Monday, June 1, 2015


Gah! Such complicated feels about this movie! Let me see if I can try to unravel it all. (Spoilers ahead.) Tomorrowland made me feel...

Delight. Some of the scenes of "Utopia Tomorrowland" are EXACTLY out of dreams I have had. I believe in my dream diary somewhere I have sketches of the view of the anti-grav swimming pools as seen from inside a glass tube habitrail/monorail system. The main difference being that my tubes also went underwater. Maybe I should say this made me feel creeped out at how identical it was to my dreams, but really, I was too overwhelmed with delight. 

Pain. Oh, good lord, those early scenes where young Frank Walker is having his inventions derided because they (a) don't work and (b) are more fun than practical are all things that actually happened to me when I was his age, almost word for word. 

Validation. Yes, yes, yes! This is EXACTLY how I see the world! Making things better for everyone is the reason we are here! Why can't everyone understand that? This belief is the reason I do this, and this, and why I made this, and this, and this, and well, just about everything! 

Boredom. I think the biggest flaw of the film is that it spends a lot of time being mysterious and vague about what is actually happening. As a result, it was hard to emotionally care about the action. Sure, if the robots destroy the little girl, that would be bad... but, uh, what are the larger consequences? As viewers, we have no idea. I could feel this boredom from the whole audience. We all wanted to care, and we all cared in theory... but I don't think anyone was feeling edge-of-their-seat thrills due to so much vagueness. 

Sorrow. Athena's sacrifice was hard for me to take. Not only does she look a great deal like my fifth-grade first crush, but her attitude and mission were that of Peggy Van Pelt, who carried the culture of Imagineering in her own two hands for years until she, too, had to leave us unexpectedly. 

Hope. Okay, sure. There's a lot this movie does wrong in terms of entertaining an audience. But if I had seen this when I was twelve -- it could easily have made an major difference in my life. It may not be a box office blockbuster, but if it affects just a few dozen of the right young people the right way, it may have a legacy that is well worth the trouble it took to make this film. 

And there is so much more... the scene at the end with the kids looked to be taken straight from The Blue Bird, which implies a lot... the amazing Eiffel Tower scene, which I should have loved, but left me flat... George Clooney not having any real chemistry with the rest of the cast because, well, he is George Clooney.... though for the life of me, I have no suggestions for a better choice... all the connections to The Rational Optimist, the book that has given me more hope than any other for the fate of the human race, but I don't talk about it much, because I am pretty sure that our unrealistic pessimism is the engine that causes humanity to continuously improve.... God, this is all so complicated... this movie puts its finger on the center of a web of incredibly complex, unspoken, important ideas, but it does so clumsily... I really wish this film was better... but I'm not sure I see how to make it better. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but so, of course, is the road to Utopia. Thanks, Brad Bird and friends, for getting us one step closer.

Postscript: I’ve continued to think about this movie a lot. At first I wasn’t sure why. But as time went on it became clear to me. This isn’t just a movie to me, it is my religion, and when your religion is portrayed on screen, you want it to be done right. Here’s a brief stab at the tenets of said religion:
  1. The universe wants us to help each other.
  2. The human race is on a journey that is taking us ever closer to utopia.
  3. We must work hard and use what gifts we have to make the world a wonderful place.
And what is fascinating about Tomorrowland is that it does an okay job of expressing these notions, and pointing out the fact that only a minority of us hold these beliefs – many more seem willing to (eager to?) wallow in misery that things aren’t easy, simple, or perfect. One of the most influential books I have ever read is The Rational Optimist, which, in glorious detail, outlines the fact that life for the human race has continuously improved for thousands of years, and explains why this trend is likely to continue. I agree with this, but the curious part is this: It may actually be irresponsible to proselytize this viewpoint too strongly or widely, for pessimism and worry about the future drives us to make it better. If everyone believes that everything is going to be fine, it may well be that we let things get worse and worse. The issue is probably moot, though, since in all ages and times it is part of human nature to generally believe that things are going to hell, and it seems unlikely that any about of zealous cheerleading about the power of human creativity is going to change that. The more I think about it, the more I start to think that a world comprised of 85% pessimists and 15% optimists might be the best thing, after all.

But that makes it sound like pessimism and optimism are static, when we know perfectly well they are dynamic: they change with age. Young people are naturally optimistic, old people are naturally pessimistic. And this is the story of Tomorrowland. A young boy who was once optimistic has been ground down into a cranky old pessimist by a cold, hard world. He meets a young girl who is an optimist, and he regains hope. It sounds like a reasonable story, so why is it such a mess? I have some new insights on that after thinking about it for a while.

1) The film fails to follow the Hero’s Journey. I’m not saying every movie should follow the hero’s journey, but when you are telling a story about an underdog saving the world, you should at least consider it. Several important elements of the journey are missing. “The call” is obviously there. But where is “the refusal”? Where is the “point of no return”? What part of the story is “the cave” exactly? Looking at the movie through this lens, these important scenes feel vague and mushy, not crisp and clear, and that vagueness does little to draw us into the story. Also confusing is the fact that the film is trying to relate two parallel stories, which leads to the next question…

2) Who is the protagonist? At first, it seems obvious that Casey is the protagonist. But is she? She behaves in no way like a hero, and undergoes no changes in the story. She is a frustrated optimist in the beginning, middle, and end of the story. She supposedly can “fix anything”, but she is given no opportunity to do so at any point during the story. She is used more as a “key” than anything else. So – it could be George Clooney? There is an argument for this, since he is the one who undergoes the transformation. Looking at the lens of the Hero’s Journey again, he fits the bill a little better… But not a lot better. A colleague of mine suggested that Athena  is really the protagonist – which I think might actually be true! She’s the only one who actually knows what is going on, she takes the most risks, and makes the greatest sacrifice. But we never get to see things from her point of view. Which leads us to possibly the greatest problem with the movie…

3) No one knows what is going on. Not our “heroes”, and not the audience. The film spends so much time trying to keep us in the dark, that we can’t really get attached to the plot or the characters. Villains appear – they are obstacles to our heroes… but obstacles to what exactly? What is their motivation? What are the consequences if the villains win? We don’t know, and so how can we care?

Anyway, sighs and sadness. I am writing this on a return flight from Walt Disney World. I felt sure that I would pick up an enamel Tomorrowland pin while I was there. Unfortunately, the film seems to have made so little impact that Disney didn’t even bother to make or sell them. In some ways, the whole Tomorrowland experience feels like validation of the film’s warning – that most people would prefer to let the world go to ruin. But at the same time, I can’t help but notice the meta-theming: if this movie was inspiring to everyone, it wouldn’t be a call to the select few who actually want to improve things. I can’t help but think that somehow, quietly, this film will end up being a signifier that those of my religion will use to find one another. That's why the pins aren't available to everyone at Disney World. After all – for reasons I have never understood, sloppy storytelling is a shared feature of all sacred texts. 

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