Miller’s filmmaking.

If the anthology format suited Miller’s gift for swift, electrifying storytelling, giving him too much room to stretch out proved to be problematic. Exhibit A: 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick, the director’s first Hollywood feature and a movie whose delightfully satirical premise—three bored, dissatisfied women accidentally conjure up the devil in a small Rhode Island town—ultimately got away from him. As glossily packaged by super-producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters, The Witches of Eastwick has one of the decade’s most stacked distaff casts, scoring Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Cher for the title roles and inevitably tapping Jack Nicholson to play a horny, arrogantly seductive version of Satan.

As long as the actors are hamming it up, The Witches of Eastwick is an irresistible synthesis of suburban Gothic and soap-opera sleaze, but the closing segments get sucked into a vortex of overproduced and incoherent special effects, as if Miller were helplessly capitulating to the post-Spielberg vogue for spectacle. It’s similarly difficult to reconcile the based-on-a-true-story emotionalism of 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil, about parents searching for a miracle cure for their terminally ill son, with Miller’s hyperbolic visual approach. The overall effect is somewhere between a sentimental movie of the week and Evil Dead 2. (Also hard to reconcile: Nick Nolte’s Italian accent.) But the film’s ideas about the relationship between belief and science are complex, and the soundtrack, which features repeated and devastating use of an aria by Maria Callas, clarifies that Miller is working in an operatic mode, subtlety be damned.

The surprise success of Lorenzo’s Oil at Universal earned Miller the freedom to pursue his quixotic passion project: a live-action adaptation of Dick King-Smith’s 1983 novel The Sheep-Pig, which he’d first encountered through his daughter after wrapping Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. A good-natured allegory about following your passion—which, in the case of the title character, was shepherding—the film had the warm, immersive glow of a much-loved picture book. Released without much fanfare into a family-movie marketplace oversaturated by the easy sentimentality of Walt Disney, Babe’s sweetly matter-of-fact depiction of farm life (and death) was like a balm. It deserved all seven of its Oscar nominations and probably should have beaten Braveheart for Best Picture. As with Lorenzo’s Oil, the film’s ace in the hole was its rapturous use of music: the sequence where James Cromwell’s flinty Farmer Hoggett rouses his ailing porcine friend by singing “If I Had Words” is not-a-dry-eye-in-the-house stuff.

But while Babe radiates with palpable good vibes, the shoot was reportedly tense, with Miller bristling against his producer role and imposing his will on his hand-picked director, Chris Noonan. In 2007, Noonan told The Sydney Morning Herald that Miller had tried to take credit for the movie. “I’m sorry but I really have a lot more to do with my life than worry about that,” Miller shot back. “When it comes to Babe, the vision was handed to Chris on a plate.”

There was no mistaking the authorship of 1998’s Babe: Pig in the City, which saw Miller cashing in his goodwill for $90 million of Universal’s money and making one of the most polarizing movies of the late ’90s. Relocated from the farm to a surreal metropolis combining the skylines of a half-dozen cities, Babe becomes a witness to the horrors of modernity. “A murderous shadow lies hard across my soul,” exclaims a stray pitbull, as if transplanted from a Bergman movie.

Audiences were baffled and alienated by Miller’s Pop Expressionist vision (the film had to be re-cut to earn a G rating after some scenes were deemed too frightening for small children), but critics came out swinging in his favor. Gene Siskel memorably called it the best movie of 1998, and he may have been right: 24 years later, Pig in the City looks less like a curio than the last analog all-ages masterpiece before Pixar’s formula became the norm. Its idiosyncrasies also anticipated Miller’s later foray into CGI storytelling with Happy Feet, which was sold as a motion-capture jukebox musical starring harmonizing penguins but unfolds as a meditation on religious faith and environmental upheaval. A chase scene involving a leopard seal feels modeled on The Road Warrior; an encounter with some killer whales resonates with the primal terror of Jaws. The climax, set at SeaWorld, nods to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Easily the most unusual movie ever made featuring voice work by Fat Joe (along with Robin Williams, Nicole Kidman, and Hugh Jackman), Happy Feet spawned an inferior 2011 sequel—but that was quickly forgotten when Miller unveiled Mad Max: Fury Road four years later. The film was very nearly a disaster: In his new book Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road, Kyle Buchanan does inventory on a chaotic, contentious, skin-of-its-teeth production that one participant described as “a fetish party in the desert.” One reason that Fury Road is so phenomenal is because rather than effacing its behind-the-scenes scars, it displays them proudly—there’s nothing smooth or slick about it. It’s clear in nearly every scene that the actors are exhausted, the stunt workers are in peril, and that Miller is pushing every element as far as he can go. When the film swept the technical categories at the 2016 Oscars, the winners spoke about their director with weary love and admiration. Visually eloquent enough that it’d probably work without dialogue and thematically spacious despite its relentless pacing, Fury Road is a movie of towering, ornery majesty—an adrenaline-shot classic that stands as a testament to Miller’s uncompromising nature and that may, on a technical level, be his crowning achievement.

There’s no compromise in Three Thousand Years of Longing either, but mostly for the worse. Miller may love The Arabian Nights, but there’s something queasy about the way the film visualizes what Alithea calls “The Levant,” with erotic fables mobilized mostly as an incentive for a white protagonist to get her act together. For all the talk Swinton and Elba do about passion, the eroticism is rote. It’s also unfortunate that a film so in love with the architecture and engineering of narrative feels so rickety in its own construction, especially in the homestretch, which knowingly evokes two of Swinton’s other magical-realist epics—Orlando and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—without equalling them. By the end, Miller is wielding his djinn-like powers of illusion desperately. He’s so determined to make us feel something that the effect is numbing. It’s only in the film’s lovely final shot—a clever, offhand special effect involving a soccer ball—that Miller’s charm resurfaces. Maybe it’s too little, too late, but it’s still a reminder of what it’s like to be shown something you haven’t seen before.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.