Toruk: The First Flight inherits the same ambitious spirit of James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar in more ways than one: it’s set entirely on the alien moon Pandora, with large amounts of dialogue spoken in the Na’vi language; it pushes the boundaries of how technology can be used to make entertainment more immersive; and it’s inherently flawed in a way that doesn’t completely take away from the sheer spectacle it presents. It is, after all, a Cirque du Soleil show, first and foremost. But beyond death-defying stunts and lavish production values, Toruk aims to tell a real story, making it arguably more stage play than circus show—with varying results.
As is the case with Cameron’s titanic film (pun intended), the narrative plays second fiddle to the very experience of watching everything unfold. Cirque du Soleil gets around the constraint of not having CGI at their disposal by bringing Pandora to life through a constantly evolving stage. Hydraulics, moving parts, projected images, and additional effects that the audience can activate from their phones collectively make the world of the film more tangible and immediate. If Toruk does something better than Avatar, it’s that it invites the audience to be a part of the show, instead of keeping them at arm’s length as outsiders looking in.But it seems unlikely that most audience members would want to be a part of the show, on account of how Cirque du Soleil’s performers continue to do things that should be impossible for human beings to pull off. Though not as intense as Cirque’s other productions, Toruk remains a testament to what the human body is capable of, with the cast of acrobats contorting their bodies and falling from ridiculous heights for two hours. Impressively, the stunt work doesn’t shatter the illusion that you’re supposed to be watching aliens, not humans. The world of Avatar is a natural fit for Cirque du Soleil, the Na’vi costumes and makeup only enhancing the cast’s performances, while the actors all move and speak like the blue aliens themselves.
It’s with the narrative elements of Toruk that the show struggles to maintain its footing. Its story—that of two young Na’vi searching for a legendary creature, the Toruk, in order to save their tribes—has a simple and mythical quality that works best in motion. The show is thrilling when the characters move from one tribe to the next, building up Cameron’s world and establishing the complex culture of the Na’vi. But too often the show completely pauses in order to explain events or attempt to develop its archetypal characters. It’s a ballsy move that can’t help but kill some of the momentum, keeping the show from achieving the sort of intensity the story requires, or that one would expect from a Cirque du Soleil show.
Even with these well-meaning missteps, the spectacle of Toruk can’t be denied. Cirque du Soleil is clearly well versed in the art of putting on a show; even with so much going on at once, they know how to funnel the audience’s attention toward one set piece at a time to prevent anyone from becoming overwhelmed. But if you want some advice: let yourself be overwhelmed. The circus is in town, and you’ll want to make the most out of it.
TORUK: THE FIRST FLIGHT RUNS UNTIL JULY 2 AT THE MALL OF ASIA ARENA. ORDER TICKETS AT SMTICKETS.COM.