Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tomorrowland


When I was in fourth and fifth grade, I attended a private school for the gifted. "Gifted" meant "advanced intellectually," "academically mature," and "capable." Basically, it was supposed to be a school for the smart kids. Ironically, while I was intellectually and cognitively challenged by this educational environment, it also left me a bit socially stunted for the moment I entered the public middle school in sixth grade. It also tacitly fostered a subtle elitism in me, a sort of "know it all" aloofness that I've been trying to heal from ever since.

I brought up this "school for the gifted" story at a dinner conversation recently, and it ended up fostering laughs and ridicule, a derision seemingly stemming from a distaste for the word "gifted" in describing children. I admit, I find the phrase a bit strange. But I also think it's incredibly value to recognize gifts in young people, to encourage those individuals and foster those gifts for the good of our world, to inspire those who will inspire, to be advocates for the dreamers and creatives and artists and lifelong learners.

I bring this all up because Brad Bird's latest film, Tomorrowland, attempts to do the same thing--recognize and appreciate the special dreamers in our world. The titular environment is a special place for those special dreamers, a world meant to foster imagination and wonder. Much like the results of my experience in a school for the gifted, the notable ambitions behind Tomorrowland lead to disheartening and muddled results, marking the first time in history that Brad Bird has been behind the creation of a mediocre film. Tomorrowland reeks of elitism while also never achieving the same exceptionality it promotes.

The film opens on the cantankerous-but-charming Frank (George Clooney) and optimistic teenager Casey (Britt Robertson) as they tell us the story of Tomorrowland. As a young boy, Frank met Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a bright and capable young British girl who advocates for Frank's entrance into Tomorrowland, an alternate dimension where the best and the brightest of our world are recuited in order to experiment and tinker with freedom from bureaucracy and interference. Tomorrowland is the utopia for creative and intellectual types. Despite its confusing name, it's not the future, per se--it is another world separate from ours, a sort of cosmic realm of technological wonder.

Well, there's supposed to be wonder. Tomorrowland suffers from a serious lack of joy, awe, and fun. Some of the overly long scenes showing the sights of Tomorrowland clearly are intended to make us feel a sense of transcendence, but the world of Tomorrowland looks like a fancy mall. Clooney's Frank is perpetually sarcastic and grumpy, bitter at being exiled from Tomorrowland for creating something he shouldn't have. Casey is characterized as extra special, the hope of both Tomorrowland and Earth, but the film does nothing to explain or show her specialness apart from her ability to "know how things work." She does spend the early parts of her story lying to her father, effectively sabotaging NASA equipment, getting arrested, and blowing up buildings or stealing cars with Athena. But she does it with a positive spirit!

Tomorrowland is the tonal and narrative mashup of the National Treasure films--hey, let's travel to various locations and try to figure out elaborate clues behind this mystery!--Alex Proyas' sci-fi film Knowing--the world is going to end soon, and we need special children to save us--and an Old Navy commercial--think lots of fake smiles and bright colored nostalgic-yet-trendy clothes (this is Disney, after all). There are so many plots holes and confusing narrative elements that I am still unsure if the purpose of Tomorrowland is to *save* the earth or to ultimately *destroy* it. The recruitment of all the special individuals on Earth to another dimension feels a bit like escapism at best and manipulative kidnapping at worst (What happened to Frank's family on Earth? Who raised him in Tomorrowland?). What is very clear is the heavy-handed message of Tomorrowland, an idea made so overt and clear to draw comparisons to the didactic tone of faith-based films. Essentially, this is a secular evangelistic piece, a preachy sermon with a film built around it. The message: be more positive and give special privilege to the dreamers. If we don't, we're all doomed. So cheer up! Be more optimistic! Together, we can make the world a better place...or at least the gifted individuals can for us, if we give them enough money and get off their backs! *pats self on the back* Now, I'm all for optimism, positivity, creativity, and ideals--I'm probably too idealistic most days. But Tomorrowland espouses that the savior of our broken world is the power of positive thinking and the unreserved support of gifted individuals. We are both idealistic and optimistic; we just have differing views on the true Savior of this earth.

Tomorrowland is deeply confused about its intended audience, but I can make this claim with confidence: it is not a movie for kids. Despite being a PG-rated Disney film based on a section of the happiest place on earth, the film is surprisingly dark in tone and has a significant amount of violence. While much of the violence is between robots, they nonetheless look human, and far too much time is spent on their hand-to-hand combat. Robots also vaporize innocent police officers, try to kill Frank and Casey multiple times, and the final climactic scene involves the villain being crushed by his own technology. Spoiler: A particularly disturbing scene happens when Athena is suddenly hit by an oncoming truck and dragged many yards down the road. She isn't killed, of course--Athena is a robot--but this is still a scene involving a young girl being graphically hit by a vehicle. If my kindergartner son saw this, he'd immediately want to leave the theater.

There are a few positive aspects I should note. Cassidy as Athena is the highlight of the film, and she is far more charming than Clooney or Robertson in every scene she shares with them. Some of the visuals are interesting, if one is impressed by CGI cityscapes and the quick edits between earth and Tomorrowland. I liked the scene in Frank's farm house, as it was likely filmed in British Columbia about a mile from where I used to live, eliciting a nostalgic feeling for me. A brief scene in a sci-fi nostalgia shop is lots of fun due to the huge amount of classic sci-fi paraphernalia in the tiny store--I do love me some sci-fi!

Overall, in spite of its attempts to be special and positive, this is a disappointing and forgettable film. A thematic parallel is Martin Scorcese's Hugo, a far better film featuring an inventive and creative young protagonist who attempts to make the world a better place by fostering more creativity and wonder. Hugo's visuals and narrative elicited the childlike joy and delight that is missing from Tomorrowland. Were I a parent deciding whether to take my children to see a film this weekend, I would encourage them to seek out Hugo, or Brad Bird's previous masterpieces, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, or Ratatouille. Those are special films made by a gifted person, and I'll wait with optimism for a well-crafted film made by that filmmaker. Mr. Brad Bird, I have hope.

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