Tuesday, June 9, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland was written by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird, and directed by Brad Bird.

Lindelof was a writer, producer and showrunner on LOST, and one of the people directly responsible for that series' disappointing ending. He also wrote Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z, which should tell you everything you need to know about his career.

Brad Bird wrote and directed The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, all of which I enjoyed quite a bit. He also directed the live action Mission: Impossible– Ghost Protocol. I'm starting to think he should stick with animation.

This is the third film based on a Disney theme park attraction, following on the heels of The Haunted Mansion and the Pirates Of The Caribbean series. I suppose it's the sixth if you count the Pirates movies separately.

There's a solid message buried deep within Tomorrowland's script. In the 1950s and 1960s America's future seemed unlimited. A bright, shiny world full of space travel and jet packs seemed right around the corner. Somehow though that unbridled optimism has given way to the cynicism and apathy plaguing our current society. What the hell happened to the future?

It's a question I myself have asked many times over the years. Unfortunately the film has no answers, and its message is marred by some very vague and sloppy storytelling. With a bit more focus, tighter direction and, you know, some actual answers, it could have been an inspiring film.

For a film that's ostensibly about optimism, it's also very dark and dreary. NASA's stopped sending men into space and is shutting down the launchpad where Casey's dad works. Her teachers are dull and uninspiring, spouting lessons by rote. Frank has grown old and bitter. Even Tomorrowland itself has become run down and depressing. Why the hell would anyone in their right mind make such a somber, joyless movie about hope?

For months before the movie premiered the filmmakers kept the plot tightly under wraps. That's generally a bad sign in Hollywood. The more enigmatic the writer and director are, the less they have to keep secret in the first place. 

Bird and Lindelof tried drumming up interest in the film by cooking up an elaborate story about a so-called "Mystery Box." The box, labeled "1952," was allegedly found in the basement of the animation building at Walt Disney Studios.

Inside the box were blueprints and plans for Tomorrowland rides and attractions, along with photos of Walt Disney with some of the greatest minds of his time. The idea of course was that we were supposed to believe Walt got the idea for the Tomorrowland attraction after seeing the real thing. Nice try, guys. Too bad you didn't put that much effort into the actual script.

The majority of film's 130 minute runtime is all setup, as we watch the characters endlessly trying to make their way to Tomorrowland. The actual plot doesn't kick in until the last twenty minutes or so. In fact the villain's not even fully revealed until the last reel. It's a very oddly structured film.

I'm sure it's just a coincidence that the "T" pin plays such a pivotal role in the film, when collecting such pins is big business at the various Disney theme parks. If I was just a little more cynical I'd say it was planned that way.

Credit where credit's due: At the very least Tomorrowland is an original story, and not a sequel or a remake.

So far the film has been yet another big budget flop for Disney, which is still stinging from the failures of John Carter and The Lone Ranger. In fact Disney's so disappointed with Tomorrowland's box office gross that they've reportedly killed their plans for TRON 3. Thanks a lot, Tomorrowland.


The Plot:
At the 1964 New York World's Fair, young Frank Walker enters his homemade jet pack in an invention contest. Unfortunately his jet pack doesn't work, but he catches the eye of a young girl named Athena, who gives him a pin with the letter "T" on it and tells him to follow her into the "It's A Small World" ride.

He sneaks onto the ride, where his pin is scanned and he's transported to Tomorrowland, a idealized, futuristic city in another dimension. He falls from a tall ledge but manages to strap his jet pack on in the nick of time, and lands in front of Athena and Governor Nix, the leader of the city.

Cut to the present day, where we meet young Casey Newton. She's worried that her father, a NASA engineer, will lose his job when a nearby launch pad is dismantled. To that end she regularly sabotages the demolition equipment, hoping to keep the launch pad open. 

Casey's eventually caught and arrested. Apparently she was carrying a load of cash, because she makes bail and sees a T shaped pin in her personal belongings. When she touches the pin, she finds herself in an incredibly realistic vision of Tomorrowland. She explores the virtual utopia until the pin's battery runs out.

Casey searches the internet and finds a memorabilia store in Texas that sells similar T pins. She travels there to get more info about her pin. The owners of the store are friendly at first, but then try to kill her with real ray guns. Casey is saved by the timely appearance of Athena, who hasn't aged a day since 1964. She battles the store owners, who are revealed to be Audio-Animatronic androids. Casey and Athena escape, as the androids self destruct, destroying the store.

Athena reveals that she's also an android, and is the one who slipped the pin into Casey's belongings. Athena's job is to scout for potential recruits for Tomorrowland. She tells Casey they need to find the now adult Frank Walker, who was banished from Tomorrowland and now lives in New York.

Athena drops Casey off at Frank's house and leaves. Frank has become bitter and cynical over the years due to his banishment, and wants nothing to do with her. Casey sneaks into his house anyway. Frank is about to throw her out when his house is surrounded by android men in black.

The androids begin tearing apart the house trying to get to Casey. She and Frank escape in a flying bathtub (don't ask) and land in a nearby swamp. They're picked up by Athena, and travel to a local TV station, where Frank has hidden a teleporter of his own invention (!). They use it to teleport to the Eiffel Tower in Paris (!!).

Inside the Tower they enter a secret room with mannequins of Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Years ago the four of them founded Plus Ultra, a group of inventors who dreamed of a perfect world. Together they discovered another dimension and founded Tomorrowland there. 

Frank, Casey and Athena enter a rocket ship hidden inside the Eiffel Tower and use it to travel to Tomorrowland. Instead of a utopia, they find it's now a desolate, nearly abandoned city. Governor Nix (still young due to Tomorrowland technology), greets them.

He takes the group into a building and shows them the invention that got Frank banished— a tachyon device that can view the future. Unfortunately the machine showed him a dark future was ahead for Earth. Nix used a powerful broadcast antenna to beam the message about Earth's dire future to humanity, hoping it would spur them into action. Unfortunately instead of doing something to change things, humanity became cynical and accepted their doom. 

Nix shows them that Earth will be destroyed by a global catastrophe in less than sixty days. Casey realizes that if they destroy the antenna, the pessimistic message will stop and humanity will become hopeful again, and may just save the planet. 

Nix resists the idea and orders his robots to attack Casey and Athena, while he grapples with Frank. Nix is pinned under debris, and Athena is "mortally" wounded, which activates her self-destruct countdown. Frank uses a jet pack to fly her up to the antenna, where she explodes, destroying it. The antenna crushes Nix in classic "Disney villain death" fashion.

With the signal turned off, Earth is somehow saved from destruction. Frank and Casey, now living in Tomorrowland, send an army of recruiter robots to Earth to find "dreamers" to bring to the city and restore it to its former glory.

• In 1964 young Frank brings his homemade jet pack to the New York World's Fair. When asked if it actually works, Frank says no, but believes he should win for coming up with the idea in the first place.

That sounds a lot like the "Everybody Gets A Medal Just For Trying" attitude of the modern Entitled American, rather than someone with the can-do spirit of the 1960s.

It's also the same attitude that Bird skewered so nicely in The Incredibles. So what happened here? Did he change his mind? Does he no longer believe that "When Everyone's A Winner, No One Is?"

• After being transported to Tomorrowland, young Frank wanders into a restricted area, where a large robot grabs his jet pack and starts working on it. Frank then falls from a ledge and straps on the pack, which, thanks to the robot, now actually works. He flies a couple of laps around the city and lands with beaming pride in front of Athena and Governor Nix.

Big deal! Are they (and the audience) supposed to be impressed by his flight? His jet pack was a bust until the robot got a hold of it and made it work.

• Casey's father is a NASA engineer who works at a nearby launch pad. The pad's been shut down and is being dismantled. Casey makes it her mission to sabotage the equipment in order to keep the launch pad open.

I understand that she doesn't want to see her dad lose her job, and that she longs for humanity to go back into space. But if she thinks preventing the launch pad from being torn down is going to lead to a renaissance in space exploration, she's got a rude awakening in store. NASA's not going to suddenly announce a mission to Mars just because one launch pad wasn't dismantled.

• We're told over and over that Casey is a genius and our best hope for the future, but we never actually see her do anything all that amazing. She pilots a drone (that she most likely bought, rather than cobbled together) and sabotages some cranes. That's pretty much it. Her "genius" is most definitely an informed attribute. 

She even admits she has no ideas when she asks a teacher, "I get that things are bad, but what are we doing to fix it?"

Her sole "brilliant" insight: When it's discovered that Governor Nix is using a powerful antenna in Tomorrowland to beam "pessimism waves" into our world, she gets the bright idea to turn off the broadcast. Something anyone could have done with about thirty seconds of thought.

• For a film that's called Tomorrowland, we get to see precious little of it. The scenes in which Casey wanders through the futuristic city are suitably amazing, and the production design is top notch. Enjoy them while they last though, because these scenes are all too brief. Instead we spend a good 90% of the film in the real world as the characters drive back and forth across the country trying to figure out how to get to Tomorrowland. 

Who the hell thought this was a good idea? Who makes a movie about an other-dimensional sci-fi city but sets it almost entirely in the real world? It's just like the live-action He-Man movie from the 1980s. Instead of being set in Eternia, the majority of the film took place on Earth.

I wanted to see a rousing adventure that took place entirely in Tomorrowland! Show us the futuristic city, don't just tell us about it for most of the run time. It's a very frustrating film.

• The whole "dual dimension" thing was a bit odd— not to mention potentially deadly. Whenever Casey touches her T pin, she instantly finds herself in an incredibly realistic virtual recreation of Tomorrowland. Note that she doesn't actually travel there physically—  it's like she can suddenly see inside a very detailed videogame..

Despite that, in order to walk around in Tomorrowland, she has to physically move in our world. This seems incredibly dangerous, as it requires her to walk around blindly. In fact a couple of times she runs into real world walls that she can't see in the virtual world, and at one point even falls down a flight of actual steps! And when the battery in her pin runs down, she finds herself slogging through a swamp in the real world! Jesus Christ! She's lucky she didn't break her neck or get hit by a car while she was "inside" Tomorrowland.

Another thing— when she was in the Tomorrowland simulation, she boarded a levitating train and flew several miles to a spaceship launch pad. So what was she doing in the real world during this trip? Running down the street at 70 mph?

Which one of the geniuses who founded Tomorrowland thought this was a good idea? Wouldn't it have made more sense if she could just "think" or "will" herself around the virtual city, so she could remain motionless in the real world?

• Casey visits a collectible toy store, looking for answers about her T pin. Several times the camera lingers on a shelf prominently displaying a variety of Iron Giant figures. I even saw a couple of Incredibles figures, and some Simpsons merchandise as well. Of course all these properties were directed by Brad Bird.

There were also a ton of Star Wars items on display, no doubt to remind us that Disney now owns that franchise too.

• The toy shop owner says his name is Hugo Gernsback, and his wife's name is Ursula. Wakka wakka! Gernsback was the publisher of Amazing Stories, the world's first science fiction magazine. Ursula is no doubt a nod to noted sci-fi author Ursula K. Le Guin. 

Continuing this cutesy trend, Casey's last name is Newton.

• When Casey asks Hugo for info about the pin, he says, "Have you ever wondered what would happen if all the geniuses, the artists, the scientists, the smartest, most creative people in the world decided to actually change it ? Where, where could they even do such a thing? They'd need a place free from politics and bureaucracy, distractions, greed— a secret place where they could build whatever they were crazy enough to imagine."

Yes, because things like safety regulations and medical testing are just plain stupid. Go ahead and invent flying cars, guys. I'm sure no one will ever be hurt in one.

By the way, Tomorrowland was founded in order to give scientists free reign to invent whatever they could imagine. So why was Frank banished? Because he invented something he imagined. Nix just didn't like his invention. So I guess maybe it's not such a paradise after all.

• After the explosion at the toy shop, Casey is relentlessly pursued by android "men in black" from Tomorrowland, who think nothing of coldly and callously disintegrating anyone who gets in their way.

Why are these androids so ruthless? We're shown several times that it takes a huge amount of effort to cross dimensions. It's impossible for Casey to get to Tomorrowland by herself. Trying to kill her just because she knows about the place seems a bit, er, overkill. Nix and his androids caused a huge swath of death and destruction in our world just to eliminate someone who posed little or no threat.

• Because this is a Disney movie, there's no bad language anywhere to be found. The filmmakers do their best to get around this though by having characters start to curse but stop themselves just in time. Several times a character will shout, "Son of a...!" and then trail off.

Hey, Disney, if a young girl saying, "Son of a bitch!" is against your family-friendly philosophy, then maybe you shouldn't be implying she's saying it at all. Say it or don't. You can't have it both ways.

• As the group prepares to teleport to Paris, Frank warns Casey that the process will cause her to lose 90% of her blood sugar and she'll feel like she's dying. That sounds pretty dire, and possibly even deadly, but I'm willing to play along just to get the movie over with. 

After they teleport Casey is indeed suffering, and Frank tells her there are cokes in the fridge. She chugs one, and then grabs a second from Frank's hand and drinks it as well. Ah well. I'm sure Frank didn't need to replenish his blood sugar too. I'm sure he'll be fine.

And by the way, I hope those were Mexican Cokes they were drinking. Cokes from Mexico still contain pure cane sugar, unlike American Cokes, which are sweetened with Aspartame.

• Frank says that inventors Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison founded Tomorrowland in another dimension. Given their real world history, I have a hard time believing Edison would want to be in the same room with Tesla, much less work alongside him.

• When the group finally gets to Tomorrowland, they see it's now a run-down, dreary place that's a far cry from the perfect version Casey saw. So why did it deteriorate? Was it ever like the idealized version in Athena's "commercial?" Or was it a paradise and something horrible happened? Apparently it's none of our concern, as it's yet another question the movie can't be bothered to answer.

• Governor Nix gives a rousing speech about the state of our modern society

"Let's imagine if you glimpsed the future, and were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? Would you go to the politicians? The captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck. 

The only facts they won't challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if… what if there was a way of skipping the middleman, putting the critical news directly into everyone's head: the probability of widespread annihilation kept going up. The only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. What reasonable human being wouldn't be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they've ever even known or loved. To save civilization I would show its collapse. 

How do you think this vision was received, how do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up! They didn't fear their demise, they repackaged it— to be enjoyed as video games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse, and sprinted toward it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you. You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation, explain that one. Bees butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, the algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won't take the hint! In everymoment there's a possibility of a better future, but you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality. 

So you dwell on this terrible future. You resign yourselves to it. For one reason— because that future doesn't ask anything of you, today. So, yes, you saw the iceberg, warned the Titanic, but you all just steered for it anyway, full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink, you gave up."

It's an interesting speech, full of uncomfortable truths. It's just too bad there isn't more content like this in the film.

• Nix says that according to Frank's tachyon machine, the Earth has 58 days left before there's a vague, undefined global catastrophe. But once the antenna is destroyed, everything's fine. So what the hell happened? Are we supposed to believe that Casey somehow saved the planet just by making an effort? I don't think so. Reversing geological catastrophes takes decades, if not centuries. Definitely not days.

• When Athena is injured, her self destruct mechanism activates and can't be shut off. Seems like a design flaw to me— if my refrigerator quits running it doesn't explode, it just gets hauled to the dump. But what do I know.

In her final moments, Athena and Frank share a tearful, heartfelt goodbye.

Frank met Athena when he was twelve years old or so, and she appeared to be the same age. Now Frank is probably in his sixties, and he's mooning over an android who still looks like a little girl.

This could have been a very uncomfortable scene, but somehow the actors pull it off without getting too pedophile-y. Fortunately the filmmakers didn't have Frank kiss Athena.

• At the end of the film, Frank and Casey, now living in Tomorrowland, send out androids to round up new recruits. Based on the people we see chosen, if you're bright, creative and full of ideas, you'll get an invitation to Tomorrowland. If you're an average Joe, well then screw you. 

So what about all those fantastic adventures all the dreamers came up with in Tomorrowland's heyday? What'd they do with them? Did they share their robots, jet packs, flying cars and unlimited energy sources with Earth? Hell no! They kept all their amazing inventions for themselves and let the poor saps back on Earth fend for themselves. Tomorrowland isn't a utopia, it's a gated community.

Tomorrowland is a film that's supposedly about hope and optimism, but is strangely dark and dreary. It has some interesting ideas at its core, but they're unfortunately marred by a vague script and sloppy direction. I give it a C+.

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