Tomorrowland

What if one cliche could change everything?
★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2015
Director: 
Brad Bird
Starring: 
George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie
The Setup: 
Psychologically-damaged girl needs to get into eugenic uptopia.
Discussion: 

Here’s what we know about Tomorrowland. Disney wanted to create a movie based on its theme park attraction, like they did with Pirates of the Caribbean and earlier failures like The Country Bears. They hired Damon Lindelof to write a script. Now, why do they let Damon Lindelof write movies? They’re never any good. They’re always bad. They always seem promising, and always turn to be too packed with cool-sounding, dumb-in-reality ideas that kill any overall story momentum or genuine emotional involvement. Then Brad Bird, who has had triumph after triumph so far [including Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol], signed on to direct, and co-wrote the script with Lindelof. Now, why would someone as smart and as supposedly interested in storytelling as Brad Bird agree to work with Damon Lindelof, killer of stories? I don’t know, but all of Bird’s prior fascination with the uniquely special person brought down by the mediocrity around them seems to have gotten caught in Lindelof’s story-overcomplication machine, pressing out a cold, wrinkled turd that represents the worst of both of them.

I have to tell you that I read a shocking amount of reviews of this film, fascinated that it’s problems were not from being a lame soulless blockbuster, but from an overabundance of passion—and blind overconfidence in the coolness of the material—that it apparently resulted in a preachy, senseless mess. The statement it is making—quite obviously and several times—is that only optimists can save the world, and pessimists, and realists, are not just bummers, but actually ruining the world. So I did indeed go in with the intention of hatewatching it, and it lived up to my expectations in every way, while proving lame and lifeless in entirely new and surprising ways.

We open with Frank, that’s Clooney, narrating a video of the story we’re about to see. He says that “The future is scary,” and is immediately interrupted by offscreen chipper camper Casey, the heroine of the film, telling him to be optimistic. He flashes back to the 1964 World’s Fair, where he brought his jetpack, made from two Electrolux vacuums [Q: Why would he have two Electrolux vacuums around the house?], that doesn’t work, but he thinks judge Hugh Laurie should applaud his ambition. When asked the purpose of his jetpack, he says “for fun,” which the soul-deadened adults don’t understand, and NO ONE thinks that they could also be used for, oh I don’t know, transportation? Nevertheless, young girl Athena thinks he’s onto something, and gives him a pin we know will transport him to tomorrowland, and tells him to follow. He gets into an empty car traveling through the “It’s a Small World” ride [Q: Why would they be running an empty car when the ride is swarming with visitors?] He gets transported to tomorrowland, where his jetpack is repaired by robots, and he goes flying around the city, until he is reunited with Athena and Hugh Laurie, as Nix. Got all that? Good, because we’re about to start the film again.

His story is interrupted by Casey, who introduces herself by saying “I’m an optimist.” She takes over the film to tell her story. She is a young woman of indeterminate age who rides her motorcycle to launch a drone into a NASA facility to sabotage the machinery dismantling a launch pad, in protest of NASA no longer funding space exploration. Now, Disney’s Tron: Legacy also began with a motorcycle-riding hero breaking into a corporation to conduct sabotage, and… wow, this is really what Disney wants to encourage in young kids? The cool kids in Disney movies are now anti-corporate criminals? Interesting choice. Her second night at it, she’s arrested, and upon release, finds a pin among her belongings [put there by Athena, still a young girl] that shows her visions of tomorrowland when touched. She sneaks out and goes there, whereupon she gets to see its wonders, such as jet packs, hover-monorails, stacked swimming pools, and shiny white buildings, but she can’t stay there [because of script contrivance Y] and is soon stuck at home, desperate to get back. By the way, everyone is tomorrowland is thin and fashionably dressed. Get that, kids? There are NO FAT PEOPLE in tomorrowland. I don't fucking care how optimistic you are, keep showing Ho-Ho's in your face, you die right here on planet Earth, chubbins. Got it?

Now, did you come to this movie for the promise of seeing an exquisitely-rendered retro-future world brimming with awesomeness? Well, I hope not, because that, I shit you not, is THE LAST we will see of it in this movie. When tomorrowland shows up again, it’s a deserted, bleak wasteland. But anyway, thanks for coming! No really—THANKS!

So you hear that this film hits you over the head with its message, but it can’t be THAT obvious, right? Well, so far we’ve had the opening pessimist/optimist argument, and heard young Frank say “anything if possible.” Then young Casey is asked what is she goes up to space and there’s nothing, only to have her reply “What if there’s EVERYTHING?” Then we hear that NASA stopped space exploration because “It's hard to have ideas, and it's easy to give up.” Then Casey tells us that we’re torn between two wolves, “one of darkness and despair, and one of light at hope” [yes, the WOLF of light and hope]. Then we see a montage of three teachers ignoring Casey’s raised hand as they lecture about dystopian futures, nuclear disaster, global warming, and impending doom, but they have NO ANSWER when Casey asks “What can we do to fix it?” And all of that is in the first thirty minutes. So, that’s what they mean when they say this film hits you over the head with its message.

Anyway, so Casey wants to know about the pin, so she goes to a retro toy store. Now, you may have heard that Disney has bought rights to make Star Wars movies, which is why it may not surprise you that there are at least ten prominently-displayed Star Wars items in the store. There are also a number of items from Bird’s earlier film, The Iron Giant. The two proprietors of the store won’t release Casey until she tells them where Athena is, and when she won’t tell, they start trying to kill her with laser guns. Here’s where the surprisingly, rather shockingly violent side of this movie starts to show up. Athena appears, and rips the robots [as they are revealed to be] limb from limb in a martial arts fight, while they shoot massive holes in the building. Then the entire store explodes. Then policemen arrive, and then three secret service guys KILL the innocent policemen in cold blood. Soon after, apparently ten-year-old Athena is hit head-on by a truck, her body thrown far down the road. Geez, guys… this is a kids’ movie?

Athena [she’s a robot, too] declares that Casey is “special,” basically just because she’s an optimist, and drops her at the doorstep of Frank, now grizzled old Clooney. Casey receives a blow that could easily have snapped her neck, if she wasn’t an impervious movie character, and she later delivers the same blow to Frank. He has a countdown clock, and numerous monitors, that are constantly showing doom imagery, and a monitor giving the probability of world destruction at 100%… but when Casey says “We make our own destiny,” it goes down to 99%. Can you believe it? Do you think the optimism of one little chipper camper can actually CHANGE THE WORLD??? Imagine what they could do if they only found a Hallmark store?

Well, now they’re attacked by robots in the scene you saw in the trailer and thought: “Gosh, that’s shockingly violent!” Lasers blast apart Frank’s house, and we see a man decapitated, one’s hand hacked off, others' bodies cut to small chunks… but it’s okay, because they’re ROBOTS! Children understand such things. They escape in a flying bathtub, then get picked up by Athena, who, it turns out, SENT the robots after them, because “they needed motivation.” I don’t know, would you continue to hang out with someone who sent a homicidal force after you? They get to Frank’s teleportation machine—yeah, just his teleportation machine that mankind was just too PESSIMISTIC to see the use of—and teleport to the top of the Eiffel Tower. By the way, in case you’ve forgotten the message of this film, Athena says that the reason she gave her LAST remaining tomorrowland pin to Casey is “because she hasn’t given up.”

SPOILERS? IF YOU SAY SO > > >
Teleporting [because of Script Contrivance B / Product Placement Contingent F], depletes all one’s blood sugar, so luckily there’s an ice cold COCA-COLA waiting at the other side! Coke! The drink of optimists! Why not share a Coke while watching Tomorrowland? Coke—the drink for dreamers! Don’t dream it—DO IT, with Coke! A match made in Tomorrowland! Anyway, there are two Cokes and Casey RIPS the other one out of Frank’s hand and drinks it herself, despite the fact that his blood sugar has been depleted, too. She may be a optimist, but she’s kind of a little selfish bitch too, right?

We immediately fall back into exposition mode as Frank shows us that Tesla, Eiffel, Jules Verne and Edison all created tomorrowland as a place for the best and brightest to build a bold and brilliant future that… they’re going to keep hidden in some other dimension? That no one ever gets to benefit from? Let’s not let the questions pile up just yet—there’s a rocket built into the Eiffel tower, can you believe it? See, big rocket—no questions! They take off, turn around and come back to Earth, breaking into a different dimension! They crash land in Tomorrowland, now a desolate and deserted husk, the atmosphere thick with NOXIOUS EXPOSITION!

They have a little trackball thing that lets its user see the future, which Clooney tells Nix [Hugh Laurie, he’s still there] he should let Casey use, because he “thinks she can fix the world.” She swiftly learns that the world is going to end in 58 days! Then Laurie lays it all out: Frank made this machine, “the monitor,” that let them see the future. The future sucks. So they showed it to people on Earth [I personally do not recall ever seeing the future, but you remember what we said about questions—shhhh!] in order to catalyze people to do something to save the planet. But they DIDN’T! They didn’t open locally-sourced restaurants and donate generously to NPR—NO! They made mass destruction into ENTERTAINMENT like video games and movies and TV shows that show dystopian futures and Milla Jovovich in hot leather ensembles! And it all became a SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY [you didn’t think it was possible for it to be anything BUT a cliche, did you?] and now all those dour, stinky old pessimists have actually ruined the world for real!

Furthermore, Nix is going to do something or other right now that necessitates another big battle and some more martial arts and killer robots and explosions and a portal to yet another dimension or whatnot, and Athena gets shot, and she’s going to turn herself into a bomb and blow up the thing that’s sending images of negativity to Earth, because if the people of Earth are IGNORANT, then they’ll save the world! That’s a little bit of editorial, right there, although it is implied. They blow up the whojiggy, and then we return to the video at the beginning, which we discover is them prepping a multi-ethnic bunch of new robots kids to go out and find the next generation of “dreamers.” We see them give pins to a woman planting a tree, a ballet dancer, a street musician, car designers, explorers, a teacher, a judge, and various others, although no scientists or politicians, and of course, no one overweight. There you go: World saved! The end.
< < < SPOILERS END

So first, as a movie? The movie fatally misjudges two things: Our delight in all the various mechanical devices, and Casey’s burning desire to get to tomorrowland. For the first, the film seems to rely on our gasping in delight at every retro-futuristic invention it trots out [jetpacks, launching bathtubs] and… we just don’t. We’ve seen it all before, and the surrounding movie just isn’t fun enough to make this stuff amusing. More problematic, the momentum of the movie relies on us getting behind Casey’s mania to get to tomorrowland, and we don’t. First of all, who IS this girl? How OLD is she? Her personality is assembled from prior movie, TV and commercial characters into this jaded-yet-perky, cynical-yet-optimistic movie creation that doesn’t ring true in any way, and probably inspires more irritation than admiration. I suspect a good half of the audience wouldn’t mind her receiving a shovel to the face [A HEALING shovel, though, for sure]. The first three-quarters of the movie—for it takes far too long to get back to tomorrowland—rely on our being behind her wish to get back to tomorrowland and… why? Just cause she thinks it’s cool? Because she’s an awesome, “special” optimist? In the absence of any enthusiasm for her quest, the whole adventure just grows unbearably tedious, which is only made more tiring by all the run-of-the-mill fights and chases and robots and explosions, and the surprising, inappropriate level of violence. So aside from all the ideology, merely watching it is a bummer.

But, Ideologically? This is where your dislike of this movie can turn into hate. The movie is making a very specious and faux-naive argument that only “dreamers” and “optimists” can save the world, and all us nasty old pessimists are actually ruining it. The argument is Huffington Post-level superficial and manipulative, and offensively pre-loaded: If you don’t like this movie, if you disagree with its message, YOU, yes YOU, are ruining the world!

But… there are plenty of people out there right now trying to work against climate change and nuclear annihilation. We’re not all vegetables playing video games and watching disaster porn. Furthermore, these people are AWARE of the challenges the planet faces, which galvanizes their work. The movie makes out that it is KNOWING about our dismal future is what drives us all become fatalist couch potatoes, by extension saying that only IGNORANCE can keep us all optimistic and moving forward. The climax of the movie is to destroy the machine that’s giving us knowledge, arguing that only through ignorance can we all stay upbeat. The movie also makes the fatal mistake of insulting its audience, by calling us all fatalist deadbeats and blaming us for ruining the world. The entire ideology is so simplistic it only reinforces the worst stereotypes of filmmakers as cocooned in a little separate world of complete comfort and surrounded only by like-minded wealthy liberals, all agreeing that the real problem is all those awful, selfish, non-optimistic, non-“special” [whisper: lower-class] dim bulbs out there in the multiplex, stuffing their faces with saturated fat and drinking sugar water while they watch THIS MOVIE, and here we have a real chance to put their ignorance right in their faces and ask them to change!

The other thing is that the whole conception simply doesn’t make sense. So, tomorrowland is this place that exists in another dimension where the best and brightest are thinking of wonderful new advances… that we never get to take advantage of back on Earth? That they keep to themselves in their magical little fairyland that only the “special” get to go to? So then why should we care? Especially when the movie is telling us that we’re all dumb podunks? Better watch out… only PESSIMISTS question their movies, while optimists suck up the shit shoveled to them and are happy for it. The other thing… it looks like tomorrowland takes up maybe the space of Philadelphia on this huge alternate planet that is otherwise all naturally pristine… so maybe the people of tomorrowland could be pals, even though we DID ruin the world, and let us go there, since our planet’s about to be destroyed? That this idea is dismissed [it is brought up in the film] displays the underlying cruelty of their whole Ayn Randian conception of intrinsically “special” people who should be saved… and the unwashed, stinking masses, who should probably just be left to perish.

One last thing that is way down under my skin about the coverage this movie is receiving, is that the word is going around in several articles that the film is failing because “audiences don’t like original stories anymore.” Okay, leaving aside the question of how “original” a story is that’s based on a theme park attraction and composed entirely of well-worn cliches from other films, and the same old musty chases and martial arts and explosions, what about the fact that THE FILM IS SHIT? Does that factor in to why it’s failing? Do you think? But no, that is not mentioned at all, and the reason repeatedly cited for its failure is that it is an "original" story, not a sequel or remake. Is this a way of generating more “evidence” for what Hollywood wants to do anyway—make more sequels and remakes? Another, sub-thread of rationalization is that “audiences don’t like movies with other worlds going on concurrent to our own” [aside from The Matrix and Harry Potter, you see], and THIS is the reason why now Disney has stopped production on a third Tron film.

Way to go, Bird and Lindelof. Ruin it for everybody.

Should you watch it: 

I don’t think so, but it gives a satisfying hatewatch.

Comments

Actually never read any William Gibson. If you advised me, what would you start with?

I couldn't help but pick ads for pics for this movie's pics--they're so over the top. I love the top one with Clooney and the girl with the Eiffel tower exploding... so airbrushed and fake.

The problem with reading Gibson in 2015 is that his ideas are such a part of the baseline culture now--and not merely sci-fi culture, and not intentional assimilation either--that his work won't seem new or interesting.

It's sort of like the old gag about how "Citizen Kane" is boring and trite. Of course it is; every film since then has ripped off some part of it. Similarly, it's interesting to read Gibson's early works to see where a lot of these ideas came from, but you won't be surprised by any of them.

I guess what I'm saying here is that it's good, just don't be worried if you're like "...wait, that's all?" Because back when they were written, the "all" that they are was more than enough.

Anyway, read "Burning Chrome" and "Neuromancer". If those honestly grab you then go ahead with all the others, but he does kind of buy too heavily into his own hype. He's got some interesting ideas about building identity via branding which are relevant to modern society (especially when you think of social activism or political alignments as "brands") but he kind of runs it into the ground through repetition.

Note that the whole "genius held back by the filth around him" trip is a thing in Ratatouille as well, with the genius chef rat being screwed over by his moocher family.

I remember how everyone was talking about that back when "Incredibles" came out; basically "wait, um, this movie has kind of a weird message." I guess the lesson learned is that if you make a cool enough movie, you can have whatever message you want and it's not a problem.

It's a shame to learn that Tomorrowland is kind of a mess. And, y'know, Tron Legacy was a mess as well. Maybe the issue with remakes sucking is not that remakes are inherently awful, but that the people involved just weren't *good* at making movies?

And Tron had the same issue with bizarrely graphic violence for what was nominally a young people's film. Tron had all those scenes of people screaming as their body disintegrated, a woman sobbing as she held her former lover's bits, a man being shot directly through the head right on center screen--but it's cool, they're all *computer* people, it's not like they're PEOPLE people!

And, finally, I love the idea that a movie whose message is "nihilism and cynical manipulation lead to disaster, optimistic naivete is the only way to survive!" has, as an important plot point, one of the characters send killer robots as a false-flag operation to motivate the heroes in their quest. Which is, um, kind of a cynically manipulative thing to do...

As usual, many fine points!

Agreed that the whole exceptionalism angle is endemic to Bird... which I was kind of saying: that somehow working with Lindelof brought out the worst in both of them. It is somehow more cheerful/palatable in Ratatouille and Incredibles. But here we never find out why Casey is "special" except that a) she's an optimist, and b) everyone says she's special. I don't think there's anything WRONG with the idea that specialness should be celebrated [as opposed to the "awards for everyone" mentality], but in this film it kind of becomes that everyone else can just DIE, which is where it takes a nasty turn!

I was cautious about making out like Tron: Legacy was great, because it certainly wasn't. It was indeed a mess, story-wise, and YES to the violence against humanoids issue--I, too, was shocked by the moment someone gets shot through the head. But I think that movie was geninely great and amazing in just putting a bunch of new, gorgeous visuals on screen. We've come to require movies to tell good, and compelling stories, but movies are a visual medium and I think there's something totally worthwhile to just putting a bunch of astonishing visuals in front of your eyes. I always said: if we could just have a version of Tron: Legacy with all the dialogue stripped out...

I actually had a great time at this movie DESPITE it being something of a preachy mess, because someone finally challenged the parade of masochistic, wallowing, interchangeable "dystopian" fiction that they've been churning out since "The Hunger Games". Sometimes it seems like every trailer for every new big movie can be adequately summarized with, "It's a hundred years in the future, and everything sucks." I laughed hysterically at the scene where Casey's teachers stare uncomprehendingly at her when she asks, "Can we fix it?", because that's the point--they don't want to fix anything, they just want to make solemn annoincements and be acclaimed as deep thinkers. Cynicism and pessimism are not "realism"--they are just as distorted and shallow as chipper optimism, and this film had the courage to say it (in a muddled way, admittedly). That was a genuine risk in today's cinematic atmosphere. (Honestly, I coukd go the rest of my life without ever hearing the word "dystopian" again).