The lure of the unreal

Moviegoers still get caught up in otherworldly tales. What's the allure?

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

From the spookiness of "Signs" to the old-fashioned wizardry of "The Lord of the Rings," the long-lasting trend is clear. Comedy and action still draw crowds, but fantasy is the genre of choice for filmmakers and audiences who want to tap into cinema's most imaginative possibilities.

At one end of the spectrum are sword-and-sorcery sagas set in exotic places. At the other end are science-fiction stories, which are more grounded in reality, but use their futuristic technologies as perfunctory backdrops for magical adventures. Some pundits think the wave of fantasy filmmaking will subside, especially if war movies continue to grow in popularity following the Sept. 11 attacks and new anxieties arise over safety and security. Enthusiasm for pictures like "Black Hawk Down" and "We Were Soldiers" suggests some truth here.

But others feel the apprehensions caused by Sept. 11 are giving fantastic films more appeal than ever.

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Film and the fantastic have a long history together. Fantasies danced on screens a century ago, when magician-turned-director Georges Méliès filled early nickelodeons with pictures like "Summoning the Spirits" and "The Phrenologist and the Lively Skull." He turned to the past for many of his ideas and images – borrowing from literature, painting, and other art forms.

Méliès's influence remains strong on modern moviemakers. Look at the goofy adventures in "Men in Black II" and you'll see the same mixture of outlandish whimsy and extroverted cinematic tricks.

What explains the enduring marriage between film and fantasy? One answer is the nature of cinema itself. Movies are real and unreal at the same time, lifelike visions made from flickers of ephemeral light. They're a perfect medium for stories that want to reflect and transcend the everyday world.

Nobody understands this better than George Lucas, whose digitally enhanced "Attack of the Clones" came closer than any previous movie to erasing the boundaries between film as photography of the real world, on one hand, and film as technological dream state, on the other.

Fantasies flourished for millenniums before cinema was invented, though, so factors rooted deeply in human nature are clearly at work.

Some people get so caught up in otherworldly tales that they lose sight of what's actual and what's not – as "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling proved when she told an interviewer she's received many letters addressed to the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, sent by youngsters who hope she'll pass them along to headmaster Dumbledore.

Once upon an archetype

Harry's personality carries a clue to the popularity of tales like his. He's a likable boy, and by the standards of traditional fantasy, he's a believable, three-dimensional character.

More important, he's as ordinary as the rest of us – setting aside the wizards in his family tree – and his all-too-human traits make him something of an underdog. Magic and enchantment give him extraordinary abilities we'd all love to have, and by reading or viewing his adventures, we share vicariously in his ability to tap mystical sources of mastery and power. What worked for the Brothers Grimm still works for Rowling and her contemporary colleagues.

In his own unpretentious way, Harry is what folklorists call an archetype – a character who represents an ideal image of a personality or idea, and may carry lessons inherited from the turbulent history of human existence.

Jedis, hobbits, and puppets, oh my!

Other characters who fit this description are Frodo the hobbit, just about everyone in the "Star Wars" saga, and even Austin Powers, with or without his mojo. And don't forget Pinocchio, who inspired last year's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" and returns to the screen this Christmas in Roberto Benigni's retelling of his story.

Pinocchio's quest to become a "real boy" is a metaphor for our desire to enter fantasy-fiction worlds that make our own lives feel larger, more colorful, somehow "realer" than they normally seem.

We see aspects of ourselves in archetypal characters, and we identify with their stories because we recognize our experiences in the tasks they undertake and the challenges they face. Archetypes are endlessly fascinating because we all start life as children prone to magical, wishful thinking.

Themes reflecting the deep uncertainties of childhood – household mysteries; fears of being left alone; the sheer size, strength, and inscrutability of the adult world – surge through our dreams and reveries for the rest of our days.

Fantastic stories bring these to the surface in safe, unthreatening forms, allowing us to confront and deal with them afresh. "The stuff of fantasy is the mental life of childhood," says Murray Pomerance, chair of the sociology department at Ryerson University in Toronto, "and it's reborn with every generation. To engage in fantasy is to return to the point of view of childhood."

Such tales can also renew our intuitive awareness that there's more to reality than the world we perceive with our senses. Part of fantasy's enduring appeal is its willingness to tap into a wider realm that everyday logic can't grasp. At its most effective, fantasy offers a way of enlarging our mental and moral horizons.

Not everyone sees this as a plus, as religious debates over the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" series repeatedly show.

Writing for the Decent Film Guide, Internet movie commentator Steven D. Greydanos commends "Harry Potter" for "redemptive themes ... of good vs. evil, of loyalty and courage, of the evils of bigotry and oppression." But he notes that others "have attacked the young hero of Rowling's series as a veritable poster child for the occult," and suggests there might be a slippery slope from Harry's adventures to fare he finds more problematic, like "Dr. Strange" comics, books on witchcraft, and TV shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

In sum, not all fantasies are created equal. What some find an adventure in mind-expanding fun may strike others as the opening of a dangerous doorway – itself a timeless fantasy theme, stretching from venerable folk tales to "Monsters, Inc."

Another factor in fantasy's enduring appeal is the way it leads readers and viewers to choose sides in arguments over everything from the overarching meaning of a story to the most esoteric details of setting, lore, and the "rules of the game" that give even the most flamboyant flights of fancy a foothold in human rationality.

Fantasies are diverse in another important way, too: Some are worth watching or reading, others aren't. The imaginative realms meticulously etched by J.R.R. Tolkien in "The Lord of the Rings" and C.S. Lewis in his "Chronicles of Narnia" novels are gateways to psychological and historical insight as well as hugely exciting places to visit.

Compared with those, the petty, violent worlds of modern-day horror films and the unkillable "Terminator" series (among other examples) seem sterile and mechanical. Judging from the silly new "Austin Powers" and "Men in Black" installments, film fantasy isn't in top imaginative form. But it hasn't lost its ability to stir people, as I learned when my lukewarm review of "The Fellowship of the Ring" sparked angry e-mails.

And a growing number of filmmakers are finding it a fertile source of inspiration.

They filmed happily ever after

Some take startlingly novel approaches, as Richard Linklater did in last year's animated "Waking Life," about a young man caught in the hazy zone between dreams and actuality. He's not sure how to escape it, and like audiences beguiled by today's multiplying fantasies, he's not sure he wants to.

So the trend rockets on. "Signs" is poised for box-office triumph, Frodo and Harry Potter are waiting in the wings, and new fables from the "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" creators are on their way down the Hollywood pipeline. For the foreseeable future, this is a genre no magic wand could wave away.

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