Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing one of Cirque du Soleil's current productions, Totem, in Atlanta over the holidays, so I'm likely still a little spellbound while expressing these impressions on Worlds Away. The arresting experience of going to one of their big-top exhibitions -- the lighting, the artistic perspective, the inclusive sense of wonder -- is something that simply doesn't translate properly to the big (or small) screen in edited recordings; the physical marvels and colors are conveyed alongside the iconic music, but the essential atmosphere that so deftly transports the audience to another world gets lost in translation. Worlds Away stands apart from those, though: it's a concentrated fusion of the circus' signature artistry with relevant cinematic techniques, geared to elevate the viewer's captivation through shifts in perspective and slow-motion. And it would've worked rather well, had the production focused on a cohesive viewpoint instead of featuring its currently-running Vegas shows in a jumbled patchwork.
Generally, Cirque's productions adopt a central theme, such as evolution, cultural synthesis, or nomadic travels, and juxtapose different expressions of that theme against one another through dazzling artistically-inclined feats, creating a mosaic that tells a story by provoking the senses. Worlds Away does stay true to the brand by accomplishing something similar, but with a curious meta-subject: instead of something vaguely philosophical, this film simply focuses on exploring the Cirque du Soleil universe. It features a beautiful pixie-haired young woman, Mia, played by Cirque performance regular Erica Linz, who traverses through fantastical realms in search of the Aerialist (Igor Zaripov), an acrobat who fell during a high-elevation routine she witnessed at the circus. Each stage in her travels features a few performances from each of the troupe's currently-operating Vegas productions, spanning across the ethereal and tribal to odes to the Beatles, while eccentric characters either help her along or thwart her advances.
In more ways than one, Mia becomes our eyes and ears through the whimsical environments of Worlds Away, somebody who experiences Cirque du Soleil's myriad realms in search of something (someone) magical. While an abstraction of an audience member hopping between fantastical "levels" of reality does present an interesting opportunity, the cherry-picked scenes from other shows carry another, partly-unintended effect: Mia's journey feels unfocused and superficial, and almost like a joint advertisement for Cirque's productions instead of a cohesive artistic expression. Traditionally, each "act" of the circus finds ways to inform the central topic, yet since these worlds are by design not cohesive (the more vibrant tones in "Love" and the raw tribal energy in "Ka" aren't intended to mesh), the only purpose that this shift between them services is to add whimsy to Mia's search -- and to make the audience captivated with each glimpse at those realms, which can be further explored ... elsewhere.
Once you get over that hurdle and embrace what Worlds Away sets out to do, there's plenty of Cirque du Soleil's signature amazement to be found as the individual segments come to life through rigorous, intricately-designed eye candy. While director Andrew Adamson's perspective overuses slow-motion and occasionally breaks immersion with distracting close-ups instead of full-stage focuses, often at the same time, he's also brought the experience closer to a representation of the circus' in-person properties through those same tactics; there's a slow-motion stretch of a flexible woman who's bending and floundering in a human-size bowl of water that creates a sense of wonder beyond what the stage can obtain. Mia's journey to find her Aerialist through the troupe's world -- through zipping arrows, contorted Asian bodies, octopus gardens, and tilting sand dunes -- might be a straightforward yarn with ulterior motives, yet it's successful in what it sets out to do: make one savor the artistry of Cirque's multifaceted world, and yearn to seek out more.
Video and Audio:
Spearheaded by James Cameron as a sensory experience with 3D in mind, the photography in Worlds Away relishes color, texture, and depth in ways that intentionally emphasize the splendor of Cirque du Soleil's production design. While this Blu-ray from Paramount isn't in 3D, that focus on aesthetics still renders a stunningly vivid experience in high-definition through this 1.78:1-framed 1080p visualization: the ravishing palette in costumes and make-up work endlessly captivate through both vibrant and deep, rich tones, while the intricate detail explored in abstract costumes and makeup work rarely allow the eyes any time for rest. Shifts in color are dynamic, the shows' complex lighting carries over with exceptional contrast balance, and the extensive slow-motion photography never lets a pixel feel out of place. In essence, this production was shot to appear perfect as a provocation of the senses, and provoke it brilliantly does.
The 5.1 Master Audio track sets a similar objective in its sights: splashes of water and billowing fire, the gyrating of metal apparatus, and other circus-infused elements aim to keep the audience surrounded with engaging aural delights, which this Blu-ray deftly accomplishes. The impressive thing about the disc's sound-effects presentations comes in the very slight elements that remind one that it's a performance, such as the movement of feet along the stage and the sound of a body falling into a trampoline. Those who have experienced the live shows understand how crucial the musical accompaniment becomes as it bolsters the performance(s), though, which becomes the most essential and triumphant component of this near-reference track through expansive, percussion-heavy resonance, frequently and playfully using the rear channels. One or two sound effects either get lost in aggressive music or don't sport much of a punch at all, but in all this is a marvelous, attentive track. French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English Description audio tracks and subtitles are also available.
A little over fifteen total minutes of extras have been made available on Worlds Away, dominated mostly by A Day in the Life of Erica Linz (13:23, HD). This piece offers a glimpse into the early creative process between Cirque du Soleil's performers as they conceptualize a number, which leads into a mix of general discussion about their passion for the troupe with footage of their rough floor exercises and wire work -- as well as some further examples of exactly how adept Linz can be at her craft. The other two brief features, Making Worlds Away (2:26, HD) and a Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas Commercial (1:02, HD), do little beyond touting the prowess of the company and confirming which pieces belong to what productions currently running, though it's nice to see producer James Cameron and director Andrew Adamson chat about their enthusiasm.
Disc Two presents the film in a standard-definition DVD without any of the special features. As a nice little bonus, a "coupon" for 20% off select Cirque du Soleil showings has also been made available with these first pressings.
Exploring the Cirque du Soleil universe through film remains an intriguing concept, a fusion of stage and screen that transports the audience to the fantastical and near-impossible, but it's not something that Worlds Away truly accomplishes. Andrew Adamson's direction attempts to juggle too many objectives -- stay true to the performances; create a cinematic perspective; and include the numerous Vegas productions with disparate themes -- which neglects to give it much focus beyond surface intentions. Essentially, what it provides is a sampler platter disguised within a trifle of a story about a girl searching for her acrobat under the tents of different realities, where the unifying theme is celebrating the powerful, theatrical, awe-inspiring essence that makes Cirque du Soleil such an enduring cultural phenomenon. And it does so, with some occasionally jaw-dropping feats of strength and artistic expression, but at the expense of missing an opportunity for something greater. Paramount's Blu-ray presents the performances in exquisite fashion through this 2D Blu-ray; the technical presentation of the performances makes the eye-candy itself worthy a recommendation, but the overall production itself can be appreciated through just a Rental.