cirque du soleil world’s away review…in a word, WOW

Full disclosure: I have been a huge Cirque Du Soleil fan for decades, watched my first Cirque video back when you rented them on VHS cassette, and have seen them live, twice (and seriously—if you ever, ever, get the chance, don’t hesitate, just go), so, no surprise I suppose, I loved this film.

Therefore. Short version: explosive superlatives! Wowowowow! Love!

Now for the longer version. Loved it, but I did have a reservation, see below.

Cirque du Soleil World’s Away is an amazing spectacle of 3-D tech, plus Olympic-level athleticism, plus the most imaginative, creative sets/make-up/etc out there, resulting in a triple threat of circus-y wonder that took my breath away. It takes acts from five of the big Cirque shows like “O” and “Mystere,” ties them together with a light frame story, and documents these acts with astonishing camera work and high-definition capture that boggled my eyes. I’m going to say something about each of these three elements, so here goes. I told you this was the longer version.

First the acts. FIVE FUCKING STARS. I mean, holy shit, how do these performers do this stuff? This is not a CG movie (except for some lovely huge-scale shots outside the tents), no, this is the REAL DEAL, just what these incredible athletes can do, set off by what the visual artists create, the sets and costumes, put to gorgeous music—who the heck needs special effects when you have Cirque???

Honestly, I repeatedly have felt over the years that Cirque du Soleil pushes the boundaries in my mind of what humans can be, what we can do, physically (obviously) but also creatively, and World’s Away totally captures this. It’s so inspiring, like the first time I saw pictures of the Taj Mahal: humans can do this. We aren’t all strip malls and petty meanness. The limits we tend to think of as standard are LIES.

My inner watching-Cirque monologue goes something like this: Oh my god, is s/he really going to do that?!? Danger! Are they going to break? What is that, costume? Body paint? Just how naked are they? What are they thinking as they smile while they are bent in half backwards? I wonder if they get bored doing the same act over and over? Does it hurt? Do they like each other, these performers holding such intimate and life-threatening (so it seems) contact with each other? They must trust each other, at least, to do this stuff. But still, are they catty rivals or best friends or lovers? All three? Just what would sex be like if you could do that? Here is someone doing crazy, impossible upside down splits and wow, I’m looking at another human’s crotch spread out like I never see anywhere else, so that’s novel. I wonder how long it takes to train one’s body to do these things? Does it damage them, long term? How long will be they be able to do it? What’s the injury rate? What do ex-circus performers of this caliber do when they retire? How much do they get paid? Is that a man or a woman? Is that a tattoo?

It’s all so mythical and larger than life. The performers sometimes seem to be animals or magical creatures or mystical embodiments of strange dream-world archeytypes. I love the non-logical way the shows activate something in my imagination, even as part of my brain is going this is so bizarre.

I think my favorite was the fast metal spinning around gear things with the guys inside jumping up over the top on their hands, or jumping rope, or other insanely dangerous stunts. Or no, maybe it was the gorgeous woman doing crazy backbending dives into a glass fishbowl. Or no, wiat, maybe it was the comic book characters doing crazy leaps on sideways trampolines, that was pretty cool, too—their costumes were shaded with dots, as if they had sprung right off the comicbook’s printed page. Cool and with a sense of humor! I like Cirque best, I think, when it laughs a little, like it knows how bizarre it is, too, and isn’t it grand?

Why yes, yes it is.

This thing is spinning super fast and that guy on the top is running on his hands and jumping rope on the outside of that circle. It’s also easily thirty feet up, probably more. And he has no wire, and no net.

Fabulous costume design, of course, but this is Cirque so that goes without saying. Those zebra women? Or those crazy floating jelly fish dancers?? Or the meat suits the warriors wear on the vertical wall???? What?!?

Okay, basically, no amount of astonished exclamation points and full-frontal squeeing are going to be enough to show my experience of the performances.

So I’m just going to move on, now, okay?

The camera tech. I popped my 3-D cherry on this thing, so part of my response is surely the wowy kazowy of seeing terrific 3-D effects for the first time. Someone who has seen a bunch of 3-D already is possibly yawning about all of this, meh, 3-D, whatever, but seriously, the detail you can see, every rhinestone, every bead of sweat, the freaking g-force on the flesh of the performers as they leap and twist—this is all stunning. The individual water droplets flying through the air, the trapeze rushing through space, the contortionists balanced atop of one another right there and I swear I could very nearly touch them—it was soooo cooooool! It’s MAGIC, how do they do that??

It isn’t just the 3-D but also the amazing camera angles that show us the performers from above the trapeze, under the water they dive into, swirling around them, up-close and from a distance, and especially in slow-motion. Seeing Cirque live, the performers are so incredibly fast, I mean, live I get a sense of what is going on and the miracle of what they are doing, and the danger, always the danger—and yes, the danger of live-performance is missing a bit from the movie—but I miss so much. Here, in exchange for the live-performance-danger element, you get to really see what they’re doing. It’s the Matrix bullet-time in HD. It’s amazing! This is a Cirque du Soliel you’ve never seen before, and can’t see, any other way. The hands reaching through space to catch each other, the super fast spinning around thing and that dude leaping over the top of it on his hands, holy shit, seeing that from his perspective is astonishing.

Basically I can’t think of a better use of 3-D slow-motion than Cirque. James Cameron, I salute you!

This is a giant snake, puppet or animatronic, I’m not sure, and to give you a sense of the scale, those fluttery things are humans twirling around on ropes doing astonishing tricks. Crazy!

Which is to say that I am stunned, stunned, that World’s Away is only rating a 58% at the moment over at rottentomatoes.com and that so many of the reviews say things like “just a promo reel for the shows.” No one is knocking Cirque, to be sure, but tons of people don’t seem to like this version of the show. That sound is my jaw hitting the floor.

Take note, I am now moving on to the frame story discussion.

*Puts on Writer’s Hat*

Having said all the above, I think I understand, as a storyteller, why some critics are balking.

The film starts with a lovely set-up, evocatively filmed, with a young woman named Mia, played by Erica Linz done up to look rather like Audrey Tautou in Amelie, walking into a small circus pitched on the edge of some Mid-Western town.

Mia has a brief run in with the pretty, mean girls at the entrance, a walk through the seedy freakishness of the low-rent booths and lower-rent performers, and then we find emotive Mia making some serious eye-contact with a gorgeous hunk of a bashful carny…only to have him shooed away by a older, more bitter version of himself, bummer. Except the young almost-couple reconnect across the not-so-crowded main event when Mia sees that the headliner, the Aerialist, is none other than her hunky carny, and we know they are going to get together, because that’s how these things work.

Okay. Nothing wrong so far. Mia and the Aerialist get sucked through the floor of the circus ring and into stranger and stranger worlds where they must find each other again. We journey with one or the other from act to act. Frame story functioning properly. There are few spoken lines and the characters are the broadest of fairytale archetypes, but that’s all right. All systems go.

The problem arrives when all this evocative storytelling gets dropped half-way through. Mia searches for her man who seems to have been captured by the weird circus people but manages to escape (or is helped to escape?) and finally he sees her through a crowd of scary clown-types (are there any other kind?), and even though they are separated once again, he starts looking for her, too. And then….

Nothing. I lose them in the middle. The Beattles section (loved the sheer joy in the Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds part!), then Elvis (fabulous, a bit of the darker side of freaky circus-ness) and then, suddenly back to Mia and her Aerialist and boom, they are together. Huh? They find each other in a blaze of aerialist glory ending in a giant orgasmic fireworks display (who needs metaphor?) but how did it happen? I missed something in the middle, or a chapter was cut, something. Why have they now found each other? Why is he now sort of integrated into this world (what with his rope-things and new, shiny pants)? Why is her dress suddenly sparkly? What did this pair overcome in order to get to this new place of connection? I am confused.

I kind of expected them to go back to their Mid-Western town. I thought for sure Mia was going to have another run in with the three pretty, mean girls (because why else have them in that opening? Just to show she isn’t that type of girl?) only this time she would have the gorgeous Aerialist on her arm. But no. Still, the main thing is that the mystery of their falling through the floor is never resolved—or it could, on purpose, not be resolved, as if they fall through the seedy-cheap carnival floor into the Archetypal World of Circus that exists like an Aristotelian Perfect Form of Circus-ness behind the curtain, and then are spit back out again, not knowing how or why but changed by the experience. That would work. OR they could choose to stay in the crazy circus world, because it certainly seems more interesting than the town they left—and maybe this is what they were aiming at? But we never see them choose that. We see them get together, but what of the crazy world, this grand adventure, what has it all meant to them? I’m left hanging, just like the two of them are at the end of their aerial duet, two puppets after the puppet master has gone off to lunch. The whole thing is dropped. Leaving me with the feeling of “what happened?”

This, I think, is the main reason some people are panning the film. The story, so carefully set up in that opening scene, gets short changed. I really wonder if there is a missing scene in there, after the Moon Goddess, but before Mia finds her Aerialist, that explains how she has changed that allows her to find him, shows her in relation to the Beatles scenes, or shows a final struggle that is over-come, something like that. That missing scene, plus a tag after the fireworks, either a return home, or a choice to stay, something.  Just a couple of minutes would do it. Such a scene would have increased my sense of satisfaction at the end tremendously.

And I mean, hey, this is Cirque, filmed by James Cameron, in luscious 3-D. It doesn’t actually need a frame story to be amazing. But having offered a story in the beginning, it hurts it to not complete the story promises made by that opening sequence.

But enough about that.

*Takes off Writer’s Hat*

One more word about the culminating aerial dance between Mia and the Aerialist: it is gorgeous, romantic, full of acts of profound trust, as when she holds onto his extended neck and is lifted forty feet into the air, or he holds her by one hand, or catches her mid-air. So beautiful!! A wonderful topper to the acts up to that point. I would pay again just to see that performance, if I had the money. The last bit where they are hanging, not even looking at each other during the orgasm fireworks, was weird, but the duet before that is perfection.

Oh, um, not to mention the fact that sitting up close and personal (or experiencing the 3-D illusion of that) to the half-naked Ivan Zaripov’s glistening, muscular torso, does not suck. I mean, this is what the human form is supposed to look like people. Wow. Just…wow.

In summary! If you like Cirque du Soleil, you have no business avoiding this film. Honestly, I can’t imagine being so jaded that one would pish posh this film as “just a promo reel” or “just a sampler platter for the real shows”. It’s gorgeous and astonishing and made me feel wonder like Im a little kid again. What a gift! And while it does have some flaws, the good far outweighs them, in my opinion.

See it on the big screen in 3-D!!! Highly Recommended.

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