Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Tomorrowland: 'Cause it's gonna be the future soon.

Tomorrowland, well…the trailers promised me a different movie than the one I actually got. George Clooney is the first person we see and he opens the movie in a terrible framing mechanism by awkwardly addressing the camera, but we don’t get a proper introduction to his character until maybe forty-five minutes in. Once we do,  one of his first lines is to tell the protagonist to go home, that her whole quest is a lie, that she’s being manipulated into feeling that she’s part of something incredible. That line right there sums up my reaction to Tomorrowland.

The movie has a lot going for it, and it looks beautiful. I’d even go so far to say that there’s a good movie  hiding in this pile somewhere, but it’s buried under the weight of its problems.

Let’s start at the top. The framing mechanism is awful. It’s fairly well-known that Harrison Ford hated Deckard’s narration in Blade Runner, so he intentionally did a terrible job, in hopes that they wouldn’t use it. Clooney’s monologue makes Ford’s voiceover look like Olivier doing Hamlet.

Additionally, George Clooney is one of the most famous and easily recognizable human beings in the Western World.  At all times, the viewer is aware that he or she is watching George Clooney play a part.

After that unpleasantness, we open at the 1964 World’s Fair, where a kid shows Dr. House his jetpack, but since House graduated from the Dogbert school of management, and the young child is unable to precisely articulate the benefits of a jet pack, House tells him to hit the road.

House’s “daughter” Athena gives the kid a second chance. I put daughter in quotes because it’s obvious that she’s a robot.  In the framing scene, Clooney was talking to a woman off screen, and before we saw her face, I assumed that he was bantering with a female AI. Consequently, AIs were still on my mind when Athena was introduced, and I automatically jumped to the conclusion that she was one, and it turned out to be correct.

Little kid (he's young George Clooney, if you haven't figured that out) gets on the Small World ride, it takes him to Futurama, and he tries out his jetpack again, crash landing right in front of House, after any number of impacts that should have killed him. I joked with my friend that the entire movie was just An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and everything that happened afterward was a comforting hallucination in the last moments of his life.

Cut to modern times, where our hero Casey is sabotaging the decommissioning of the Cape Canaveral launch site.  I assumed it was because she wanted to preserve the site because of its history, but the conversation she has with her dad implies she’s doing this because he’s going to be out of a job once the demolition is done. Her dad is a longtime aerospace engineer. Those are pretty marketable skills right there.  He tells her that it won’t delay the project anyway, because they’re shipping more cranes from Orlando.  I assume that’s pretty expensive.  I figure it would be cheaper for NASA to hire Paul Blart to keep an eye on their site, but what do I know?

He tells her to stop doing it. But she doesn’t listen, and instead rides out of the site again, whereupon she is caught.  She’s released into her father’s custody, and finds a Tomorrowland pin that transports her out into a cornfield whenever she touches it.

I’ll wait while everybody makes their own reference to that Twilight Zone episode.

The cornfield is merely an extremely convincing illusion, and Casey is moving in the real world while she’s moving in the simulation. We’ve been told that she’s some kind of Reed Richards super-genius, but she keeps forgetting this property of the badge, and constantly walks into walls, falls down stairs or wades into lagoons. She’s completely annoying, so seeing her subjected to abuse was amusing at first, but even that got tiresome after a while.

The pin stops working, so she googles it and the only reference she finds is the Geocities site for a collectables store in Texas.  I’m not sure why it had to be in Texas, but fortunately our wunderkind has her kid brother tell her dad that she’ll be camping with friends for the next few days, because of course parents are cool with letting their children run around with unspecified friends a few hours after being arrested.

Fortunately the trip to Texas is accomplished with no difficulty whatsoever, and she’s there in the next scene, about five second of screen time later.  She asks the weirdo store owners about the pin, but they turn out to be killer robots. She’s rescued from the killer robots by Athena, the little girl who is also a robot.

They self-destruct, and more robots pretending to be secret service agents show up. I liked the head robot. His smile was unnerving.

Meanwhile, Casey Newton, super-genius, sees sparks shooting from Athena’s exposed circuitry, and seems unable to comprehend it when the girl tells her that she’s a robot. (Actually, she says "Audio-animatronic", but I'll be damned if I'm using that.)  We get lots of “wh-wh-what?!” from Casey, and then Athena is hit by a truck when they pull over to talk. Casey steals the truck, but then Athena robot superspeeds after her and jumps into the cab.

If you’ll excuse the digression, I hate almost everything JJ Abrams has ever done, and that goes double for Damon Lindelof, his frequent collaborator, and screenwriter for this movie. When Casey asks what’s going on, those in a position to answer avoid the question, even though there is no need to do so. The characters preserve the mystery at the expense of the plot.  It’s a neverending parade of “I can’t tell you that!” or “There’s no time!” I’m reminded of what Hemingway said about the epic: This too to remember. If a man writes clearly enough any one can see if he fakes. If he mystifies to avoid a straight statement, which is very different from breaking so-called rules of syntax or grammar to make an effect which can be obtained in no other way, the writer takes a longer time to be known as a fake and other writers who are afflicted by the same necessity will praise him in their own defense. True mysticism should not be confused with incompetence in writing which seeks to mystify where there is no mystery but is really only the necessity to fake to cover lack of knowledge or the inability to state clearly. Mysticism implies a mystery and there are many mysteries; but incompetence is not one of them; nor is overwritten journalism made literature by the injection of a false epic quality. Remember this too: all bad writers are in love with the epic.

Athena drops Casey off at George Clooney’s house. It’s in New York, and  we're led to believe that Athena has driven all the way there. It’s a red pickup with a smashed rear window being driven by a robot that looks like a twelve-year-old girl. I get nervous when I have a headlight out and it’s three hours before dusk. Anyway, they make cross country without any trouble, and apparently in several hours.

There are actually aspects of this scene that I like.  For instance, when she’s chased by his holographic guard dog, she notices it’s not leaving any footprints.  She says blahblahblah, he tells her to get lost and, um, blasts her thirty feet in the air to land squarely on the base of her skull. Instead of being dead of paralyzed, she instead walks it off and lights a convenient bulldozer on fire, and sneaks into his house when he rushes outside to extinguish it.

I’m not much into steampunk,  I think it’s overdone as a style, but I did like the look of his vacuum tube doomsday clock.  They bicker, but killer robots come to fight them off, and this scene is extremely well done. It’s a bit at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie, but it was some solid sci-fi action.

Teenage girl in bathrub. That's Search Engine Optimization right there.
George Clooney gets into a bathtub with a teenage girl, for what’s certainly not the first time, but it’s his escape tub, and they fly to the woods where he’s hidden a motorcycle. Athena meets them there, and they use a news station satellite dish to transmit themselves to the Eiffel Tower, where Lindelof tries to garner a little geek cred by humping Tesla's leg.

They launch a spaceship out of the Eiffel Tower. Later on, Hugh Laurie observes that this would ordinarily this would be a problem, but since the world is ending in a few months, he doesn’t care. Except, (spoilers) our heroes save the day, and the world does not end, and everyone seems to forget about that.

I wanted to like this movie. I really did. Science in mainstream movies is seldom good, but this was just like High Modernism explained by a Liberal Arts major who learned about the natural world exclusively through I Fucking Love Science posts on Facebook.

"You are saying that if it did pull through, it would hate us. That strikes me as an unfair attempt to invoke the spirit of Sigmund Freud: Oedipus and Electra in one being, out to destroy all its parents—the authors of every one of its tensions, anxieties, hang-ups, burned into its impressionable psyche at a young and defenseless age. Even Freud didn't have a name for that one. What should we call it?"

"A Hermacis complex?" I suggested.


"Hermaphroditus having been united in one body with the nymph Sahnacis, I've just done the same with their names. That being would then have had four parents against whom to react."

"Cute," she said, smiling. "If the liberal arts do nothing else, they provide engaging metaphors for the thinking they displace."

Our heroes wind up in Tomorrowland, because their spaceship is also a dimension hopping device.  Dr. House gives them a hard time, and the third act goes on forever and ever and ever. the gist, though is that George Clooney invented a device that would predict the end of the world. However, just like in Dune, seeing the future locks us into that future.

That's actually kind of an interesting concept, but it's only dealt with very briefly, and in way that's very characteristic of Lindelof's writing. If a villain kicks a dog, for instance, that's shorthand telling us that he's irredeemably bad. Lindelof writes the entire movie like this, sketching the events in broad outlines, drawing on familiar tropes and asking the audience fill in the blanks from their knowledge of pop culture. Before you can say "No Fate but what we make for ourselves" our heroes blow up the machine with Athena's self-destruct.

Her self-destruct is problematic on its own. She was built as an ambassador to recruit imagineers for Tomorrowland. I could buy it if she had some kind of self-destruct that quietly melted her components and scrambled her software. But she doesn't. She has an unavoidable self-destruct that blows her up and kills everyone around her. The fuck?!

Athena is all blowed up, but not before she tells George Clooney that her love is real, but she is not. House dies through convenient misadventure, and we pick up a year later, where George Clooney and Casey have constructed a ton of new Tomorrowland pins and an army of Recruiting Robots. It turns out that Clooney was addressing these kids in the opening sequence. He charges them to recruit dreamers, wishers, liars, hopers prayers and magic-bean-buyers, for he has some flax golden tales to spin.

1 comment:

  1. "Additionally, George Clooney is one of the most famous and easily recognizable human beings in the Western World. At all times, the viewer is aware that he or she is watching George Clooney play a part."

    Yeah, I'm thinking that's less the fault of filmmakers hiring a famous actor for a major role and more a problem with Clooney himself. Tom Hanks is one of America's 3 most famous actors and somehow (in my opinion) he manages to disappear into his roles so I don't sit there thinking "Tom Hanks is punching that shark". Clooney has never been able to pull that off. In almost every film he makes, I have difficulty looking past him and seeing the character he's portraying. I'm not saying he's a lousy actor, he's just...too Clooney. If that makes any sense. Hollywood should just pay him an annual stipend to walk around on Earth being handsome and famous. A professional famous person, if you will.

    Also, I just realized that a denim jacket with a knitted hood is just about the ugliest piece of clothing I've ever seen.