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The summer of swirly, googly, bombastic, over-the-top movies

Three Thousand Years of Longing caps an off-the-rails summer — one that might be the future.

Idris Elba, in a red robe, stands in front of a brilliantly-patterned wallpaper.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is a peak for this summer’s maximalism at the movies.
MGM

Three Thousand Years of Longing is a tricky flick to describe. The latest movie from the multifaceted George Miller — whose previous films improbably include the Mad Max series and Babe: Pig in the City — is a fantasy. It’s a fairy tale for grown-ups. It’s a romance (a surprisingly swoony one) and a fable, and a gorgeously loving tribute to millennia of storytellers. It’s a lot of things. And mostly, it’s just a lot.

The film — which stars Tilda Swinton as a mousy, lonely “narratologist” who accidentally lets loose an ancient djinn (Idris Elba) — is the kind of no-holds-barred storytelling you might expect from Miller. It runs down rabbit trails and twists in unexpected directions and beckons you to come along for the ride. Most of all, it creates a world where every sense is heightened, where you can almost smell the spices and feel the textures. You’re wrapped up in a whirlwind, and when it’s all over you emerge from the daydream, blinking. Movies like this drag you into another universe.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is far from the first film to spin this kind of web; cinema’s great strength is transporting us into other worlds. But the tale of the djinn and the narratologist doesn’t hold anything back, and it’s a fitting closure to a summer full of similarly maximalist storytelling, a trend that might tell us something about where movies are headed.

Think of Elvis, for instance, Baz Luhrmann’s fantasia of a biopic. It’s not a great film, though it features moments of greatness — but boy is it a lot of movie, from the moment a rhinestone-bedecked Warner Bros. logo appears to the very end of the credits. Luhrmann is a reigning master of maximalism; you’d expect nothing less. But even for him, it’s a ride, a heart-pounding montage from beginning to end.

A scene from RRR with two men flying at each other through the air, fire in the background.
RRR really goes to the max.
DVV Entertainment/Netflix

Place that alongside a few other films: RRR, the Indian film with the explosive title (it stands for Rise Roar Revolt) that turns revolution into an enormous, eyepopping, cathartic thriller. Or Top Gun: Maverick, which ups the ante on its predecessor with even more daring and death-defying stunts, a heart-pounder 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 weirdest, most bombastic images I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Or Men, which, now that I think about it, dips into the same imagery pool as Resurrection and takes it even further. Or Nope, which mashes up a horror film, a Western, and an alien invasion flick, delivering some scenes so eerie (and gory) and flat-out baffling that you’re left turning them over in your head for days.

The king of them all might be Everything Everywhere All At Once, with its full-throated maximalist title that could serve as an accurate summation for the whole trend. It was a hit with audiences because of its huge heart. But to get at that heart, you first journeyed through a few million universes, piles of googly eyes, some kung fu, some threats to the universe, a couple of rocks having a conversation, tributes to the films of Wong Kar Wai, and a giant everything bagel representing ultimate nihilism. And a bunch of stuff I’ve probably forgotten, even though I’ve seen it twice.

That’s the thing with maximalist cinema: It asks you to rewatch it. An overstuffed movie isn’t meant to be taken in once. You’ve got to see it to figure out what it is, and then see it again to look around the edges, to watch what’s in the background, to catch the subtle jokes and allusions and musical cues. You want to experience that feeling of release, of sucking all the air in the world into your lungs and then letting it all out with a deep, deep sigh. To let your heart slam against your rib cage, glide into your throat, plummet into your stomach, and then do it all over again. To feel delightfully, deliciously overstimulated.

A scene from Everything Everywhere All At Once.
The delightfully over-the-top Everything Everywhere All At Once was a huge hit this year.
A24

For nearly 15 years now, American cinema has been increasingly dominated by movies that aim to do just that, starring superheroes with extraordinary abilities and brightly colored clothes and big robot suits that go boom. But even those have had to up the ante, with larger and larger casts, more crossovers, more casting announcements. They can’t harbor too many surprises, derived as they are from existing creative properties with vast fan bases and an expectation that characters won’t deviate from their essential natures. So one of the biggest “cinematic events” of the past decade basically involved a whole bunch of characters from a whole bunch of movies showing up on the same battlefield, and we got to see them all together. Cool!

But it’s telling that in the wake of that movie, the MCU has flailed a bit; once you go to 11, it’s hard to turn the volume back down, and besides, everyone’s gone a bit deaf.

That’s why this summer’s maximalist trend is so interesting. On the one hand, it shows signs of trying to replicate the cameo-happy fixation of big-budget franchise cinema (see Bullet Train’s many bit parts for proof).

On the other hand, going over the top and off the rails is a rather refreshing response to the homogeneity of the multiplex offerings, the samey-sameness of sequel-and-reboot culture. Sure, Elvis is about the life of a real person, and Top Gun: Maverick is technically a sequel (though one that stridently avoids the pitfalls of its ilk). But the maximalist trend on the whole emphasizes original ideas without an obvious built-in audience. They’re unpredictable; they’re new stories; they’re surprising and enchanting. They’re not delightful because you’re seeing something you expect — they’re just the opposite.

And audiences seem hungry for it, whether they’re seeing a movie about a multiverse mom or an alien terrorizing a ranch or a djinn and a narratologist. The familiar and derivative will always have a place in Hollywood — and maybe an outsized one. But maybe, after years of being force-fed what the giant corporations already know we’ll eat, we’re finally ready to try something new.

Three Thousand Years of Longing, Elvis, Top Gun: Maverick, Nope, and Resurrection are playing in theaters. RRR is streaming on Netflix. Men and Everything Everywhere All At Once are available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.