Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The unexpected science subtext of George Miller's 3,000 Years of Longing

George Miller’s lavishly produced recent film, “3,000 Years of Longing,” could be described as a sort of Aladdin for adults. It is the retelling of a tale from Scheherazade’s 1,001 Arabian Nights set in our mythology-leary world. And, contrary to expectations, if one digs beneath the surface, a surprising story about science reveals itself.

That science will play a role in this reformulation is hinted at early on in the movie. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), a “narratologist” by trade, is arriving for a storytelling conference in modern day Istanbul. Her grip on reality is called into question when we watch her spy a diaphanous, gnome-like man trying to run off with her baggage cart at the airport. Unwelcome apparitions like him continue to appear, unbidden, at the conference’s keynote lecture where a distracted Alithea pauses to declare that the tales of gods and heroes of ancient times have been vanquished to the dustbin of history. According to her, scientific explanations now rule the day.

Given Alithea’s job as an expert on the art of storytelling, this declaration is a surprise. Shouldn’t she at least take some professional pride in the enduring power of ancient myth? Or maybe it’s that, as Alithea has grown older, these just-so stories have lost their appeal. Has tragedy in Alithea’s life drained the magic from her world?

Miller and his co-writer/daughter, Augusta Gore, appear to be setting us up for a tale which will pit the rationality of science against the enchantment of the supernatural. So we ready ourselves to have the hard heart of our cynical protagonist softened by an encounter with magical forces. Thankfully, the writers dodge this predictable storyline and, instead, offer us a story in which science and magic become willing collaborators.

So, when Alithea pries open an antique glass bottle purchased at the Istanbul bazaar releasing Djinn (Idris Elba), she is startled, but, surprisingly, not at all disbelieving. Alithea is not so much concerned that she may be losing her mind when Djinn appears as she is that she will, like a sucker, fall victim to his plea for her to get on with the business of making her three wishes. From experience as a scholar of storytelling, Alithea knows that giving in to this temptation will inevitably lead to a less than happy outcome, no matter how carefully she formulates the statement of her desires.

In order to dissolve Alithea’s skepticism, Djinn launches into his three-thousand-year story as a prisoner of an assortment of lamps and flasks. He describes how he came to be “incarcerated” the first time - by King Solomon, no less - as well as the relationships he has had with the mortals who liberated him after that. In the process, we discover that Djinn desperately longs for lasting freedom, and we also learn that he is capable of deep human attachments. Significantly, for our purposes, it is also revealed that Djinn is a being who is made up of electromagnetic waves. In other words,he is a creature of pure light.

Soon after, the role that light will play in the film is underscored by a set of text panels that flash across the screen briefly. This mini powerpoint presentation telegraphs a schematic history of Djinn’s universe which begins with a burst of electromagnetic waves  - let there be light! - and culminates with the emergence of biological compounds and then, presumably, Darwinian evolution. It appears that, whatever Djinn’s status as a supernatural being is, he sees himself as a participant in a world of natural phenomena. Far from being at odds with one another, in this view of the world science and magic are companionable fellow travelers.

But “3,000 Years” is not done with light yet. As Djinn tells his story, we learn that his most recent liberation, sometime in the nineteenth century it appears, was at the hands of Zefir, the young wife of a Turkish merchant. With a nod to “Faust,” Zefir wishes for all the knowledge in the world. What we see flashing across the screen as a result of her request is a high-speed montage of Zefir devouring book after book supplied by Djinn which contain the scientific findings of the age. 

Usually the graphics presented in such a montage are a mess of mathematical nonsense, a lot of random expressions yanked from a high school algebra text. But the equations that appear in the books that Zefir pours over are, in this case, the real deal. They faithfully retrace the development of the theory of electromagnetism that got underway with Michael Faraday’s experiments in the 1830s in London and culminated in the early 1860 with Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s unification of electrical and magnetic phenomena. Maxwell’s equations, as his system came to be called, was the first unified field theory of modern physics.

This sequence presents us with a tantalizing ambiguity: is Zefir simply reconstructing discoveries reported by contemporary researchers in the books Djinn has provided, or has she, in a stroke of genius, developed a theory of electromagnetic waves all on her own, beating the esteemed Maxwell to the punch? Maybe the famous handful of equations should rightfully be called Zefir’s equations?

This backstory having to do with the phenomena of electricity and magnetism continues into the final act of the film when Alithea returns to London with Djinn as her companion. Creature of light that he is, Djinn is acutely sensitive to the electromagnetic radiation that impinges on him. In fact, he is so overwhelmed by the ocean of radio waves, Wi-Fi, and wireless signals that he starts to become ill. (Admittedly, present-day Istanbul, the technological metropolis that it is, should have presented Djinn with similar problems.) Although he manages to maintain his composure in the face of this electromagnetic assault, it slowly begins taking a toll on his well-being.

At the beginning of the film Alithea telegraphs that a science vs. superstition confrontation may be in the offing. And, yes, Djinn’s composition as a creature of light, along with the electromagnetic origins of the universe, is clearly stated. Yet no review of the film that I’ve read takes note of these facts. In addition, the montage of mathematics including Maxwell’s equations streams by so quickly that it takes a trained eye - at least an eye that has been exposed to an intermediate undergraduate course in electricity and magnetism - to make sense of it. Somehow, though, I doubt that physicists were the intended audience for the film.

A possible explanation is that the writers inserted the Easter eggs having to do with electromagnetism as a message in a bottle of sorts into the encasing tale of Alithea and Djinn. And it could be that they expected the occasional viewer, like me, would pick up this bottle and rub it hard enough to have its hidden message revealed. If that is the case, then I count myself as lucky to have happened across “3,000 Years” and to discover, unexpectedly, the science story inside. Being a science nerd, a wish of mine was indeed granted.

No comments: