Friday, May 29, 2015


Daze of Future Past
"Hey, you Kids!  Get Off my Astro-turf!"

Tomorrowland made me grumpy.  Not as grumpy as George Clooney's character, Frank Walker, in Brad Bird's new film, but pretty damned grumpy.

It starts out confusedly, picks up a little ray of goodness, then abandons it and turns into a run-of-the-mill action movie with a touch of futurism and a lot of casual sadism in it. It wants to inspire hope, but instead spends so much time quashing it that when it tries to revive that feeling later on in the denouement, it's already destroyed the innocence that might make such an epiphany possible. It's too smart for its own good, and I don't mean "smart" in a good way.  It's too self-aware, too, to be anything less than "sophisticated" in a cynical "yeah-I-don't-really-mean-it" attitude that shows a lack of commitment to its own "up with the future" underpinnings. And that is its downfall. It buries the future to dwell on the past, while being a little too present.
"The Clooney" being grumpy...or imitating me watching this movie.
Basically, the story should be called "Saving Frank Walker," as the major story-arc is his. We see him as a bright youngster (Thomas Walker) showing up at the 1964 World's Fair,* toting a bulky back-pack to a panel (comprised at the time of Hugh Laurie in the role of David Nix) looking for inventions. L'il Frank pulls out a home-made jet-pack made from an Electrolux vacuum cleaner. This is where the main thought behind Tomorrowland is revealed, and where the execution of that idea manages to burn its feet with jet-pack exhaust. Little Frank plops the jet-pack down in front of Nix with a clank, and he says "Does it work?"  Frank says "Almost," and Nix says "Then what use is it?"

"It's fun!" says little Frank.

Sure, it is! Who (whether they've sat in a traffic jam or not) hasn't wanted a jet-pack to cut through the clutter and get there? Nix (good name), however, nixes it, but it is noticed by a small girl Nix calls "Athena" (Raffey Cassidy, who is weirdly wonderful) who takes note of Frank and leads him to follow her, Nix and some other mickey-mucks on-board the "It's a Small World" ride (did I mention this was produced by Disney?**), which debuted at the '64 World's Fair. That ride is a portal to another dimension/time/planet—who can say as it's a bit nebulous, especially given the shaky foundation the creators of Tomorrowland (the city) have envisioned.

Once there, little Frank gets his pack repaired and he takes a solo tour around the place. Here's what that looks like—it's the best part of the movie:

That is fun. But we don't stay there. Instead, we go back to wherever "we" are and consider the case of young Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), who, in protest of Society's Lack of Vision (oh, and her Dad (Tim McGraw?) losing his NASA job), is trying to sabotage the demolition of a Canaveral launching pad. She's caught by security, and when released, given her personal effects back. But, there's something extra there—a pin. With this logo.
When she touches it—ZAP!—she 's in a large open wheat-field and in the distance, standing like Oz, is the city of tomorrow. She lets go of the pin—FWUMP!—she's back in the real world. It causes some nice juxtapositions with simple editing.
Turns out she's been chosen by that same "Athena" 50 years after Walker made it to Tomorrowland, but when she shows up to get Casey out of a particularly nasty little jam, she hasn't aged a day, and she drives Casey to Walker's humble-looking house. It is anything but...

Neither is Frank. He does not want to be disturbed and he's set up all sorts of gee-whiz-how-does-he-do-that defenses to keep everyone out...everyone, of course, except Casey, who gains entry by showing him that pin, which no longer has its transporting powers.
It's here where Tomorrowland, which already has some disorienting pacing problems, starts to go South. While at the Walker place, Casey and Frank are attacked by some pretty lethal "audio-animatronics" (© Disney) who have followed her from an earlier close encounter of the lethal kind and "think" nothing of blasting away at anything with disintegrators that shred people to atoms, including some cops just doing their job investigating that earlier altercation.  

Um...that seems wrong-headed, not to mention gratuitous...and especially so in these times. It isn't exactly Tomorrowland yet.
Neither is the one depicted in the movie. These A.A.'s are sent by Tomorrowland to dispose of anybody wanting in and are a nasty reflection of retro-thinking, betraying a lack of inclusiveness and feeling a bit like the old racial and religious covenants of the past (hopefully, it's the past) only backed up with a gun—the "I'm in, now I'm going to keep you out" kind of mentality. Maybe that's Bird and co-scenarist Damon Lindelof's point—any gleaming utopia can be tarnished like brass by the wrong entity in charge. We've had plenty of examples of that, thank you, in movies and in real life. Lesson learned, and in too much abundance.

And it's here where I should just leave the plot behind and get into the big problems I have with the movie: Tomorrowland, the place and the movie, are just not all that special.

However high its architectural and idealistic pedigree, however vaunting its dreams, Tomorrowland is just like here (and I'm not sighting "the gleaming city on the hill" political concept but the real world in which we live—everywhere) however good the intention, it's still corruptible. In which case, why go?  For jet-packs? Pfft! For anti-grav swimming pools? They're all wet! Tomorrowland LOOKS nice, but it seems to be just a haven for the 1% rich and the 2% smart (and the 90% unfashionable). Is there a government? It LOOKS like a dictatorship, or a fascistic corporation with the same sort of protectionist mania. Even if there is a collectivist wisdom there (and there is no evidence of it), clearly some are more equal than others. Sure, it looks fun, but killer-robots (even the concept of them) ain't. If anything, it reminds me of the floating halo of Elysium, just as privileged and just as protectionist, skin-deep pretty, but the very antithesis of altruism at its heart. It did not compel me, certainly not at its worst, but also at its best. One gets the impression (maybe because Clooney and Laurie are so reminiscent of each other in their manner and method) that any regime-change at Tomorrowland will just be a case of "Meet the new boss/same as the old boss."
That lack of any reason for really caring, yearning, about the place makes the movie give off the stink of a corporate pigeon-hole movie, all flash and no substance, another commercial to attract folks to a theme park, like so many of Disney's movies are nowadays. In a concept movie like Tomorrowland, it is especially galling, because the thing should ring with the chimes of freedom and creativity, not the cheap bell of a cash register.

After the sputtering ending of "Lost" (which I never got into for the same flash over substance unsustainability) and his work contributing (if I can use the term) to Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness, it's about time Damon Lindelof started writing shallow novels about his megalo-maniacs rather than making messes of other people's movies. Let him have a cult following, and leave mainstream media alone. Let's have him and Akiva Goldsman work together on something. Perhaps have the ratings board create their own warning rating for his movies. 

All I know is Tomorrowland, for all its blue-sky speeches of dreaming and hope hopeless. What use is it?

Unused animation sequence explaining the "origins" of Tomorrowland.
It's actually more compelling than the film!
* The '64 fair (like the '62 fair in Seattle, and like most of them) was a celebration of the possibilities of the future and a look to a glorious tomorrow. The remnants of the Seattle World's Fair are still there as the Seattle Center, a thriving hub of activity.  The bones of the New York World's Fair rot in an abandoned field.  Advances in technology and the promise of industrialization and mechanization ring a little hollow these days, unless backed by large corporations and NCA's.  When something revolutionary does come along (Napster? YouTube?), usually the industrializers go out of their way to quash it...or buy it.

** Here's the logo they use:

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