The benefit of having low expectations is that when they are defied, the feeling is of being greatly uplifted.
I went into the local cinema to see the movie Tomorrowland yesterday. I was curious but not optimistic: the trailer looked cool but it also seemed to consist of the entire first half of the movie. Spread pretty thin, then? It’s based on a Disney fairground ride, which doesn’t seem like a promising start. Then again, so is Pirates of the Caribbean and that turned out alright. And it had George Clooney in it – an excellent actor but noticeably willing to go way down market from time to time. In all honesty, my main interest was in going to see a movie that isn’t a ripoff of something I watched when I was six.
In the near future, idealistic young Casey Newton is feeling ground down by the doom and gloom attitudes of those around her. All she ever learns about at school is the imminent menaces of climate change, nuclear war, and dystopia-style politics. Then she goes home to face the closing down of her father’s job, as an engineer on the decomissioned NASA launch platform at Cape Canaveral.
After having gone the rebellious teenaged genius route of sabotaging the demolition of the platform, she’s caught. But in collecting her effects after being bailed out, she’s presented with a pin, ostensibly a relic from the famous 1964 World’s Fair. But when she touches it, she’s shown a vision of a city, a remarkable new world where all the potential of science and human imagination has been let loose, a utopia of achievement and idealism. Stricken by this vision, she goes on the road to track down its meaning, and finds Frank Walker. Not budging in the face of his bitterness and reticence, she begins a quest to learn the nature of Tomorrwland, and of the threat that inextricably links this world and that one. A threat which Casey may be able to prevent.
So it’s a standard pro-idealism semi-messianic story as far as you go. The wild carnival-ride sequences betray the priorities of the source material, and result in a lot of action. The dieselpunk aesthetic and the travelling to idealized other-worlds makes it seem like fluffy-happy BioShock as much as anything else.
Sounds great, but not unconditionally so: the high action level comes at the expense of time that might have been better spent on worldbuilding. As it is, the plot breezes past so quickly that we occasionally find certain questions unanswered: why, precisely, did Walker leave Tomorrowland? What is society there actually like? We don’t actually get a good look at what it’s like to live there, and how the shared threat affected Tomorrowland and its society. The implication is that it has gone from utopia to dystopia, but we don’t actually see that this is the case. Likewise, antagonists and story elements come and go in the race to reach Tomorrowland, so that the tone of the movie and the general plot type seems to change a couple of times.
The design itself sometimes doesn’t seem like it was thought through beyond ‘let’s do something cool.’ If it had been, some more imaginative and less over-the-top scenarios might have arisen, affording more unity to the narrative. It might also have spared us the obliviously, hilariously phallic imagery in the Eiffel Tower sequence.
The ride Tomorrowland is the main inspiration, as are the rides of the 1964 World’s Fair, as mentioned above. The unconditional optimism of that era is inspiration for Casey, for Frank, and for the writers.
Probably the biggest stumbling block of the movie is that the dialogue, particularly Casey’s, is so painfully saccharine and pretentious that her idealism and optimism come right around and starts sounding goofy. There are certain other aspects of this: Frank in his childhood flashbacks, Athena, the serious, perceptive and mysterious little girl – although she’s young enough that she’s probably not an experienced actress; kind of reminds me of Emma Watson in the first Harry Potter movie. The final sequence where a series of new ‘dreamers’ are shown from around the world is so relentlessly multicultural that it seems slightly frantic, reminding me of the thoroughly but artlessly inclusionary spirit of Captain Planet.
Obviously, including people from all cultures and countries is entirely correct for them to do, especially as a counterbalance to the dark side of the upbeat 1960s we started with – this was, after all, also the era of ‘No Colored’ signs in business front windows. It occurs to me that really what they should have done is cast Casey as a woman of colour, but that’s Hollywood for you: willing to send any message as long as they don’t have to actually exert their imagination meaningfully to do it. As it is the fact that she bears a suspicious resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence shows that Hollywood is still better at talking the talk than anything substantial.
Fundamentally, the movie has a positive message and wants to push optimism and activism in a cynical age, but it can’t quite get away from the long-standing stereotype that you can’t have those things without making them look foolish and silly to at least some extent.
You know what, though? For all its disappointing and disjointed tone and pacing, this was the movie I really, really needed it to be. I’d just been reading over at a neighbouring blog an articulation of my own feelings of how pop and geek culture seems to revel in unrelenting bleakness and misery – Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, the Hunger Games. Geek culture, the birthplace of Star Trek and the mad man with a blue box, where Bilbo Baggins found his courage and Queen Lucy’s belief saved Narnia, has sunk into a state where anything less than a freaking nightmare isn’t considered believable or seemingly, even desirable.
But Tomorrowland cloaks itself in the old ways. The sky’s-the-limit optimism of the Sixties – birthplace of Star Trek – is hearkened back to from the word go. There a lot of visual gags and other classic geeky references in the movie. The soundtrack is trying – a touch desperately – to be a continual homage to Star Wars. It struck me that Tomorrowland itself bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘city of the future’ portrayed briefly in the episode ‘the World Set Free’ from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series – a connection which would have been a non-white protagonist all the more on point, incidentally.
When the script afforded Hugh Laurie’s character a chance to call out the cynical culture of geeks and people in general, I very nearly cheered, because he eloquently calls out the very thing that gives this movie applicability. Subtle it ain’t, but then again Hugh Laurie could make your credit card statement sound like the most important thing you’ve ever heard.
So Tomorrowland is a bit graceless and most definitely a B-movie. But it’s a Fun Movie and has the virtue of taking a big ball of symbolism and subtext and blasting it into our faces like a reviving bucket of cold water. The soundtrack is superb, the special effects and design first-rate, the acting really above the call of duty for the script, and if it’s a bit slapdash, it at least did a slapdash job of something worth doing.
We can still make it, people!