Sunday, June 7, 2015


Alternate Title:  Ad Astra Scientia

One sentence synopsis:     The optimistic daughter of a NASA engineer and an exiled inventor of super-technology search for a mysterious paradise where the world's geniuses have sequestered themselves.

Things Havoc liked:  It occurred to me, midway through this film, that at some point in the last thirty years, the term "utopian" became an insult.

It wasn't always an insult, you see. Back in the 1950s, "utopian" was a term that a number of powerful individuals proudly used to describe themselves. People like Isaac Azimov, Gene Roddenberry, or Buckminster Fuller. People like Walt Disney, who constructed EPCOT in Florida as a prototype for a futuristic perfect society, where the ills of the world were to be banished from the world via advanced technology. There was a lot to criticize about the Utopians and their dreams of the future, and no shortage of people, then and now, to apply that criticism, to the point where, somewhere around the time I was born, Utopianism, and for that matter, optimism itself, became a dirty word, a label to be thrown at one's political opponents when they failed to play sufficiently hard on the politics of fear. And if you want proof of that, consider just how many of the people reading this paragraph will now begin accusing me of malfeasance for merely writing the previous sentence. Today's society is immeasurably more advanced than that of 1953. War, crime, and violence have been considerably truncated for large swatches of the world's population. Every index of human misery has been free-fall since the end of WWII if not before. We communicate with one another across vast distances with such ease as to beggar belief in our parents' lifetimes, while living longer and healthier lives than anyone has ever lived in the history of mankind. And yet despite all this, we as a nation, a society, and frankly as a culture, are the least-optimistic, most-depressed generation in written memory, one whose definition of "the future" is universally grim and filled with ruin, devastation and death, and whose reaction to this, by and large, has been to seek out groups of people external to ourselves, political, national, social, or whatnot, and blame them for the impending catastrophes we all accept as inevitable.

Please hold your angry denunciations of me as stupid, naive, or the root of all evils in the world that only you are enlightened enough to see until the review is over. There is actually a point to me saying all this.

Tomorrowland, a film directed by Brad Bird, director and writer of The Incredibles, of The Iron Giant, and of Batteries Not Included, and protege of the legendary animator Milt Kahl, one of Disney's famous Nine Old Men, is a movie about the subject I have just touched on. It is about the death of optimism and hope for the future, and its replacement by nihilistic obsessions with the theorized "comeuppance" that we all imagine lies just around the corner for some vast, nebulous mass of people that we imagine to be our enemies, one that we all desire so intently that merely suggesting positive possibilities for things to come is regarded as robbing us of the ability to sit, Cassandra-like, in judgment before our inferior, sheep-like peers, and must at all costs be crushed. That's a heavy topic for a Disney film rated PG to carry, I appreciate, but there it sits regardless, a movie that in today's climate seems almost transgressive in its embrace of the ideals that led Disney to create his vision of Tomorrowland in the first place. It's not that the movie is about sunshine and happiness and how everything is wonderful and will remain so, far from it. But it embodies the suggestion, one that has gotten me literally assaulted in the past, that perhaps fixating to the exclusion of all else on the notion that everything is and always will be terrible, and that it is the fault of everyone who does not complain loudly enough on command, is kind of counterproductive. There is a scene, early on in the film, where our hero, a girl in high school with a love of science and the possibilities it offers, asks her teacher at the end of a multi-hour lecture on all the ills that afflict society today, what they should do about Global Warming. She acknowledges that it is real, and that it is a major problem, but asks if they can discuss what remedies there might be instead of going on and on at length about how awful it all is. Her teacher's reaction is to send her to the principal's office for being a "climate change denier", an over-the-top reaction that no doubt sounds ludicrously silly to all of you, and probably would sound the same to me if it wasn't the exact thing that I've had happen to me more than a dozen times, to the point where I've had to ask friends of mine to go find an actual climate change denier somewhere and stop barraging me with "New proof of irrevocable climate change that is going to doom us all!" articles in their stead. Requests that have, of course, gotten me accused of being a climate change denier.

... sorry. Sorry, I'm... Let me try this from the top again.

Britt Robertson, an actress I've never seen before, plays Casey Newton, a high school girl from Florida whose father is a NASA engineer now out of work due to NASA shutting down (Oh god, Interstellar flashback!!!). Through a convoluted series of circumstances, she comes into possession of a strange pin, which reveals a sort of holographic advertisement for a super-futuristic society located God-knows-where, which she doggedly sets out to find. Along the way she encounters George Clooney, playing a very typical George Clooney-type of curmudgeon named Frank, a man who once, as a child, was a citizen of this fantastical future paradise only to be thrown out when the world turned dark and the prevailing philosophy became less utopian benefit-of-mankind, and more Atlas-Shrugged withdraw-from-the-world-and-let-it-burn. This is the kind of pairing, curmudgeon with optimistic kid, that has been in use forever, from Up to Back-to-the-Future, and it works pretty well here, as Clooney is playing to his strengths and Robertson manages to never push too far into saccharine schmaltz. They are joined along the way by a cast of very strange people, including a robot (Raffey Cassidy) who is built to resemble an eleven-year-old girl and who is also built to be a killing machine no less lethal than Kick Ass' Hit Girl, and the enigmatic leader of Tomorrowland itself, Hugh Laurie, who effectively appears to be playing John Galt. Whatever you may think of my insanities or the ludicrousness of the themes I called out above, these characters all play together quite well, embracing the insanities that comes with a romp through old-school super-science. A scene in which Terminators attempt to murder our heroes at Frank's house, only for him to unleash a series of death traps inspired by Home Alone crossed with Star Trek sets the scene quite nicely, as does a later sequence in which we discover that Gustav Eifel, Nicolai Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Jules Verne all collectively helped build the Eifel Tower as a spaceship, which our heroes must use to travel to the moon, preparatory to opening portals to another dimension. It's this kind of handwaved bonkers super-science that cores the film, and if that's your thing, then perhaps you should just ignore all of my ramblings and consider the film on its own merits.

Things Havoc disliked: On the other hand, perhaps you shouldn't, because whatever you think of the setting or the actors or the themes of this film, it's hard to get past the fact that this movie is clunky as all hell.

It's a risk in movies like this after all that the sugary-optimism of the concept will turn the plot and the film itself to mush, but that's not precisely what I mean. What I mean is that the movie is badly structured and in several places quite badly written, particularly in the third act, which devolves into a barely-coherent plan to "save the day" by doing... you know I'm still not entirely sure. The film has a perfectly competent set of antagonists in the form of evil animatronic robots with plasma weapons out to keep our heroes from Tomorrowland, and a phalanx of Randian technocrats conspiring to do the same. All of a sudden at the end though we have to do something else, use bombs to demolish a precognitive piece of equipment because it will... I don't know... show the Randians they're wrong or something? The movie gets downright muddled by the end to the point where I had a great deal of trouble figuring out why people were doing any particular thing, something not helped by everyone behaving with impeccable politeness and gratuitous concern towards the feelings of the people alternately trying to murder them with killer robots, or whom they are trying to murder in turn.

But plot confusion isn't the sum of it, for the biggest sin this film commits is that of exposition dumping, most pointedly in a terrible scene near to the end of the film wherein a character gets the most gratuitous "dumping my entire life story at the end of my plot arc" sequence I've seen since the last half-hour of Snowpiercer. As with that ill-starred atrocity, this grinds the film to an abrupt and abject halt, as a character narrates their own backstory ad-nauseum through a flashback journal format that is honestly difficult to watch. Other moments sprinkled through the film play out like obligatory touchpoints on some storyboard framework, wherein we need this character to undergo this narrative crisis at this moment before this stirring musical string pulls us all back together. As before, this afflicts the film more in the third act than the first, and while I go back and forth as to whether or not this is better or worse than the alternative, it certainly does not do the film any favors. But even when these things are not being done, the movie is just... crudely made, every element of it exaggerated to the point of absurdity, something which works when the film is taking refuge in audacity, but otherwise simply torpedoes its own point. The scene I mentioned earlier, of the teacher who punishes the student for asking about Climate Change solutions, is done in such a ridiculous, over-the-top manner, with an earnest, plucky hero asking questions of a leering, looming teacher framed in underlighting, whose eyes bug out of their head in barely-suppressed rage or shock at the notion that someone would dare ask such a question, that it no doubt would be hilarious to anyone not pre-disposed to find something entirely different in the scene. And as I fear I am the only such person in the room (for varying definitions of "room"), my expectation is that most people will find this film rather amateurish, overall.

Final thoughts:   Despite what those who disagree with me may think, I exert immense effort to try and be as objective as I can for these films, a quixotic effort I know with something as subjective as movies, but worth the attempt regardless. Tomorrowland, however, may simply represent an impossibility insofar as that is concerned, as my abiding memory of it, even more than a week later, is not of stupendous super-science or plot contrivances or heroes or villains or writing bad or good. My abiding memory of this film is instead of watching something happen on screen that I honestly did not think I would ever see happen in any context or in any circumstance. I don't mean pure optimism, for that has been the stuff of Hollywood since time immemorial, with heroes beating villains and so on, but rather a defense of a concept of the Future, capital 'F' intended, something that has been the recipient of so much deconstructive rejection over the course my entire lifetime that one struggles anymore to understand just what everyone is reacting against. There comes a time when the reactions against some perceived bias or imbalance in the cultural landscape (read whatever you like into that) begins to form its own imbalance in turn, and this movie's point is that we have, perhaps, reached that point. And that it might be time to take a moment off of crying about impending doom long enough to consider what steps we might wish to take to act against it. The reaction against sugary 50s-style Tommorowland optimism was not misplaced, of course, indeed it was grounded in the very real fact that the utopians of the day liked to handwave inconvenient problems away as not being relevant, and declare that the world would be great so long as everyone thought and acted (and looked) as they did. But the utopians of the day have been dead for many decades now. And a great many of us are still engaged in screaming rejection at their tombstones, pausing only to turn on the people passing by who are not screaming as loudly as we, using them as convenient surrogates for the utopians who no longer exist.

Tomorrrowland is many things, and not all of them are good, but at its heart it is a validation of the concept that Walt Disney once evoked when he was asked about criticism his EPCOT project had (rightly) received. "You have to show people a version of the future that they would wish to stick around to see," he said. "And nobody else is doing that." Whether or not that was true then, it certainly is true now, at least on a large scale. Without targeting such well-beaten horses as "the media" or this or that political party, we are all, as a group, seemingly determined to do nothing but heap miseries on one another, fearful that if we do not do so, someone will accuse us of failing to wake up and see the miseries around us, and thereby make them our fault. Anyone who questions the need to do anything except express dire predictions of doom and gloom, subtly shaded to make those who disagree with us culpable for these calamities, is ipso facto the reason why they are happening at all. Darfur occurred because you didn't care. Global Warming happens because you are selfish and lazy. Everything bad in the world either happened or will happen because you weren't paying attention to the things that I care about. Blaming the perceived apathetic for these things is considerably easier than finding and debating someone who actually disagrees, after all. And it also neatly absolves the one apportioning the blame of any blame themselves. Perhaps this is a simplistic view of the world, but I fail to see how else I am to understand the mentality of a man who accuses me of contributing to global warming with my car when he commutes weekly to and from another city by private jet.

Call me a raving utopian if you will, or tell me that I have my head stuck in the sand. I get this all the time, and by and large I say nothing about it, save for the occasional bitter outburst when I cannot take being someone's surrogate republican or climate change denier or militarist or fat, lazy American for a second longer. Whatever its faults, and they are many, Tomorrowland was the first movie I've seen... possibly ever... that posited things I have trained myself assiduously never to bring up in any company, due to the uniformly negative reaction I tend to get. I consequently do not know that I am capable of evaluating it in a sense that would make sense to anyone else. It was a movie that, despite being quite sloppily made, left me sitting in my car at the conclusion of its run-time, staring off into space, lost in my own thoughts for a full half-hour. It was a movie that, in whatever amateurish way it was capable of, dared to speak up for a movement whose death we have been celebrating since I have been alive, one that I always, at least a little bit, considered myself an heir to. It was a movie that led me to write the review above.

Tomorrowland was a movie that made me think things I had been conditioned to no longer dare to. I don't know if you will hate or love it, and I don't know if you will be right or wrong to do so. But I do know that I will not forget it any time soon.

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  Having completed this weird review, let us now return to more normal fare by seeing a transhumanist sci-fi piece about the nature of consciousness.

... wait...

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