Reflecting on Cirque du Soleil’s brief foray into moviemaking
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But in retrospect, turning a bunch of Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil shows into a blockbuster movie seems obviously misguided. Ten years ago this week, Paramount Pictures released Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away, a $25 million production shot in 3D, produced by James Cameron and written and directed by Andrew Adamson, who previously helmed the first two installments in the Shrek and Chronicles of Narnia franchises. It was the first foray for Cirque’s new film and TV venture, created in partnership with Canadian company Bell Media.
At a local press junket for the movie in December 2012, executive producer Jacques Methe, who was also president of the newly formed Cirque du Soleil Media, expressed optimism for the future of Cirque on the big screen: “If the public is there, and it works really well, we’re going to start working on the second life of this movie, and working on the second movie at the same time,” he said.
Worlds Away debuted in 11th place at the box office, eventually grossing $12 million in the United States. It garnered a 45 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “The empty imagery of the Cirque shows often seems exciting in the moment, but lacks deeper meaning,” wrote Los Angeles Times film critic Mark Olsen, calling the movie a “bargain sampler platter appetizer.” Viva Elvis, one of the seven Las Vegas shows featured in Worlds Away, had already been closed for four months by the time the movie opened. In January 2013, Cirque laid off 400 employees. There have been no more Cirque movies to date.
Of course, Cirque remains a thriving company despite various setbacks, with six shows currently running in Las Vegas. O and Ka, the shows most heavily featured in Worlds Away, are still going strong after 24 and 18 years, respectively. But Cirque’s name-brand recognition remains limited to its colorful acrobatics. Going to a Cirque show is something people do on vacation, probably in Las Vegas, and may not enter their minds at other times. No matter how spectacular the sequences in Worlds Away might have looked on a big screen in 3D, they’re still just filmed performances from casino showrooms.
That can work as a limited event-style screening, like the theatrical showings of opera and ballet performances, or for concert films from musical artists like BTS with massive fanbases. But Cirque doesn’t have the kind of devoted following that makes its filmed productions a must-see on the big screen, and Worlds Away was presented as a narrative feature film, not a document of a stage show.
Watching Worlds Away today, these issues seem readily apparent. Adamson aims to add a narrative structure to the collection of performances from seven Las Vegas Cirque shows (O, Ka, Mystere, Love, Viva Elvis, Zumanity, and Believe), but the story is the primary focus only in the movie’s first 10 minutes, which establish a romantic connection between the wide-eyed Mia (Erica Linz) and the alluring Aerialist (Igor Zaripov). The movie opens somewhat jarringly on a shot of a real-world railroad crossing, but it quickly enters the realm of fantasy, as Mia is enticed by a collection of tents and booths under a sign for the Circus Marvelous.
She wanders through the midway before spotting the Aerialist outside his own tent, where they lock eyes before he’s whisked away to prepare for his act. There’s almost no dialogue in Worlds Away, which fits with the Cirque brand but makes it harder to care about the characters. Less than a year earlier, the French silent film The Artist had won five Oscars, including Best Picture, so audiences might have been open to connecting with characters who never speak. But Adamson doesn’t bring the cinematic techniques needed to enliven such a simple love story. He’s far more focused on grand spectacle than intimate emotions.
Mia follows the Aerialist into the circus tent, then down a portal that opens in the sand of the ring below him during his routine. Both characters descend into a Cirque dream world, a fog-shrouded landscape with glowing tents that represent the different Cirque shows (the interstitial material was shot in a studio constructed at the South Point’s equestrian arena). Already, the storytelling creativity seems limited, as Mia is transported from one magical circus-themed world to a slightly different magical circus-themed world. But her journey soon becomes largely irrelevant, as she enters the first tent and is sidelined in favor of a showcase of acts from O.
So it goes for the rest of the running time, as Mia follows the Aerialist from one show to another, sometimes walking between the tents, sometimes being instantly transported. There’s no narrative continuity between the shows, nor much effort to fit them into the thin story of the two characters being kept apart. Linz and Zaripov are both Cirque performers, not actors, and their brief interactions are closer to mime than screen acting. The movie culminates in a silks routine with the two stars that looks impressive but carries no emotional weight as the climax of a love story.
As a “sampler platter appetizer,” as Olsen put it, Worlds Away is more of a success. It’s not exactly a documentary, and it’s not so relentlessly boosterish that it feels like a corporate promotional video, although at times it comes close. It makes Cirque’s shows look awe-inspiring, especially because Adamson can get the camera much closer to the performers than any live audience will ever be. The perspective from underwater in O or on top of the moving stage in Ka is only possible to witness by watching this movie.
It’s no surprise that Worlds Away emphasizes these fantasy-based shows, which come closest to fitting into an immersive mystical world. By contrast, the multiple Beatles numbers from Love and one Elvis Presley number from Viva Elvis feel out of place, reminders of the shows’ mundane origins. Thankfully, Adamson didn’t include Criss Angel, and the only element from Angel’s Cirque show Believe (which closed in 2016) is a rabbit-costumed performer who leads Mia to her next destination.
Maybe if Cirque had been more open to integrating its signature style into a different kind of movie, similar to the scene of the characters in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up getting high and seeing Mystere, the company could have made more inroads in Hollywood. As it is, Worlds Away is more like a very expensive yearbook, a snapshot of a moment in Vegas history that never grew into something larger.
“It shows you danger, it shows you elegance, it shows you beauty,” Linz said of the movie at that 2012 press junket, “but I kind of hope that it also shows you the heart of what the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil family is.” Worlds Away is ultimately more about technical prowess than heart, although Linz and her fellow performers certainly put everything they have into it. If it’s Cirque showing the world its heart, then the world remained indifferent.