Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Think of the Children! Tuesday: 'Tomorrowland' Inspires Hope

It's a really weird feeling you get when you're watching or reading something that you can tell is trying really really hard to inspire you. Like, it's trying so hard you can see the muscles in its metaphorical neck straining. Its eyes are starting to bug out a little bit. "Be inspired!" it hisses at you. "This is inspirational! Be inspired!"

That was a little bit of what it was like for me to go see Tomorrowland last night. And the thing is, I actually really liked this movie. No, I didn't like it as much as Pacific Rim or Mad Max: Fury Road or even Maleficent, but it was a good solid movie with an excellent message. It's just that it feels a little bit like the message was a sledgehammer aimed at my head.

And that's what makes me so conflicted about the film. Because as I have stated before on multiple occasions, I really love subtlety in film. I love a good movie that doesn't feel the need to explain itself and that trusts the audience to understand. On the other hand, I also really adore movies that are trying with all their might to do something new. This film wasn't exactly subtle in any way shape or form, but it was trying to say something true with honesty and conviction. So I can respect that. 

More than just respect it, I have to say that the message of this movie is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. I think the message is awesome. I think it's incredibly unsubtle, but I think it's a very true statement that really should be said more often: hope matters, and your heart matters too. That's powerful, dude.

For those of you who are completely lost now, let's back up. Tomorrowland is a film that just came out, starring George Clooney and Britt Robertson, that's based on the Disneyworld theme park of the same name. And if you think this is some shameless marketing cash grab, it sort of is, but that's not the worst thing in the world. Pirates of the Caribbean was also based on a ride at Disney, and that worked out okay.

The movie is written and directed by Brad Bird, who also wrote Iron Giant and Ratatouille, among a few other things you've probably heard of. The trailers for it have been unpleasantly vague and it wasn't until my sister came back raving about it that I had any real inclination to catch this movie before it hit Netflix. But she convinced me, and I'm glad I saw it on the big screen. Tomorrowland is, if nothing else, a hell of a spectacle.

The story of the film follows two scientific geniuses and their search for a better future. In the prologue we have little Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), a kid who invents a mostly functional jet pack in 1964 and uses it to barter entry to the place of his dreams: Tomorrowland. Tomorrowland is some kind of alternate dimension/future city where all the best thinkers and artists and scientists and everybody have come to make the world a better place. Frank loves it there, and he quickly befriends the enigmatic Athena (Raffey Cassidy).

And then the narration informs us that something very bad happened, and we cut to the present day. Casey Newton (Robertson) is a teenage genius with a penchant for breaking the law in the name of science. She's the kind of young adult heroine who rides a motorcycle but gets on really well with her dad, doesn't complain about sharing a bedroom with her little brother and is generally an all around good kid. Minus the part where she's arrested for breaking into a secure NASA site so she can disable the cranes and stop the demolition of the space shuttle launch pad. Minus that.

Casey's defining attribute, we find, is hope. She's incredibly hopeful about the world and straight up refuses to let anyone persuade her it's beyond saving. We see her in school and in class where she's bombarded with news about the end of the world (mutual assured destruction, climate change, dystopian futures, etc) and her reaction isn't despair, it's an honest and open, "So how do we fix it?" And that's pretty rad.

Unfortunately for her, though, breaking into secure government sites is not rad, and eventually Casey gets arrested. When she's leaving lockup she finds a mysterious pin included in her belongings, and when she touches it she goes to - you guessed it - Tomorrowland.

Or she sort of goes there. After some hilarious trial and error, Casey figures out that the pin really just shows her a projection of Tomorrowland instead of actually taking her there. Worse, it has an expiration timer and only works for a few minutes. She is so entranced by the awesome things she saw there and by the beauty of that world that she takes off in search of another pin so she can go back.

A quick eBay search brings her to a science fiction collector's shop in Texas, so she ditches her family and goes on the hunt. The shop in Texas turns out to be a cover for some hostile robots, she nearly dies, and then she's rescued by the mysteriously still twelve years old Athena. Who proceeds to take her right to the now adult Frank's doorstep. Frank now being George Clooney, of course.

From this point on, the plot gets a little bit complex and more than a little bit wobbly, but suffice to say that Frank is disillusioned both about Tomorrowland and about our world. Casey's relentless optimism starts to chafe away at that, and he comes to see that there might be hope. Casey's bubble of positivity could possibly be the thing that saves the day. So they have to go back to Tomorrowland, which is now abandoned and apparently full of hostile robots, and save the world. Yay!

I seriously can't say more without massively spoiling the plot, but at the same time, I'm also not sure I can say more without needing to draw myself a chart of what all happened. Like a lot of original science fiction films, unfortunately, there are some parts of Tomorrowland that feel much more about the coolness of the set piece than about the integrity of the story. Like when they shoot a rocket out of the Eiffel Tower. Or the whole sequence in Frank's house. It's not that these scenes are bad, exactly, but more that they don't add a whole lot to the story and they feel like they're just in it for the cool visuals.

The visuals are really cool, I'll definitely give them that.

Plus, while her presence was somehow completely ignored by the trailers, Athena is a very important central figure in the plot, and she's frankly one of the most interesting characters in the whole thing.* A functionally immortal robot programmed to seek out innovative dreamers and bring them to Tomorrowland, Athena is banished to Earth when the Tomorrowland program is shut down, but she refuses to let that stop her. She's the inciting incident for the whole film, and it's a really concept to see a character who is basically inhuman and ageless bossing around George Clooney. 

Plus, the complexity of the relationship between Frank and Athena was really intriguing. Kind of weird in some moments, but still really interesting. They have a strong emotional bond but Frank feels betrayed by Athena's robot-ness. Clearly she could never have any depth of feeling about him. The movie is ambiguous about what kind of love they share, but that's really okay. The main point is that Athena becomes the rally point for all of the characters, a single figure who, despite being a robot, is able to hope for a better future and then try to make that happen. So that's cool.

But unfortunately, all of Athena's moral complexity and juicy character stuff only serves to highlight the film's biggest failing, which is its antagonist, the inimitable Hugh Laurie doing something in between an American and a British accent. His character's motivations are spotty at best and downright baffling at worst, so my advice is to just ignore him. Focus on the actual heroes and pretend there's some much more logical bad guy trying to get them.

But like I said above, for all of its failings and intense un-subtlety, I really like Tomorrowland. It's got this brightness around the eyes that I appreciate. The message of the movie is one of hope, but it's also one of warning. Basically, the movie is a film about us, about our world, and how we all feed our hearts with stories about doom and destruction and the end of the world. What if that's our biggest problem? What if our biggest problem is that we believe we're going to fail so we give up? And what if we decided to hope instead?

That's a message I can really get behind, because I think that it's very true. It's so easy to have a cynical view of the world and so hard to maintain hope in the face of what seems like overwhelming odds. I wish I knew where it was from because I quote it constantly, but one of my favorite pieces of advice is simply: "Just because you cannot win this fight is no excuse not to try." 

I don't really think that this world is ultimately salvageable. There will always be evil as long as there's a fallen universe. But that's no excuse for despair. Rather, it's a call to arms. The world is in danger, so fix it! Find hope. Find passion and beauty and the sheer joy of intellectual pursuit. Help people because people are worth helping even if it does nothing to prevent the inevitable heat death of the universe.

Because that's the thing. Like Tomorrowland, it is possible that there is a future out there that is perfect and wondrous beyond our dreams. That new heaven and new earth that we're always hearing about. Shouldn't we try to bring as much of that to our lives here and now as we can? Isn't it our responsibility to create the future, the good future, and believe in it?

I'll admit that Tomorrowland probably goes a little overboard on the optimistic speech front, and I definitely think that the script could have used some polishing, but the concept of this film is fantastic.

I mean, what other movie have you seen this year that's about a teenage girl who is a genius and also super cool and who saves the world with the power of her optimism? Literally no other movie. I have never heard of this plot before. And it's an awesome plot, especially for young kids to see. 

This is the story we want children to hear: that there is such a thing as a wonderful future and that you can fight to make it a reality. That you are special and you are chosen and you have so much potential inside of you. That the choices you make really will change the world so make the right ones.

These are great messages. So, yeah, adults watching this film may feel the rather intense urge to roll their eyes. But I think that, in the end, the pervasive optimism and earnestness of Tomorrowland is a point in its favor. I think, when it comes down to it, we need this movie. We need it pretty bad.

*Also, her conversations with Casey mean this movie passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.


  1. I loved this movie so much also you published this thus reminding me that I finally had to sit down and write my own review so thank you

    1. Nice. You should post a link when you're done with your review! I'd love to hear your in depth thoughts.

    2. Yeah sure, I'll warn you i'm not quite as focused in my reviews as you are. It tends to be a bit of a brain splat. But here you go

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