Escapism in cinema: Let’s run away to the movies!

Escapist cinema has been around since year dot, and most box office hits are those movies that let us run, run, run away. Huzzah! But what exactly are we running away from?

Depending on what’s happening in the world around us, our hopes and fears as a society are bound to twist about a bit. What was hot in the 1400s (living past 30) isn’t exactly what we’re pushing for today (whatever’s leaking out of Steve Jobs brain). What’s interesting is how cinema reflects these changing desires – showing us what we most covet in any particular time. Hell, the depression era and 1940s were all about escapism films. Breezy comedies and glossy musical romances with big band numbers were the order of the day. You can still see photos of smudged, weary civilians queueing round the block to see a bit of jewelled feather and tra-la-la. The price of cinema tickets? Low, to encourage repeat visits. The hour or so of a different, happier perspective? Priceless. Cinema became the new faith, the comfort in the dark… they were called screen goddesses for a reason, after all! Scarlett Johannson, incidentally, while perfectly nice and not unskilled, is NOT a screen goddess. She is just a girl with a symmetrical face.

So since then, what is it we’ve come to lust after? Take a trip down cinematic memory lane with us, and we’ll have a look…

Oh mercy me, I’m poor. Show me the money-happy!

Escapism in movies

The eighties were full of financial woes, with strikes galore, market bubble bursts and the stock market crash. Films in the eighties gave people a moneycentric escape route. They focused on not only the possibility but the likelihood of ‘get rich quick’, whichever walk of life you came from. Yes, you COULD trade places with a millionaire (Trading Places). If you were a working girl, you could shimmy your way to the top with nothing but an attitude and a pair of shoulderpads (Working Girl). If you were a hooker you could become all classy and stuff just by stepping into a car with Richard Gere (Pretty Woman – released in 1990 but still the ultimate eighties fairytale). The antidotes to the ‘get rich’ fairytale were, of course Wall Street (‘greed is good’) and Bonfire of the Vanities (great book, shame about the film, the production of which eerily echoed its title).

Don’t dream it, wear it…

Escapism in movies

The noughties have been a shoddy decade in many respects. Thanks to sweat shops and the internet meaning a lack of privacy and everyone knowing bloody anything, there is no reason for you not to emulate the rich lifestyle even if you’ve got nothing in the bank. For £80 you can get a ‘build in 10 minutes, break in 5’ bit of IKEA that makes your shabbitat look like a penthouse. In the eighties, only a select few would have even heard of Manolo Blahnik. Now, even bloody Carrie Bradshaw collects them. And so does the Streatham shop girl who emulates her.

Moneycentric escapist films of the noughties aren’t centred on how much cash you flash, but what you wear. They’re not about becoming rich – they’re about looking like you are. SATC2, The Devil Wears Prada… the antidote is, of course, Mean Girls.

Bored and lonely. Make it not so…

Escapism in movies

Love hassles have never gone out of fashion, and ‘love can happen to you’ film escapism turns up whatever the weather. Sometimes the escapist romance pretends it’s all clever and stuff (50 First Dates, Love Actually, King Kong) but it’s all just bollocks. Chick flicks will exist as long as there are chicks and dicks. The antidote? Single White Female.

My inner salaryman is a superman

Escapism in movies

More than any other decade, the noughties have been about fantasy and superheroes. With the war on terror, September 11 and general economic downturn, the western world is not feeling very superheroic at the moment. How to deal with this? Superheroes! And yet more superheros! We can pretend they’re not escapist by making them all gritty and stuff, but we know they’re superheroes really. Batman is a massive franchise. Iron Man is the sexiest thing ever. Superman’s having a go. Superhero films to see in 2011 will be Thor (yay) and Green Lantern (er…). Let’s not forget Pirates of the Caribbean! Pirate? Nah, come on – scratch a pirate, find a superhero. They both do whatever they want, dude! And nobody blows their towers down! The antidote is… not Kick-Ass. An awesome film, yes, but in satirising people wanting to be superheroes it basically says we can be superheroes. The antidote is obviously… Watchmen And V for Vendetta. God bless the mostrous wisdom of Alan Moore.

The geek shall inherit the earth

Escapism in movies

Super-soldiers will never go out of style, either in real life or the movies. But recent years have seen the rise of the geek in both environments. We’re looking at you, Napoleon Dynamite! Men no longer have to act like men – they can buy Firebox toys (hey, we all do it), play Fallout (hey, we all do it) and stay young and weedy forever. Geek screen icons like Michael Cera are getting plenty of work. According to Independence Day, even an alien culture can be thwarted with the shittiest laptop Mac ever brought out. The antidote? Error. Error. Does not compute.

I don’t like this world. Build me a better one.

Escapism in movies

Okay, so you don’t want to be a superhero. Not a problem. If you don’t want to change yourself, just your life, then how about the movies change the world around you? With CGI and budgets as big as Sauron’s ego, the movies can do it well now. They can dream it for you wholesale. Think of all those people who painted themselves blue and burst into tears because Avatar wasn’t real. I haven’t yet met a person who wasn’t utterly enchanted by the sheer splendid everythingness of Lord of the Rings. There may be no antidote to this most deliciously immersive of drugs, but one can always watch The Matrix (an escapist world within another), The Truman Show (aww) or Inception (the thinking man’s escapist world). Or perhaps one could take the paranoid ‘nothing is real, they’re all out to get me’ route and go straight for the Philip K Dick mainline: Bladerunner, A Scanner Darkly and the gloriously silly/thinky Total Recall.

Hang on… weren’t we promised flying cars?

Escapism in movies

And you believed that? Christ. You fool. Not to worry, the film studios will bring you technocratic utopias and dystopias galore. Revel in things one day achievable! Watch The Matrix! The antidote? Gattaca, Equilibrium and eccentric golden-oldie Fahrenheit 451 which is like Equilibrium but better. Although with no gun katas – sorry.

So, all in all, are we a nation enriched by a constant kiss-chase between reality and fantasy? Or are we forever doomed to live in envious despair, spending our precious pennies gazing at experiences we know we can never live? To be honest, it’s probably neither. Escapist films let us drench ourselves in the glories of the human imagination, giving us that chink of hope even in the darkest of times that someday, reality might catch up with us. And as far as we’re concerned, that’s enough. As long as Stevey J can promise us those i-hover-boards, obviously.

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