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March 11, 2013 | by  | in Film | [ssba]

Film – Escapism Done Right and Escapism Done Wrong

Escapism has become something of a dirty word among film critics. It’s intended as the ultimate slight, used to deride films as populist trash. Audiences have bought into this by justifying blockbusters as ‘escapist fun’, thinking that such cinematic drivel provides a distraction from the pressures of modern life. however, ‘escapism’ shouldn’t be thrown around as an insult, nor should we settle for the dumbed-down escapism of hollywood. Drawing an audience into an experience dissimilar to their own is actually a remarkable feat, something which many films fail to accomplish. Through journeys into alien landscapes, warped nightmares, and things that simply couldn’t occur in modern-day society, filmmakers can explore the full breadth of the human experience.  Escapism is a window into our humanity, not a juvenile rejection of it.

Science-fiction movies are excellent fodder for escapism, even though the results are often mixed: defying scientific boundaries allows us to pull away from our planetary cradle into the unknown depths of space, or the possibilities of advanced technology. Sci-fi horror flick Alien rests upon fantastical notions of extraterrestrial life and technological advancement. however, its thematic core hinges upon uniquely human concerns. The phallic imagery concerning the ‘facehugger’ serves as an analogy of the male fear of penetration and rape. Similarly, Alien’s quasi-prequel Prometheus uses the concept of an ‘alien abortion’ to examine the common maternal fear that the child growing inside them is deformed. In both cases, they are shown in a gory, preposterous fashion, but this exaggeration reveals the depth and potency of the fears that they are referring to. To render such concerns in a realistic fashion would simply dull their emotional impact.

however, escapism doesn’t necessarily have to involve journeying to unknown realms; rendering familiar environs from a different perspective can provide the same scope for exploration. Black Swan takes place within a cinematic landscape that is recognisable, but also distorted and embellished. Following a ballet dancer’s drive to become the ultimate ‘Swan Queen’, it explores common desires for artistic perfection. Instead of being a simple drama however, the film is presented as a psychosexual horror filled with paranoid delusions, graphic mutilation and sordid sexual fantasies. It is unabashedly ridiculous, but chillingly effective when put on screen. It provides us with insights (and thrills) that a straight-laced tale of a frustrated ballet dancer could never replicate.
Unfortunately, many people’s conception of escapist cinema consists of hollywood schlock. They will point to the Michael Bay blockbusters and the roland Emmerich disasters as being amusing distractions from the drudgery of modern life. however, these films fail to break away from the mundane, instead  ressing up the confines of familiarity in a shiny veneer. Films like Battleship play off patriotic sentiments in order to enforce the establishment and its values. They may be escapist in the loose sense of defying reality, but this is vastly inferior to the intelligent escapism that comes from truly stepping away from social and cinematic norms. Moreover, they are rigidly formulaic. Battleship isn’t just an appalling film merely because it’s incomprehensibly stupid, but also because its thrills are hackneyed. Generic aliens invade Earth and shit starts to blow up. Big deal. The escape these films provide is controlled; a sanitised hollywood style of ‘letting go’.

It’s time to reclaim the word ‘escapism’. Let’s stop taking it to mean a juvenile fantasy that has no intellectual heft. Let’s stop using it to justify the xistence of the cliché-ridden actioners that clog our cinemas. Instead, it should be the moniker of films that manage to truly transport us; films that expose us to different experiences and unique insights.


Gerald Lee


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