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`Escape' Themes Rob Films of Human Touch

CABLE, videos, and pay-per-view television were supposed to make movie theaters obsolete. Instead, box-office results show that people are going to cinemas in record numbers.

``There is a common thread both to the eagerness with which Americans devoured movies this summer, and the particular movies they made into hits,'' says Brian Stonehill, an author and media theorist who directs the media-studies program at Pomona College, in Claremont, Calif.

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``There has been a rediscovery of `chauffeured entertainment' ... the pleasure of surrendering to the big screen,'' Mr. Stonehill says.

Movies are hits when they coincide with our dreams and fears, says Stonehill, citing these themes of escape and surrender in recent hits:

* ``Jurassic Park'': ``This is an allegory about our fear that the leisure principle in our lives will overwhelm or devour us - that we are actually threatened by our amusements run amok.''

* ``The Fugitive'': ``This strikes a chord with viewers who themselves are trying to run away from a system that is trying to imprison them, a parable of escape from present circumstances, from unrighted wrongs.''

* ``Sleepless in Seattle'': ``A reassurance to a species that is becoming disconnected by disembodied technologies ... it enables romance and the human touch to triumph [by using that] technology ... to allow spirit to transcend distances.''

The escape from creative limitations provided by digitalized imagery - signaled by the awesome realism of dinosaurs in ``Jurassic Park'' - requires a cautionary footnote, Stonehill says.

``We are becoming a society starved for and spoiled by strong sensations,'' he says. ``Ironically, our ability to reproduce realism separates us even further from reality.

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``What gets lost is the ability of our new technology to give us insight into how we think and feel, or how we can care more about each other. Rather it's getting much easier to tell ourselves ghost, dragon, and dinosaur stories that have nothing to do with how we are, and everything to do with what we would like to think about ... less to do with exploring and more to do with escaping,'' he says.

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