The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

★ ★ ★ ★

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the most significant film event of the decade. This is not to say that it is the best film of the decade, though it is certainly near the top of that list. It's importance lies nearly as much in the circumstances of it's production and marketing as in it's actual aesthetic value. The film was nearly derailed by the untimely death of Heath Ledger, who was cast in the lead role as Tony. In order to save the production, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell offered to complete Ledger's role. The film took place partially in London, and partially in an imaginary CGI world. Miraculously, all of the non-CGI scenes were shot before Ledger's death, so the film was ultimately salvaged. For fans of the late actor, this came as a welcome surprise. Despite the fact that the Joker was Ledger's strongest role, I could not think of a more appropriate way for his career to end.

The Imaginarium is an extremely complex film. Terry Gilliam is known for throwing way more at his audience that they can handle in a single viewing. If you've seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you might know what I mean. If you've seen it more than 3 times, you definitely understand. Nominally, it is simply a film about an archaic side show. The ring leader, Doctor Parnassus, has mystical abilities which allow bystanders to be transported to a mystical world, where their dreams--or nightmares--may come true. Unfortunately, this summary doesn't do it justice. There simply is no way to summarize the film. At it's core, it is about the tension between reason, and the imagination. This struggle is embodied in the aging Parnassus, who's show has long since lost any mass appeal. He lives to show the world the pleasures of the mind, though he struggles to do so in a society largely dedicated to instant gratification. In a crucial scene, Tony attempts to convince Parnassus to modernize his show. Listening to the newcomer lecture the old master, it is clear that this is an extremely personal matter for Gilliam. As a director who's films lie outside of the mainstream, Gilliam has been pressured to do so for his entire career. As we watch Parnassus fall prey to this temptation, we are also watching Gilliam do the same. Unfortunately, critics seemed to have missed the irony.

The world's that Gilliam created behind the mirror were as beautiful as anything I've seen in CGI. Though it was not as technically as impressive as Pandora was in Avatar, it was used to greater effect. The fluid melange of landscapes, mostly created from great American paintings, combined with Gilliam's array of surreal creatures and props, created a dream world of epic proportions. I now feel like I've experienced the dreams of Terry Gilliam.

Heath Ledger made the single most dramatic entrance to a film I have ever seen. Aside from the eerie effect of Ledger posthumously entering the film, the way in which he does so is particularly ominous. Ledger's death increased the gravitas of the role to a near prophetic level. Each time Ledger stepped through the mirror, I couldn't help but wonder if it would be his final exit. The themes of death and immortality have rarely seemed as imminent.

Some critics may point out that some of the dialogue is stilted. This is particularly the case in the scenes with the Devil. This is inevitable with this type of film. I chuckled during my first viewing of The Seventh Seal, when the protagonist challenges death to a chess match. It's so outlandish a proposition that it's hard to take it seriously. The same thing happens to an extent in Parnassus, though it's important to remember that it is not supposed to be as dark. Gilliam's devil is not the dark, suave figure that is typical of such films. That would be too simplistic for Gilliam's taste.

Unfortunately, Parnassus has not yet received a full release. Many theatres have not yet released it, likely because it is being crowded out by the success of Avatar. Hopefully when the Avatar hysteria dies down, Heath Ledger will get the send off he deserves.