/ cirque du soleil - worlds away
originally featured on
There’s a common trend in arts criticism (be it in film, theatre, writing or art) to judge a finished product by what we believe it could have been, instead of what it is. Projecting our own tastes and sensibilities over those offered by the artists involved – and believing them, naturally, to be superior – often dominates how we receive and critique the product we have viewed. This is not a new occurrence (it is, in fact, a phenomenon specific to every audience of interpretive art), nor is it totally invalid. We are all entitled to our hubris, and when given a platform to voice it, objectivity is often the first casualty of self-aware moderation.
So, with this trend in mind, it’s easy to see how Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away could be dismissed as blatantly cynical self-promotion. Drawing from the avant-garde Canadian institution’s seven Las Vegas shows (all permanent fixtures designed and installed at various casinos), the film presents a mash-up of acts and scenarios around a tangential narrative pretext. This story, such as it is, is merely a frame to hang the feats of extraordinary fitness on display, all immaculately presented in copious slow-mo and slapped with the patented Jim Cameron brand of 3D immersion.
On paper, it’s easy to conclude Worlds Away is little more than a very indulgent, very expensive advertisement – a flashy “Come to Vegas and see what you’re missing!” promo for Cirque’s untourable shows. Taken as its disparate elements (tenuous opening prologue, narratively unrelated sequences, lack of character and narrative complication, all sans dialogue), the mind begins to indulge a series of wishes and wants: suggestions and lamentations for what could have been, but sadly wasn’t. You even begin to question its status as an actual film.
But doing so ignores what makes Worlds Away (and Cirque du Soleil) so maddeningly, infuriatingly miraculous. No other institution on earth has made such a lengthy meal of passing nothing off as something, and despite a cynic’s insistence, the Cirque philosophy is utterly seductive. Lowest common denominator it may be, but its magic is undeniable.
Worlds Away defies almost all cinematic conventions, and still emerges as a clearer narrative, a stronger love story, and a more awe-inspiring spectacle than most conventional Hollywood films. Operating on a sensory, semiotic level more aligned with silent cinema, the film draws in the audience with its outstanding visual world and mind-bogglingly inventive characters. With barely any spoken dialogue, each gesture and movement becomes loaded with symbolic meaning, and music fills in the gaps of tone and emotion. Cirque have always married action and music to uncanny effect, and Worlds Away is no exception. The score is bewitching, mysterious and brilliantly varied, spanning classical strings, Asian-inspired drumming, Elvis rockabilly, and even The Beatles.
While the Canadian imaginaires have long since embraced self-awareness (almost to the point of cliché “art for art’s sake”), they’ve somehow avoided complete self-parody. This may be due to the input of writer/director Andrew Adamson, whose previous credits include the didactic Shrek and earnest The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. He fashions a simple story around star-crossed love, and presents the action with an energy that’s usually absent from stage-filmed production.
His transitions from sequence to sequence, despite being total artifice, are wonderfully imaginative, and the film, for all its grand spectacle (and there is lots of that), is crammed with singular charms: tricycles powered by invisible riders, people-sized bugs that dwell beneath the sand, a decapitated rabbit’s head that’s not what it appears. The use of 3D is purely contemporary, focusing on clarity and immersion over in-your-face pyrotechnics. It is, quite literally, the closest thing to being there.
Taken as it is, without critical preamble, Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away does several seemingly impossible thing: it not only makes the artistic surface world of Cirque a deeper, more meaningful place, but it makes that live world engaging in ways that previous filmed efforts have failed. For all its artifice, inconsistencies, and even cliché, there is something irresistible and vital about the worlds Cirque creates. Imagination, wonder, and the childish delight in simple things are often missing from our real and cinematic worlds. If only we could all run away and join the circus.