Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review: TOMORROWLAND

NOTE: This review is brought to you in part by The MovieBob Patreon. If you like it and would like to see more, please consider becoming a Patron.

Despite the fact that I believe "pure objectivity" in criticizing films, entertainment or anything else is impossible, largely useless as a pursuit and shouldn't be of primary import either to critics or people reading them; I do worry about times when my own biases might get in the way of things. Not because I might violate some nimrod's vision of "ethics" (whatever the hell that means anymore) but because I don't want to write anything I'll be embarrassed about a year or so later.

So, if nothing else, I can say I appreciate having seen TOMORROWLAND in exactly one respect: This is a movie that's made by people I like about a subject that's near and dear to my heart and has a bunch of Big Idea moral/philosophical points to make about humanity, society, art, culture and the ordering of the world itself that could've been pulled wholesale from own psyche... so I'm kind of glad that I found it so plodding, patronizing, preachy and wrongheaded - at least I'm "unbiased" enough to have been able to look past all the stuff I'd otherwise be desperate to like (or even to excuse.)

SPOILERS (which are unavoidable) after the jump:



TOMORROWLAND comes courtesy of director Brad Bird and writer Damon Lindelof, so it's not exactly a shock that it's a longform fable jointly extolling the virtue of individuals not following society's prescribed roles and encouraging society to get the hell out of the way of its more exceptional individuals so they can get busy improving the world for everyone (Bird is best known for RATAOUILLE and THE INCREDIBLES) ...that fails completely as a work of storytelling, is more interested in thematic sleight of hand than a cohesive narrative and is alternately boring and confusing with all the clarity (and more interesting details) relegated to "mystery box" lore-building in the margins and online-"ARG" bullshit (Lindelof is guilty of both LOST and PROMETHEUS.) 

It's a feature-length first act full of hints and mysteries amid generic action/road-trip beats, all building to a profoundly unsatisfying denouement wherein characters deliver truncated TED Talks directly to the audience and a coda (which I've already seen one person aptly describe as "United Colors of Benetton Randianism") that actually gets across Bird's apparent point so powerfully that it makes the preceding rest of the movie feel even more disposable. There's a big, richly-concieved mythology to this story, hinted at in the background details of the film itself; and yet it feels like, having mapped out the history and future of the titular Tomorrowland, Bird and Lindelof decided to make a movie about the least interesting portion of it. Imagine if the original STAR WARS TRILOGY was just one movie entirely about Luke visiting Yoda for the second time, but the much more interesting events of A NEW HOPE, EMPIRE and JEDI were constantly being talked about (unseen) the whole time, and you'll have an idea of how self-defeating TOMORROWLAND feels.

The film opens at the 1964 World's Fair, where a kid inventor loses an invention contest because his jet pack doesn't work but receives an "invitation pin" from a mysterious little girl named Athena that activates when he takes a spin on the Mark I version of "It's A Small World" and beams him to what looks like The Future... as imagined in 1964 (gleaming cities of scientific progress, robots, automated-everything and, of course, jet-packs, etc.) The story then leaps forward (there's a dumb "feels-like-a-rewrite" framing device) to The Future... as it actually turned out, aka our own present: Everything sucks, everyone gobbles up doomsday news reports and dystopian futurism without trying to fix or prevent it, pessimism reigns and the future-forwardism symbolized by the World's Fair scenes seems dead; symbolized most iconically by the dismantling of the NASA Space Shuttle program. This is where I was sure the movie had me: I am, and forever will be, an unapologetic "Where's My Jetpack?" futurist in both my gooey "Rocketships! Wheeeee!" heart and my cold, hardened technocratic brain.

Anyway! An optimistic, science-loving girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) has been trying to sabotage the decomissioning of a NASA launch platform, which nets her a visit from the somehow still young Athena (I know you've already guessed, but the movie wants you to play along) and a pin of her own that produces a timed holographic projection of Tomorrowland; where she's told that special, exceptional people like her are welcomed to put their gifts to greater, unencumbered use. But it also leads to her being hunted by a succession of humanoid robots (I know, I know, and they still drag out the reveal for no reason...) and ordered by Athena to seek out help from a Tomorrowlander in exile: The kid from the opening, now grown into a hermit/inventor named Frank (George Clooney) who can help them get back "there" if the robots don't get them first.

So... yeah: Driven young woman disillusioned by a world sinking into mediocrity seeks out gruff genius for access to a secret city where humanity's betters can ply their craft without the petty normals holding them back - if Brad Bird really does want people to stop bugging him about what some see as "soft Objectivism" in his movies (INCREDIBLES in particular); putting together what boils down to "Walt Disney's ATLAS SHRUGGED For Non-Sociopaths" might not've been the most logical next career move. Either way, from that point on the film is effectively "Tween TERMINATOR as a road-trip," as Casey and (eventually) Frank and Athena make their way to the goal while veeeeeery slooooooooowly teasing out the details of what's going on and why for no discernible reason beyond Lindelof's continued fealty to the worst impulses of his mentor JJ "Mystery Box" Abrams.

I want to be clear here, for the record: I purposefully didn't watch any of the ARG/backstory/mythology stuff online until after seeing the movie, so my objection to how long it takes TOMORROWLAND to get to the point isn't based on some kind of fanboyish desire to get to the "cool stuff" I already knew about. Even taken strictly on its own merits, the slow-drip plotting combined with super-generic "go here, do this" Dan Brown-esque storytelling is labored and mechanical, transparently serving zero purpose other than "We're building to a reveal, okay?"

So what's the Big Idea? Starting at the turn of the century, an organization of the world's best and brightest innovators (scientists, engineers, artists, writers, thinkers, activists, etc) conspired to set up a safe-space (in what appears to be an alternate-dimension) where they could innovate and create their way to solutions for a utopian future free from the interference of greed, profit, politics or (unsaid, but implied) the nagging of narrow-minded normals. "Tomorrowland" is the fruit of these so-called "Plus-Ultras" labors (membership including Edison, Tesla, Eiffel, Verne, Amelia Earhardt, Einstein, Ray Bradbury and Walt Disney himself) and their long-term plan was to A.) send robo-kids like Athena to Earth scouting for potential exceptionals to recruit and B.) ultimately reveal Tomorrowland to humanity and make that "model future" the actual future. But something went wrong involving an invention of Frank's, leading to his exile and Tomorrowland's cynical Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie) cutting off contact between the two worlds; which has had the side-effect of turning Earth into the progress-resisting pit it (in the film's and evidently Bird's jetpacks/NASA/robots/gadgets = The Good Future view of things) is today.

Heavy-handed, sure, but not totally a lost cause premise-wise. But the film doesn't stop there - it can't leave well enough alone, can't trust the audience to grasp an esoteric concept like imaginative-entropy as an antagonist; ultimately insisting on thuddingly literal "explanation" that, yes, resorts to creating a singular Bad Guy to punch and a Doomsday Machine that just needs to get turned off. I'd like to think that these are concessions to a story that just wouldn't come together - that Bird didn't start out with such a crummy setup, or that maybe this is once again Lindelof doing what he does. But as the climax plods on and one character after another explains their motivations in droning philosophical lecture-form, I just kept sitting there being astonished (and yet bored) by just how badly this was all falling apart - and I don't just mean the fact that someone thought it was a good extra plot detail that Frank's grumpy disillusionment mostly comes from having fallen for Athena when they (looked) the same age, freaking out when he realized she was a robot and still not being "over" her as an adult.

No, really.

Symbolically, it makes sense: She's a walking-metaphor representing the promise of the future that drew Frank to Tomorrowland in the first place but turned him off as the difficulties behind realizing that kind of promise becomes more clear... but in practice? Onscreen? Yeah... it's George Clooney mooning over a "wise beyond her years" child; and I can't comprehend how that got through production with no one asking if it added anything (it doesn't) to justify how creepy it was bound to come off?

But I digress. Big-But-More-Simplified-Idea #2 is that before leaving Tomorrowland Frank invented a machine that could calculate and predict the future, and images if impending ecological-disaster on Earth ultimately led Nix to terminate the "integrate normal-humanity and Plus Ultras" plan: See, he decided to start beaming the machine's "the end is near" message into humanity's subconscious, hoping it would scare us into fixing the future ourselves... but instead it just made us start accepting and even "worshipping" the idea of innevitable dystopia - which in turn (drumroll) is actually causing the downbeat, anti-progress societal entropy that Casey has been fighting against. This, then, is TOMORROWLAND's (and, one can only infer, Bird and Lindelof's) Message to The Masses: The current popularity of dark/dystopian futures is literally ruining the world by way of self-fulfilling prophecy, and if only we all shared Bird's preference/affection for Kennedy-era "everything is possible" futurism we'd instead be once again driven to repair and improve the world.

Now, thematically? That's music to my ears - see above. But as presented here it's a clusterfuck: We're told that Casey is "Special" and "Smart" and that's why she's The One who can avert the end of the world... but there isn't a "why" there in any concrete way. Her intellect is mostly expressed via a handiness with technology hand-waved by "She knows how things work," but not through anything else. Her gift is super-optimism (she literally makes the Doomsday Machine change the probability of armaggeddon by standing near it and being "plucky") but it only really manifests in the form of trite metaphors about the Power of Positive Thinking ("There are two wolves always fighting...") - which occasionally makes it feel like the film was aiming for "Atlas Shrugged" but slipped and settled for "The Secret" instead. Either way, it really doesn't matter because when we finally get to the finale... it turns out it's Frank's job to save world, instead.

Seriously. The one indisputably laudable aspect of this narrative, making the obligatory science-whiz do-gooder techie kid female without turning "It's a GIRL!!!???" into a surprise or plot-point, get's sidelined in favor of the more famous Name Star guy for the big finish. Once again, it makes thematic sense mechanically (Athena turns herself into a bomb for Frank to destroy The Machine with, a literal playing-out of his need to let go of both his youthful disappointments and the need to know/control the future born out of them) but it turns the plot into an even bigger mess: If Casey's Super Optimism Powers aren't enough to convince Nix to end his schemes and her ingenuity plays no real role in stopping the Big Evil, why is the whole movie up to this point about building her up? 

And no, it's not so she can take Frank's place - they both survive to end the film on dispatching a new generation of Athenas to seek out and invite a new crop of (admirably diverse) exceptionals to become the next wave of Plus Ultras. We similarly never really get a sense of why Tomorrowland is also in a state of gloom, other than that it's aesthetically-appropriate to the finale: Wouldn't Nix make mollifying his own population a priority? The whole movie is like that: A confused, jumbled, self-defeating slog that can't keep anything about itself straight because everything is focused on getting us to the next opportunity for Casey (or Frank, or Athena, or even Nix) to scold the audience for not making "turn the world into a Popular Science cover" enough of a priority... and more troublingly, it's completely tone-deaf about how some of this sounds coming out of Frank: In 2015, there needs to be at least a fig leaf of self-awareness when a white guy in his 50s starts talking about how much better things were (regardless of context) "in his day" when "his day" still routinely included Civil Rights marchers getting hit with dogs and firehoses.

I really wanted to like this. I wanted to like it based on what I could intuit it was about/saying pre-release, I wanted to like it as it was going and when it finally got around to explaining itself I was in mourning for what could have been. The ideas here - the "Walt Disney Presents BIOSHOCK" skeleton of a story - are fascinating, and it has things to say that I happen to agree desperate need to be said and heard. But you have to make the movie first, or at least figure out what the movie is even about. TOMORROWLAND is a half-baked lecture in search of a movie to occupy, and if we really are doomed unless said lecture gets absorbed we'd best hope the Athena 2.0s' are a lot better at communicating a message than Damon Lindelof is.


NOTE: This review was brought to you in part by The MovieBob Patreon. If you like it and would like to see more, please consider becoming a Patron.