Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tomorrowland by any other name is Yesterdayworld

Tomorrowland is screenwriter Damon Lindelof's strongest work.

Tomorrowland is director Brad Bird's weakest work.

Tomorrowland's ambitions are a mile wide.

Tomorrowland's substance is an inch deep.

If you want to avoid any potential spoilers, then stop reading here. This is a film suffering a profound identity crisis. It desperately wants to be a reaction against the flood of dystopia narratives filling bookstores and cinema screens, but ultimately is just as much a dystopia as Hunger Games or Insurgent or Maze Runner. In fact, it's worse. Despite its obvious good intentions (and the film punctuates its Good! Intentions! so often that they're impossible to overlook) it is ultimately cynical in its approach to those very ideas as well as toward the audience sitting down to enjoy the show. Case in point, this is what Tomorrowland promises:

That's selling point. That promise is the only marketing of the film. That promise is inherent in the title. Yet, George Clooney's Frank in the film has the most profound, unintentionally self-aware line in the entire movie when he rants (slightly paraphrasing here due to spotty memory), "You were sold a lie! It's a commercial!" The Tomorrowland promised literally doesn't exist anymore. For a movie that relentlessly insists that imagination is one of the most important traits a human can possess, the script has precious little of it when it comes to narrative. The plot is teh same old formulaic plug-and-play Hollywood trots out ad nauseum. But beyond the basic failure of imagination when it comes to the plot, the story also shows a distinct lack of imagination (or interest) in its own self beyond gorgeous window dressing. Why doesn't Tomorrowland exist as promised? Dunno. That's never explained. Why did Tomorrowland exist in the first place? Um... smart people. Plus, Edison and Tesla hated each other, but were drinking buddies with Jules Verne and Alexandre Eiffel. Or something. What happened to all the people Frank saw in Tomorrowland when he first arrived? Why was Frank even kicked out? Why is Hugh Laurie's Nix trying so hard to keep Tomorrowland secret? Why are there packs of Terminator-style assassin androids roaming modern America, disintegrating police officers willy-nilly without raising any suspicions? And really, why is it that all futuristic robot/android societies feel the need to exterminate humans? (Did anyone else notice the similarities betwixt this movie and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? Anyone?) And while I'm at it, the Tomorrowland pin macguffin has got to be the biggest virtual reality liability lawsuit waiting to happen. If Casey breaks her neck falling down the stairs, or drowns in the lake, Athena's going to look pretty stupid. Then again, we never found out what happened to the recipients of Athena's other pins--Tomorrowland recruitment may well have an astronomical mortality rate.

None of these--and many other--questions are ever answered. Wait, I take that back--some are answered in passing, but by that point the audience is distracted and has lost interest. Others are non-explanations, that acknowledge said question and offer a few details that seem, at the time, to resolve things, but are ultimately just hand-waving. Are we seeing a pattern here? Yes! I have just described every script Lindelof has ever written! I've complained about Lindelof's writing before, here and again here. There is one particularly egregious moment in the first half of the film where Athena (an android girl who is literally the only character with a complete understanding of the situation and the catalyst of the plot itself) fakes a fail-safe shutdown for the sole purpose of not providing necessary information to Casey, the protagonist. This sets up an amusing character gag a little later in the film, but that doesn't excuse the fact that most of the intervening mayhem, death and destruction could've been avoided had Athena not inexplicably decided to be a dick for the sake of being a dick.

Lindelof is a writer who has never shied away from questions. The problem is, he has no clue as to what the answer is, and has zero interest in figuring it out. Instead, he dances around and fills his scripts with hand-waving, hoping audiences don't notice the gaping plot holes or break down of all logic. He could not write a script that progressed from point A to point B without having characters withhold vital information from each other--information they had every incentive to share! He has not improved one iota as a screenwriter over the course of umpteen projects. His is superficial masquerading as profound, and reminds me of another filmmaker unable to break out of a stagnant creative loop--M. Night Shyamalan.

So what, if anything, is it worth seeing this movie for? Well, the female characters for one. There's a glorious bit of squabbling that goes on halfway through the film that could've come straight out of The Incredibles and reminds the viewer that Brad Bird is still in charge. Casey, played by Britt Robertson, is infectious with her enthusiasm. Although there are moments when she's trying too hard (the film stops just short of "Insert Soapbox Here"), when she's simply allowed to inhabit the character there are flashes of Jennifer Lawrence-level investment. Raffey Cassidy's Athena steals the show, however. A fiery spark plug of a character, Cassidy reminds me of Maisie Williams with her seemingly limitless capacity to be simultaneously annoying and endearing. She also gets all the best lines. As for the rest of the cast, eh. Clooney plays the same Clooney character he portrays almost exclusively these days. Hugh Laurie is wasted as the one-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain Nix. The rest of the cast is merely there, serving their roles but neither adding nor subtracting from the film.

The movie's a great deal of fun when it's not trying so hard to Convey An Important Message. Bird knows pacing and keeps things moving at a brisk pace. The few glimpses we get of a fully-realized Tomorrowland are magnificent. Jet packs. Rockets to the stars. The suspended, multi-level swimming pools are particularly inspired, and had my swim team daughter bouncing in her seat with excitement. That's the movie we wanted. That's the movie we were promised. Instead, we a bleak, "Paradise Lost" dystopia with a facile "Feed the right wolf" moral to the story. Yes, there's hope at the end, the idea that Casey and Frank and all their robot helpers will get it right this time (even though we're never really clear on what actually went wrong). They face the future with optimism, that tomorrow will be better than today because of sacrifice and determination. Once you get down to it, though, isn't that the same as The Hunger Games?

Tomorrowland is the very thing it condemns.

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  1. There's also something of a theme on inevitability, predestination, free will and time travel that can be summed up as "If you know the future, will that knowledge lock in the inevitability of said future?" The movie's answer seems to be "Yes! You are indeed locked into that inevitability, unless it can be thwarted by a heroic death."

  2. And even my kids noticed that Tomorrowland is pretty much a whitewashed movie until the very, very end when multiple ethnicities are introduced. This *may* have been a comment on 1950s segregation and pre-Star Trek visions of the future being populated exclusively by WASPs, but if that's the case, they muffed the kick.