Futurist Manifesto

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TOMORROWLAND: A WORLD BEYOND feels like a far more personal film for Brad Bird than his MISSION IMPOSSIBLE sequel, but this also feels like a shrewd strategy: for all its ambitious scale, the Tom Cruise spy-fest was a way for Bird to acclimatize himself to live-action film-making. We know from THE INCREDIBLES that he has a love of futuristic espionage, so it was easy to see how the world of the Impossible Missions Force would appeal, but TOMORROWLAND is unadulterated Bird. Like THE INCREDIBLES it uses entertainment to put over a very personal message. I find Bird’s didactic streak easy to take in part because the things he chooses to preach about are uniquely him: RATATOUILLE really is about food, in a way that no other Disney animated film has been. THE INCREDIBLES was a plea for exceptional people to be allowed to do exceptional things, and Bird doesn’t apologise if that makes him seem elitist — it can be read as a plea for Bird himself to be allowed to do exceptional things.

TOMORROWLAND really is a manifesto, a counter-myth to the doomy dystopias of modern sci-fi (particularly, as the film makes clear, in video games) — when I said in my MAD MAX: FURY ROAD review that modern post-apocalyptic films seem to take apocalypse as inevitable, I seem to have stumbled upon Bird’s theme — TOMORROWLAND puts itself squarely in opposition to everything MAD MAX represents. (That’s as far as you can read without spoilers, and the movie does play very nicely if you don’t know anything about it…)

Disney's TOMORROWLAND Casey (Britt Robertson)  Ph: Film Frame ©Disney 2015

The backstory of the film suggests that the technocrats of Tomorrowland have been blasting us with a telepathic signal that makes us realize that the world is in danger, but that instead of galvanizing us into action, it’s depressed us into inertia. The characters in the film decide to fight back with their own message of hope, and it’s quite clear from the film’s narrative structure that TOMORROWLAND is itself that message, the hope-signal from a sunny futureworld, a beacon for us to follow to get to Jetsons utopia.

Points in the film’s favour: it is co-written by Damon Lindelof and yet makes a certain kind of sense, is consistent with itself, and doesn’t vanish beneath an avalanche of unmotivated behaviour and dim-bulb dialogue. Actually, the secret science-cult behind it all are a lot like the one in Lost.

It’s funny.

The acting is really excellent. George Clooney is fine as ever, but the kids are his equal: four REALLY great kids. Britt Robertson, technically an adult, actually (not even a teenager) should be an immediate star. She has to basically embody optimism here. I believed her, all the way.

The design is lovely, capturing that retro-future vibe elegantly and with original touches (the suspended swimming pools!) which nevertheless feel in keeping with the period (an early-sixties vision of tomorrow). There’s a stunning moment when Tomorrowland, seen previously in a vision (which turns out to have been a commercial), is revealed in its run-down, seedy present form.

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Of course, the concept of a scientific elite, or any kind of elite, leaves open the question of what attitude the film should take to the muggles, the mundanes, its own audience. And here the movie encounters one slight difficulty, since, despite locating the cause of mankind’s woes in the old technocrats, it also regards their successors as our saviours. There’s one rather shocking scene where the little android girl (yes: there’s a little android girl) gets smacked by a pick-up truck and knocked flying. The owner of the truck rushes to her fallen form, and his truck is then stolen. He takes off after it, forgetting his victim, who then gets to her feet and starts running after the truck at Jamie Sommers bionic speed. What’s missing is the reaction shot from the old guy who just ran her down — he ought to be comically astonished. Such a reaction would let us off the hook from our discomfort at the thought of some guy thinking he’s killed a kid, and the fact that the movie showed us what LOOKS like a horrible child fatality. It seems like a mistake for the movie not to be interested enough in this background character to use him to defuse that anxiety.

The odd effect of this android kid doesn’t stop there. She’s beautifully played by Raffey Cassidy, but the fact that she’s playing an ageless android who is decades older than her appearance means that we get to see George Clooney playing, essentially, love scenes with a child. Because he’s George Clooney and the scenes are beautifully conceived and written, this isn’t actually icky. But there is perhaps a trace of discomfort again.

Tomorrowland_(film)_50

And that’s it for negative comments. Oh, when the heroine is led to a swamp, there should’ve been something IN the swamp of significance, probably, or why would android girl have led her there? Seems like android girl left her this clue and then expected her to stay put. Well, what the hell, the last time a Damon Lindelof script made this much sense was never, so we should be content with the charm and the classically beautiful storytelling and the really appealing characters.

The end credits feature some beautiful animation. Of course the drones in the audience stampeded for the exits, missing all this additional entertainment they had paid for, because it’s the end credits and the movie’s over, innit? Only one teenager, in the seat next to us, stayed. I felt like saying to him, “You’ve passed the test: here’s your pin,” but I didn’t have a Tomorrowland badge on me, just one of Jean Marais as the Beast in LA BELLE ET LA BETE, and I’m not sure how he would have reacted to that. But he deserves a prize. The movie’s point, Bird’s over-arching career-long theme, that some people are special, has some validity. Of course, everybody’s special or unique in their own way. But we should only celebrate them when they manifest it in positive ways, which is all too rare.

Here’s a film which resoundingly passes the sidewalk test and makes you glad of it. When you exit a movie, does the world look different? I came out and was struck by the view from the top of the Vue Ocean Terminal — Edinburgh — ancient, sooty Edinburgh — seemed like a dream city of the Twenty-First Century. Which, in a way, it is.

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29 Responses to “Futurist Manifesto”

  1. I really enjoyed it, but would like to have seen Clooney and Hugh Laurie swap roles. I love Clooney, but he’s limited as an actor – and knows it, and usually that doesn’t matter, but I think he was required to do too much heavy lifting in the late scenes with the robot girl, and I found the results a bit awkward.

    It was a lot to ask of any actor, but I think Laurie (who was underused here, though showed himself a dab hand at spouting exposition) might have been able to pull it off. He had a lot of practice at hopeless romance on House.

  2. That’s a really interesting idea. I thought Clooney was moving, so I didn’t have a problem with him doing any of the things he did, but when he plays grumpy you know he’s going to soften. Not so with the post-House Laurie…

  3. There’s a lot that’s very good here — the design of the action scenes has an energy and inventiveness very reminiscent of Brad Bird’s background — but there certainly are a few places where things don’t quite add up narratively. For instance, why isn’t Athena waiting for Casey as soon as she gets back from the Tomorrowland “ad”? If the entire existence of Earth may depend on this one person, why let her get into danger (twice!), once on an ultimately pointless trip to a junk store and the other when under siege at Clooney’s house? And our heroes’ jump in logic regarding the apocalyptic “broadcast” is Writers’ Convenience to the Nth, I’d say; it comes out of nowhere and there’s little reason to think it’s something that would actually work. Laurie’s big speech and the last two minutes are embarrassingly on-the-nose, as well.

    Still, I enjoyed the narrative structure, agree on the performances, and the pacing worked for me. It deserves far better than the “bomb” reputation it “earned” even before the box office failure, which I guess just means were five or ten years away from a critical movement labeling it a Misunderstood Masterpiece. The truth is somewhere in between.

  4. Jon Carter has turned its reputation around in less than five years — I think Tomorrowland is going to be reappraised by the time it hits DVD, if not sooner. It’s a new world!

    Did the subtitle “A World Beyond” get added for the UK, or at the last moment? It’s on the film but not on the IMDb? A last minute panic? Which is it, a world or a land?

    Anyhow, the film is sunny and enjoyable, and I forgot to say something which I’m adding as a penultimate paragraph (see above).

  5. Fiona W Says:

    Where are the pictures you took of Edinburgh: Dream City Of The Twenty-First Century a soon as you got out of the auditorium to illustrate said Sidewalk Test?

  6. Oooo… Now I thought this was dreadful. But I hated the kids’ acting so that may have had something to do with it. Really though, my main problem is that the script seemed to have been written by Alan Partridge. Are “politics” really the only thing standing between us and a jetpack? And beyond the jetpack, what’s in this utopia? See-through newspapers in the place of tablets? Upside-down gardens? Futurism is already back – look at Iron Man, look at Big Hero 6 – invention is very much a part of contemporary adventure now, this film’s complaints that we’re not still striving to turn the world into a fifty year-old car advert is at least decade out of date. I love Syd Mead (the designer) and my life was hugely changed by his designs for Epcot’s ride “Horizons” (now literally swallowed by the Earth) but the film’s structure highlighted the problem with its premise – there’s nothing to DO in Tomorrowland, it’s just a ride, which is why so little of the plot actually takes place there. In fact, even “Horizons” gave you more idea of how people ate and lived – there was more to its promise than just “Isn’t everything clean?” (Have you BEEN to Dubai?) All of which might be overlookable in a kid’s film, but this couldn’t even get that right: it’s rated “12” (presumably because of the scene when over-compensating thirty-something Rafferty battered a killer robot’s face in… Why are there killer robots? What are they trying to do? Where did they come from? Utopia? Why are there killer robots in Utopia?)
    And the dialogue! Ug! “The future… Full Name, I’m the future.” “The world, Miss Surname, he thinks you can save the world.” I know exposition-avoiding placeholders because you haven’t quite worked out the plot yet when I hear them.
    Something something windfarms.

  7. Also, this article is great about people who complain the space age is over: http://io9.com/stop-pretending-we-arent-living-in-the-space-age-1249483666

  8. The pictures of Edinburgh didn’t look that great, because the camera wasn’t seeing things with my eyes.

    Interesting that this and Interstellar are both futuristic sci-fi films powered by nostalgia for the moon-age. Maybe the solution is to get excited about where we are NOW.

    I think Britt Anderson is the twenty-five year old teenager who bashes the android.

    Killer androids because Tomorrowland has become a dystopia. It’s always a challenge to make utopian dreams dramatic, so this film is about corruption and then revolution…

  9. The Future isn’t what it used to be.

  10. Randy Cook Says:

    I believe “A World Beyond” is a UK-only designation. A decision presumably made by the same nice folks who deleted “of Mars” from “John Carter”. Loved the film as well, btw.

  11. It’s probably the most useless suffix ever added to a film title. Does no real harm, but I fail to see how it’s going to somehow lure the punters in.

  12. Randy Cook Says:

    I’d be tempted to guess that “A World Beyond” was a suffix originally planned for JOHN CARTER, but that’s too cynical, even for me.

  13. “We have all these left-over letters, Mr. Bird, do you mind if we append them to your film so they don’t go to waste? You can have ‘A World Beyond’ or ‘Brawny Doodle’ or ‘A Blonde Rowdy,’ it’s your choice.”

  14. DBenson Says:

    The trouble in parsing something like “Tomorrowland” is guessing what’s part of The Message and what’s just storytelling.

    The swamp thing was just mechanics: The pin worked like a virtual reality helmet; you explored the “commercial” by moving in the real world. In the police station the heroine banged her head against a wall when trying to walk in the virtual space; she then went to a more open space and walking around took her to the swamp.

    A couple of key things were almost lost in all the action and effects:

    Right off, we get Laurie’s character dismissing the jet pack. For the kid, flying like Buck Rogers is a dream worth chasing for its own sake; Laurie’s technocrat only sees a non-functional device with no utilitarian value even if it did work. A hint that Tomorrowland is already in the hands of Managers. (A bit of irony in the android being the one who recognizes dreamers)

    SPOILERS

    The whole chase thing seemed to be about Tomorrowland management barring the door against any more dreamers (like corporate America and any other entrenched leadership class?). The killer androids were trying to run down the last “recruiter” out there, and then Clooney’s character when it looked like he might either return or reveal Tomorrowland’s existence, inspiring others to try and find it. One could debate whether Laurie’s character was merely protecting his own position or actually believed he was protecting his world.

    At the very end, we get a look at who Bird feels is necessary for building Tomorrowland. Not just the techies, but a broad range of people including street musicians, dancers, naturalists, and a lady planting a tree in a sidewalk. It would have been nice if we’d had an earlier clue that Tomorrowland was more than gee-whiz tech (although it is surrounded by farmland).The heroine herself is initially defined by her dreams of space travel — something being abandoned as a luxury in real life since we have machines that can explore for us. It’s not precisely an elitist message, but one asserting the need for dreams without obvious monetary value.

    Highlighting climate change was actually a safer way to go in the screenplay. Getting more specific about terrorism, war, wealth inequity or basic pollution would have opened a bigger can of worms. Climate change could be easily illustrated — just a shot of the heroine’s home — and framed as a science problem.

  15. Well put!

    I still can’t figure out the film being a 12 here. The android beating is just that: ANDROID beating. Isn’t that like kicking the refrigerator?

  16. It’s more like the toxic gangster who explodes in Robocop. That’s a human face she’s repeatedly beating. It bends horrifically in a way no real human would, but you can’t actually see any robotics. I was surprised by the 12 too, but then that beating happened and I did begin to think “Yeah, she actually hasn’t done a single pleasant thing in the entire film. She’s actually terrifying.” I adore Incredibles and Ghost Protocol, but I thought every character in this film apart from the Dad (the gutless Dad who Clooney had to replace) was basically horrific.

  17. henryholland666 Says:

    I was very mildly interested in this because I like George Clooney as an actor (while fully acknowledging his limitations) but then I saw this on IMDb:

    Damon Lindelof (screenplay) and
    Brad Bird (screenplay)

    At that point, I became like the knights in “Monty Python & The Holy Grail”: Run away! Run away! Run away!

    Damon Lindelof is the total hack who completely screwed up LOST, he did a terrible job on “Prometheus” too. No thanks.

  18. Randy Cook Says:

    I did not find Frank’s scenes with Athena uncomfortable at all, because when his childhood idealism was reawakened, so were his childhood feelings of betrayal by Athena, with which he also had to contend. I felt this was inevitable, and very sweet.

  19. Fiona W Says:

    It is very sweet, but lurking around, there’s also discomfort, because as David says, at *that moment*, it’s an adult doing a love scene with a child. It’s not paedophilic because it was his boyhood self who had fallen in love with her, and now his adult self has to deal with many conflicting emotions. But it does have a strange, unsettling quality. I loved that a mainstream film had the cojones to play around with ideas like that.

  20. Henry, bear in mind that here Lindelof is working with a director who has a very strong sense of narrative, he’s not being given carte blanche to mess around with someone else’s uiniverse. So the effect is different.

    Found the android-bashing flat-out hilarious, personally. And young idealists ARE kind of terrifying, aren’t they?

  21. DBenson Says:

    I was a little worried where they might go with Frank and Athena, but ultimately they took pains to not go there. When we first meet them she’s taller than he is; by the time they meet again Athena’s non-human nature has been emphatically and repeatedly demonstrated (along with the other androids). And “the moment” plays less like lovers than him granting her forgiveness for deceiving him, in part because she (it?) admits to emotions. And of course it’s capped by using her as an explosive device.

    Some years ago the comedy “Flubber” gave Robin Williams a droid sidekick — a little flying saucer with a video screen and a female personality. Now THAT got weird, with the droid conjuring a pretty nightgowned hologram and approaching Williams in his sleep — then panicking and retreating. By the film’s end the droid has sacrificed herself to save the human heroes, but left programming to create a successor (rather than a reboot of herself): her and Williams’s daughter, in effect. In the end we see the new droid, with the voice and attitude of an annoyed teenager. There are also sentient globs of Flubber, acting like the Minions. Nobody had really thought out just how strange and faintly disturbing these gimmicks were.

  22. Once you get into the realms of creating life, the implications DO get worrying, and it’s nice to acknowledge that.

  23. The only thing I found uncomfortable about Frank and Athena is the idea that a ten-year-old can irreparably have his heart broken. This film tried to be a celebration of ideas, but in reality ideas change you. Inspiration isn’t some Randian unchanging ‘tude, yet according to Tomorrowland education isn’t an option, you just choose the right iconoclasts and award them a pin… You’re dead right, a certain kind of young idealist is terrifying because you can see the adult they’re going to grow up to become. Michael Gove would love this film.
    The action sequences were fun though. Yes.
    I recommend Big Hero 6.

  24. Randy Cook Says:

    As to Frank’s irreparably broken heart: I certainly can understand your point, except that young Frank was not only betrayed by his first crush, but by a fantastic, imaginative technology: the sort of thing into which he’d invested all his childhood dreams and aspirations. I can believe that this one-two punch scored a knockout from which he’d never recover.

  25. DBenson Says:

    Athena can be taken as a symbol of Tomorrowland and as an actual embodiment of Tomorrowland. She betrays Frank by being nothing more than technology; as does Tomorrowland itself. He had grown to want more from both and realized it wasn’t there. His last invention was a form of passive-aggressive suicide: A clock that nails human mortality. It’s not clear what his exile was for; it might well have been voluntary.

    Athena acquires sentience and emotion. She understands that Tomorrowland itself needs to be made human. It needs Frank, who seemed to grasp the problem but ran away from it. He seems intent on spending the rest of his life watching that clock.

    It also needs the girl who not only has expertise but hope and healthy human connections. Frank is PO’ed that she had a bond with a supportive father — the idea that genius COULD have a happy childhood is salt in his wounds. He significantly saves some family pictures during the raid but there’s no hint he ever reconnected with his father after going to the World’s Fair unaccompanied and dropping off the face of the earth. The girl, meanwhile, equates Armageddon with the destruction of her tract home. She brings her father and brother to Tomorrowland, where Frank seems to have escaped his father and not looked back.

    In the end Tomorrowland needs sacrifice. Athena, the machine that had hope, negates a massive hope-destroying device. She does it by exploding, but still.

    We end with a new wave of recruiters — still crafted as children; seeming to have Athena’s sentience — sallying forth to bring back dreamers of all stripes.

    I was going to start a tangent contrasting this to Avengers, where a sentient (and temperamental) technology deems the erasure of humanity as Good.

  26. The really striking line in Avengers is when The Vision ADMITS that humanity is doomed. And he’s the most advanced and perfect character in it. Maybe this will be addressed in film 3.

  27. Ideally, it means “In the long run we’re all dead”. Probably it’s an unexciting reference to story about a magic glove they’re trying to shoe-horn all of these films into. (I think the first Avengers, and every solo outing, really benefited from being allowed to tell its own story and pick its own villains – namely the military/industrial complex. Ultron and Guardians never really made sense, even by superhero arc standards. I hope it doesn’t all go to pot.)

  28. Guardians of the Galaxy does have a whole extra baddie, the ridiculous-looking Josh Brolin-voiced chin monster, who just gets in the way, and who is apparently going to be the big threat in the third Avengers film. Which bodes ill, because he’s not in the least scary or interesting, he’s just a chinny Galactus.

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