With Hugo Cabret Martin Scorsese explored his love affair with Georges Méliès’s magic and the enchantment of early cinema.
Tim Burton enables the viewer to touch some of that magic again with his latest magnus opus. He teases the ability of cinema to stir and nourish our imagination through artful intertwining of the conventions of the fairy tale, the gothic and the Bildungsroman. Things appear and disappear; worlds and images are superimposed in a kaleidoscopic dynamic of “show and tell”, characters morph in and out of different identities and forms. This filmic spatial and temporal magic lantern projects fantastic and realistic elements, rendering some dimensions visible if we have the proper eye sight, that is if we let our imagination wander to take us on fantastic flights into endless possibility.
The gothic stages the conflict between good and evil, and dramatizes haunting monsters—including historical monsters—that cannot easily be dismissed as children’s fears. The Hollows—offsprings, perhaps of T.S Eliot’s The Hollow Men—conjure up our topical craze for zombies and other living dead figures; their desire to eat children’s eyes revisits the Promethean quest for power. The main protagonist’s odd ability to see what others can’t see literalizes some prophetic dimension.
The fairy tale backdrop provides the context for exploring how peculiarities can be seen as “gifts”. Numerous supernatural elements and the children’s versatility create wonder and dream; their awe-inspiring ability to break conventional assumptions about gentility, strength and beauty, constitutes an interesting twist on some of the generic conventions. Mary Poppins and Sleeping Beauty come— uninvited—as potential doubles to Burton’s protagonists. But Miss Peregrine, unlike Mary Poppins, appears from the sky without an umbrella: instead, she can turn into a bird when necessary to save the children under her care. The formulaic romantic theme is framed within a story of Love and self-sacrifice.
The well-known trope of the time machine is reinvented through the notion of the time loop that engages with our current perception of mortality and attending desire for immortality. The obsession with clocks goes beyond the allusion to Alice in Wonderland even if the giant carrot triggers a synecdochic allusion to Alice’s famous rabbit. Mastery of time and eternal youth comes with a terrible trade off: the surrender of free will to mindless predictability and repetition. Human robots, perhaps, in the world of paradoxes and oxymorons ushered by fiction and fantasy. And beyond.
The fight in the midst of the fair may look farcical—calling too obviously, perhaps, on zombie paraphernalia. Unless the viewer chooses to see it as a variation on the fair motif (merry-go-rounds and all!) and an indirect comment on our own current “time loop” …
Last but not least: the shy teenager morphs into a brave and undaunted hero who decides to leave the eternity promised by his own time loop to embrace change and aging. The long journey—as emblematized by the voyage on a liner and its attending Titanic tableau of eternal love—begins.
Of particular interest is Burton’s ability to blend different generic traditions to deal with major themes: freedom and agency, temporality and mortality. An unexpected bonus: the reference to Emerson provides a palimpsest to reflect on self-achievement and self-reliance. The interfilmic dimension frequent in Burton’s work takes on a peculiar turn with the character of Horace whose special power allows him to project for others movies to see—silent films made up from his dreams, nightmares or forebodings—Burton’s own tribute to cinema, perhaps, and to its power as the art endowed with foresight.
The romantic viewer will appreciate the revision of the iconic shot of James Cameron’s Titanic lovers, along with the empowering prospect of having the liner emerge back from the sea, as if indeed historical events themselves could be recovered and averted or reversed. Rescuing the Titanic out of the stillness of its own time loop might become the ultimate happy ending in a world so enamored with the virtual and alternative reality(ies).
The overall warped sense of time and place resonates with our current dwelling in temporalities and spaces we can choose or opt out of. Jacob’s final decision to shed his time loop to embrace the “accidents of life” provides, perhaps, an ironic reflection on the posthumanist promise of eternal life. In Jacob’s case, at least, eternity comes with too high a price: to undergo the same repetitive pattern of one day’s journey whereby volition is doomed forever, forever is freedom lost. Some hellish chiasmus and no exit.