Hoo boy, do I have A LOT to say about this movie (And Brad Bird. And movies in general). Just warning people of the length in advance.
So…”Tomorrowland”. A movie with an inspiring center marred by being more plot-driven than character-driven or even idea-driven. Here is a movie that is both an interesting failure and a recruitment video that self-professed nerds like myself want to root for (despite the fact that it’s backed by The Disney Corporation, which is probably one of the kings of manufactured, mass-produced lies). It aspires to be a marriage of old-fashioned Disney heart-tugging as seen in works like, “Dumbo” with the sheen of modern day, “Mystery Box” storytelling as provided by J.J. Abrams friend Damon Lindelof…yet even if one agrees with it’s core message (which I do…to a point), it leaves one wanting.
To be fair, on the technical side the movie is qutie an inventive marvel. Yes, there’s lots of obvious green-screening thanks to the movie’s heavy CGI, but Director/co-writer Brad Bird has shown himself to be one who understands how great moviemaking works. Moments like the long tracking shot as main character Casey Newton (played in a good turn by Britt Robertson) experiences the joys of the titular world amaze despite how obvious the CGI is, and are a prime example of how technique can be key to believing in cinematic vision. For that short moment, I wanted to jump inside the screen and LIVE in that titular city, maybe get inside the special seat in the rocket reserved just for me (provided I’m chosen, that is). Unfortunately, this is a movie where everything is so mapped out, yet so obfusicated, that by the time one gets to the end it is with indifference. The central, “Mystery” is not so much, “Oh, so THAT’S why the Main Bad Thing is happening.”, and more like, “Oh, thank god, they FINALLY tell us what the hell is going on”.
Not to say that I didn’t agree with the movie’s core message…to a point. Yes, I am a cranky, pessimistic person. I am also someone who wants to see great things executed by great people, realizing the pitfalls of such a desire that have lead me on the road to Objectivism (ask me about THAT phase of my life, sometime). So of course I agree that Awesome People should show themselves and do Awesome Things…but the way this movie presents such a message is, well, ignorant to say the least.
Before anyone asks, yeah this movie is pretty much, “Atlas Shrugged” for kids, because here the movie is, lambasting the news media and even Modern Hollywood Blockbusters (!) for perpetuating Bad News, reducing all the villians as strawmen pessimists who WANT the world to end and the good side as those who are obviously right because they’re just so gosh darn cheery and inventive. That’s right: the core message of the movie is that we as a species are so addicted to Bad News that we decided to give up and no longer do great things to cure said Bad News, in a fit of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy on a globalized scale, and that it is by Optimism and Hope that we overcome Bad News and make the promise of The Future (as envisioned by Disney) really real. So, basically, a myth of The Great Man (or, to this movie’s credit, the myth of The Great People, for the movie isn’t COMPLETELY white, male and christian) sprinkled with a heaping helping of The Law of Attraction. If one would just ignore the Bad News and focus on making solutions, the world will be that place we (read: Disney) wished for back in the 1960s (ignoring, you know, the bloody fight for Civil Rights and all that other stuff that brings us down to Earth).
So, here’s why that’s bull, demonstrated with Brad Bird’s own filmography.
There’s a popular conception of Brad Bird, especially with movies like, “The Incredibles” and, “Ratatouille”, as something of a closet Objectivist (yes, I linked to TVTropes. Shut up). Each respective movie has Special Persons at their center trying to do good things in a world that either tries to suppress the Special Person(s) or doesn’t care for them. What such analysis misses is that while those movies DO have special people at their center, the movies display not just the hardships, but even the consequences of being Special. In short, Brad Bird’s best movies have their heroes do great things, but they also have them grow the hell up in the process. Thus making their central morals, however preachy, believable, because the optimism is HARD WON, a result of the main characters facing the bad news in a constructive way. As opposed to this movie, which just tells us that consumption of such bad news is bad because…it makes one complacent, I guess. Except Brad Bird’s previous movies have Special People who face the facts and do great stuff anyway by, again, growing the hell up in the process.
Observe the way, “The Incredibles” highlights the collateral damage caused by the main heroes in the first 20 minutes, and how the characters learn to be more responsible with their powers, both in the battlefield and with each other, over the course of the movie. Also observe how, “Ratatouille” starts out with Skinner, Colette and Linguini clearly inspired into pursuing cooking as a career…along with Remy the Rat’s stumbling into such a field due to his Special Abilities. Yet, only ONE of those characters ends up justifying their position in the end, and by then we know why thanks to the memorable speech of Anton Ego. Brad Bird’s previous movies, espeically the animated works, are movies featuring and rooting for Special People, sure, but they are also movies that don’t fail to showcase the sacrifce being Special brings, along with the damage that can be caused. Hell, Syndrome’s whole arc in, “The Incredibles”, at first glance, can be interpreted as him being “bad” because he wasn’t born with superpowers like Mr. Incredible and Elasta-Girl. What such analysis misses is their desire to emulate great people without developing the CHARACTER of such people, something that is obviously not as hereditary as Superhuman Strength and Elasticity are in the universe of, “The Incredibles”. Besides, don’t Mr. Incredible and Elasta-Girl fight supervillians in “The Incredibles”? You know, people who have superpowers, too? Syndrome’s, “sin” is one of character, not of genetics or even intellect.
Hell, let’s go futher back with, “The Iron Giant”, which has, well, a giant robot from outer space who bumps their head and is befriended by a young boy and their family/friends, while being pursued by the government. Now, the titular character is armed to the teeth with powers, but the movie emphasizes what is DONE about them (read: nothing until the 3rd act, leading to an ending where…oh, god, I’m starting to cry). The kid that befriends the giant isn’t special due to genetics, he’s special because of what he CHOOSES to do, which is being kind to an alien being who is created to destroy Earth. The antagionist Kent Mansley, on the other hand? ALL about emphasizing his position, not just about BEING the hero in their own story, but also being RECOGNIZED as such, to the point where he’s willing to sacrifice an entire town and flee just to destroy the titular character.
The point is, Brad Bird’s earlier cinematic work has Special People at their center. But they’re not so much about what they ARE as they are about the important thing: what they DO, and it’s demonstrated through character action, not through heaping helpings of exposition. In, “Tomorrowland”, however, not only are the characters emphasized more as archetypes than they are as actual characters, the moment one sees them there is no ambiguity as to who one is supposed to root for, thanks in large part to rushed explanations on what is happening, followed by a dive into the next action sequence, followed by ANOTHER series of rushed explanations, and so on until the ending. The closest thing to growth is…one of them gets less grumpy at the end and the other one has a heroic sacrifice. For a movie that is so adamant about people being more optimistic and inventive, it does not give us a compelling reason WHY one should be those things, it just provides conjecture and neat tricks, being essentially a Rube Goldberg Machine with a fortune cookie at the end.
At least Remy, Mr. Incredible and The Iron Giant have to face the consequences of their recklessness, and work to redeem themselves as a result, therefore making one buy what the moviemakers sell with their respective movies. Here, “Tomorrowland” just has George Clooney as the disillusioned and grumpy Frank Walker, Raffey Cassidy as the perpetually young robot girl Athena who once fell in love with Frank when they were young and still has feelings for them (no, really), and Britt Robertson as the obviously named optimistic young woman Casey Newton…and they’re just shoved in, “Good Guy” boxes, with
Dr. House, I mean the other half of, “A Bit of Fry & Laurie” Hugh Laurie as Nix, the obvious bad guy who’s treated more like a walking Chekhov’s Gun than a character. Sure, they argue and struggle, but at the end of the day one doesn’t see them act as characters but more as plot devices leading up to the Big Point. Then the movie asks us to buy that these people are in the right as they preach their ideals directly to the camera, “Funny Games” style.
That last part is what makes this movie, “Closet Objectivism” more than any of Brad Bird’s prior movies, because it doesn’t do the hard work of making one emphasize with the characters before shoving their opinions down our throats. “Tomorrowland”, instead of engaging a person by the heart or even the mind, just places it’s message front and center, with you either being with it or against it. Then, it repeats that same message for over 2 hours, distracting you with manufactured tension that one can see right through of thanks to Damon Lindelof’s and Brad Bird’s need to, “hide” stuff while throwing hints at you that are so blunt that they can’t help but be giveaways to the Big Revealing Speech…which, to give credit where it is due, is more engaging than John Galt’s speech in, “Atlas Shrugged” on the virtue of it being 80 pages shorter.
No amount of Good Points can back up a weak cinematic effort, especially not a fallacious one that comes at the expense of the preachers being, well, human beings. What a shame. At least I got myself a, “Tomorrowland” lapel pin when I saw the movie at a Regal Entertainment Group theater. Seriously. I’ll provide pics if anyone wants me to.
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