Sunday, May 31, 2015


My girlfriend and I went to see Disney's new movie Tomorrowland last night. Hands down, this is one of the worst movies I think I've ever seen. As a warning, this post is going to be spoiler heavy so read no further if you don't want to have things ruined for you.

The first problem I had was the main character, Casey. She was a throwaway. I don't think it's a huge spoiler to say that she finds a magical pin that teleports her to a marvelous futuristic world, but that's where the motivation ends. It was really cool so she wants to get back there. Despite freaky robots trying to kill her, a cryptic little girl that supposedly gave her the pin refusing to answer any questions, and a jerkface George Clooney who also answers no questions and just tells her everything is awful. Who cares! She still wants to go. Just cuz.

So, Casey won't be dissuaded. She is, as we find out in the very first scene, an optimist. To a fault. And that's about her only defining characteristic. It amounts to a paper thin justification for Casey being led around by the nose for the vast majority of the film to solve someone else's problem that they won't even tell her about. She lacks agency as a character and the audience is supposed to forget this because of the bright shiny distraction of "Ooh! Shiny futureland!"

After the film ended, my girlfriend and I agreed, Casey could have been written entirely out of the movie. It would require some reengineering of the structural details such as a revelation on the part of Clooney's character, Frank, on the solution to the supposed problem (more on that in a minute) instead of letting Casey pop in to figure it out in the matter of a single scene as a cheap workaround of pulling a strict deus ex. Writing her out would have made the main story much tighter and potentially a more triumphant story as Frank solves a problem of his own making. But I just like redemption stories so maybe that's just me.

Now, about that problem. While it is ultimately revealed and its solution proposed all in a very short time, vague hints are given several times prior to the big reveal stating that "someone invented something that should not have been invented". An engaging teaser to be sure, but the reality is a big let down. As a second warning, this is one of the key reveals of the whole movie, so if you're wanting to avoid spoilers, this is where you should stop.

The thing that should not have been invented is... a device that shows the future. And it's not painting a pretty picture. In 59 days* from Casey's present there will be simultaneous disasters: icecaps melting suddenly flooding everything, major terrorist attacks, raging fires destroying the world's forests, etc.... How is it all supposed to happen at the same time? I'm going to go with "Disney magic" because they don't explain this at all.

This of course should beg the question of why all these horrible things shall come to pass at all? After all, knowing that something bad is in the future gives us the opportunity to change it. Except the main point of the movie is that we don't. It treats humanity as a proverbial deer in the headlights. Hugh Laurie's character, Governor Nix (a not at all subtle reference to the Greek goddess of darkness, but then again, making Casey's last name "Newton" wasn't subtle either) gives a speech about this stating, with some truth, that when we learn of impending doom, instead of trying to solve the problem, we repackage it into cheap entertainment. Apparently Laurie's character had been trying to warn the mundane Earth about all these bad things for years, but no one would do anything except tip their glass to the oncoming train.

Defeated, Frank and Casey are about to head back to Earth when suddenly Casey has the deus ex realization that Laurie's character constantly blasting Earth with warnings was the problem; it planted the negative outlook in humanity's mind that was what caused all these problems in the first place**. It hearkens back to a proverb told back at the beginning of the movie about two wolves fighting. One of light and hope. The other of darkness and despair. Which one wins? The one you feed. The implication here is that by worrying about the future feeds the wrong wolf.

There was another early scene in the film in which this was again thematically raised in which Casey is in school and her teachers are giving dire warnings about the world we live in - Global warming, dystopias, etc... Casey raises her hand to ask a question and is consistently ignored until, just before the bell rings, she is finally called upon and asks, "So what are we doing to fix it?"

This is a fair and profound question, but an honest answer is never given. Instead of giving it a fair answer, the film runs in the exact opposite direction assuming that humanity is collectively doing nothing except crying to the heavens about it in despair or ignoring it. Which certainly has an element of truth to it, given the global warming deniers, the spread of religious extremism, etc..., but it fails to give a fair shake to problems humanity has addressed such as largely reducing the hole in the ozone layer, or making inroads to nuclear disarmament. In Tomorrowland, history doesn't exist. Just sloppy moralizing.

So what solution is proposed? I think the intention was "Stop wallowing. Start fixing." But the delivery was so botched that it was entirely subverted. Instead, what was depicted in the film was a dangerously ridiculous prescription. They destroyed the future telling machine and recruit a bunch of idealistic dreamers to.... stand and marvel in a field at the wonder of Tomorrowland.

Now my comment about not giving an honest answer to the question of "what are we doing to fix it" comes into play. Because it is never answered as to how this solves the problem. We are still facing all those crises. The heroic dreamers are inspiringly cast from all walks of life - musicians, scientists, ballerinas, an explorer studying elephants. But none of them directly addresses the issues as presented.

Instead, the film completely dodges resolving the central dilemma, plastering over the massive plot hole with a vague allusion to hope. Or maybe inspiration. Or something. Because jetpacks.

Either way, the potentially strong message of "Stop wallowing. Start fixing." devolves into "Don't think about the problem and it wont' be one."

I've heard this song before. It's one I consistently hear in discussions about racial inequality. It's the battle cry of the "I'm not racist" crowd who want to claim that racial tension is the product of discussing the problem of racial inequality. And history has given us a clear picture of how refusing to confront the problem works out for us.

Additionally, the film fails to honestly address the issue in another key way. Casey was arrested for sabotaging cranes being used to disassemble a NASA launch pad. Her father, a NASA engineer, tells her that regardless of the cranes being rendered useless, the launch pad will be torn down. He embodies the pessimistic and fatalistic tendencies that are supposed to be everything wrong.

And they never come back to this. If they really wanted to sell the idea that hope will triumph, the launch pad needed to be saved. But instead of addressing this sole concretization of the theme, they walk away from it. I can only conclude that her father was right. The launchpad was torn down while Casey was busy living in fantasy land. By failing to address this plot point, it only shows how hollow the theme was in the first place.

But the problems don't stop there for me. I may well be overthinking this, but it seems to me that the future seeing device isn't really all that hypothetical. We actually have one. It's the hallmark of our species.

It's our brains - a magnificent evolutionary advantage that allows us to look at the world around us, and predict what may happen next so that we might change that future to better our chances at survival. Sure, it's not perfect, but then again, neither is the future telling machine in the film. If it were, then there would be no point in Casey trying to fight it.

Ultimately, the film's recommendation is to turn off our brains. Instead of worry about what the future may bring, we should ignore the warnings and focus on what we want it to be.

Early in the film as Casey explores the parallel reality shown by touching the pin, she hits her head on walls, falls down a flight of stairs, and wades into a lagoon while pining for her fantasy land. This is the most apt analogy of what this film truly prescribes except that we have no idea when those stairs will be a cliff.

It's a story that means well, but obviously didn't think about what it was saying. The only impression I had at the end was


* - Technically, it wasn't 59 days. Casey scrolls through time from the present to the future and there's several days of "static". Not sure what this was supposed to represent, but either way, the explicit point was made that no one was sure exactly when all of these doomsday things were going to happen; only that in 59 days, when the static cleared, everything would suck.

So Frank's countdown clock to doomsday, ticking away the seconds annoyed me because it was promising far more accuracy than it really should have. Significant digits people!

** - I was honestly expecting some sort of ridiculous reference to "quantum" to pop up here with them explaining that the future was a set of hypotheticals until we collapsed a nonsensical future wave function by observing the it. That they at least avoided this cliche is at least some small consolation.

1 comment:

James Redekop said...

There were two things which really bothered me about Tomorrowland, over and above what you mention:

- Tomorrowland, the place, was essentially a sanitized version of Ayn Rand's Galt's Gulch: a place where the "makers" go while the plebs are abandoned to their fate. Except that the big flaw in Galt's Gulch is that, in the real world, the people Rand would call "makers" actually need someone to construct their inventions. Tomorrowland doesn't need that -- they have unlimited robots.
- If Nix were really serious about saving humanity from wars & climate change &c, then he should have brought some of that magic Tomorrowland technology -- most especially whatever their power source is -- back into the real world back in 1964. Imagine what the last 50 years would have been like if people didn't need oil.