Before my recent hiring here at Paste, I spent three months in the soul-draining and all-too-prevalent circumstance known as unemployment. I filled this windfall of blank day planner pages with books, music and the rediscovery of my favorite Super Nintendo game. Yet I found myself with plenty of leisure time still un-wasted, so I finally tackled my mile-long “movies to watch” list. And even after a steady procession of fantastical tales, I still had more free moments than any 21st century schizoid man could need. This gave me the opportunity to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: Over-analyzing those escapist films and why I love them.
Yes, escapism is a word presently lugging around several kilotons of social baggage, and maybe rightly so. Whole swathes of pop-fiction’s numerous subcultures toss up their middle fingers reflexively at notions of subtlety and nuance. And the cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as those subgenres bristle harder still at the slightest criticism, circling their wagons around overworked epics about bland antiheroes in preposterous worlds which magically validate their solipsism.
But none of this really matters. Escapism, the act of stepping outside of your world and your self, is just a tool. You can use it to Turn Your Brain Off, as the readily-invoked refrain goes. You can also use it for quiet contemplation about your life, your loves and your values. So in the spirit of good, old-fashioned storytelling, here are five excellent and unabashedly escapist movies well worth your time and imagination:
1. Sergio Leone – The Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
Leone’s final movie in his genre-defining Dollars trilogy is this seamlessly-executed and palpably pulpy Spaghetti Western. The breathtaking wide-angle cinematography and Ennio Morricone’s robust and brass-heavy score frame a powerful meditation on greed and revenge. It’s a story of indecent men in indecent times, where life was often violent and uncomplicated. And amidst this grim tableau, Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco vie to be the man with the loaded gun, because the only other option is the futility of digging your own grave,
2. James Cameron – Avatar (2009)
The consensus on Avatar, new god of box-office grosses, is that the special effects are revolutionary and the dialogue and plot are wholly forgettable. That’s fair criticism; the movie is basically “Pocahontas in Space” with amazing CGI, wrapped in an unsubtle polemic about environmentalism and corporate malfeasance. But it’s such a visual triumph that you kinda forget how every line seems like it ends with an exclamation point, and are content to just partake in the world Cameron has crafted.
3. David Lynch – Dune (1984)
It’d be hard to write an apologia for the film that nearly torpedoed David Lynch’s career, especially after he’s labored so furiously to distance himself from it, so I won’t try. The movie is near-lifeless at times, and some of the special effects look like they belong in one of MGMT’s faux-amateurish music videos. All those flaws are balanced by the fruits of Lynch’s meticulous directorial style: A ridiculously detailed cinematic world and an engrossing, if uneven, adaptation of one of the greatest sci-fi stories of all time.
4. James Cameron – Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Even killer cyborgs have feelings. This retelling of the Pinocchio story is a full-throated affirmation of the universal need for love and friendship. Ahhnuld’s turn as the titular robot assassin who learns to be human adds a layer of tenderness and emotional substance to an ostensible explosion-fest, though that role did have the unfortunate side effect of launching his late-career shift into buddy flicks. But T2 gets a place on this list mostly because of how I saw it: The original print, on the big-screen at the Museum of Modern Art. If only I could have gone back in time and high-fived my ten-year-old self. Or given the thumbs-up as I was being lowered into a vat of molten steel.
5. Terry Gilliam – The Fisher King (1991)
My feelings about this film are probably (definitely) influenced by my obsessive relationship with the source material – I once wrote a lengthy essay on Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur for an independent study in medieval literature. The ever-whimsical Terry Gilliam transplants the Arthurian mythos to present-day New York City, where Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges undertake a quest most perilous for redemption of the former’s body and the latter’s soul. It’s the story of the Maimed King’s death and resurrection as told in the Tale of Sir Galahad. Only, when The Fisher King pulls away the samite it reveals an inner, intangible Sangrail: the curative and transformative powers of idealism, forgiveness and love.