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Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland just doesn’t work.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

tomorrowlandDespite how I may come off on here and on my Twitter from time to time, I am actually rather much an optimist.  Oh sure, I have cynical and realist tendencies – I write for the Internet, for god’s sake, they’re kind of a pre-requisite – but deep down, I am very much an optimist.  I like to believe the best in people, I like to believe that bad people can change over time, that our planet is still salvageable, that one day we may end up living in some kind of wonderful progressive future of sunny optimism.  We might not get jetpacks, but things may be more or less sustainable.  And given the choice between excessively bleak and cynical verging-on-nihilist stories, or idealistic heart-warming tales of happiness and friendship, I will pick the latter almost every time.  In some ways, this makes me childishly naive and unprepared for reality, but what is our day-to-day existence without some semblance of hope?

I tell you all of this not because I enjoy over-sharing about myself on the Internet, but because I want you to know that I agree with almost everything that Tomorrowland is preaching.  That the future does not have to be set towards total annihilation through global warming or thermonuclear war or some kind of natural disaster, that optimism can triumph over cynicism, that those best qualified to save us from such catastrophes should be given free rein to set about doing so, that our obsession with violent destructive media that treats the apocalypse as nothing more than destruction porn is worrying and possibly sets back our willingness to take environmental threats seriously, that cancelling the Space program but keeping a nuclear weapons program going is inexplicable…  I agree with pretty much all of that!

It’s also why I am incredibly disappointed to have to tell you that Tomorrowland just straight up doesn’t work.

I’m not going to mince words or delay the reveal, folks, the reason why Tomorrowland just doesn’t work is because it’s not really a story.  Oh sure, the two problems that you were probably expecting to hear when the time inevitably came for the sentence “Brad Bird has made a bad movie” to be printed are also here.  The last third is a total mess of prior foreshadowing that gets no payoff, that sidelines our supposed lead character, Casey (Britt Robertson), almost totally, and contains random robot violence and explosions that feel almost completely at odds with the “positive thinking can change the future” message that the film had spent 90-odd minutes preaching beforehand – all things that reek of executive meddling wondering why a $180 million Summer blockbuster doesn’t have any action to sell people on and forcing substantial rewrites.  Meanwhile, co-writer Damon Lindelof’s grubby fingerprints are all over the abysmal pacing, structure, and plotting – no 2 hour movie should spend upwards of 70 minutes setting up its story – that kill almost any semblance of emotional depth and resonance.

Those are problems, but even if you stripped them out, this film would still not work.  See, the messages that Tomorrowland wishes to impart are great messages… it’s just that Brad Bird, who directed and co-wrote the story and screenplay, forgot to fashion them onto an actual, y’know, story.  This is the kind of film where characters will shout the film’s ideology back and forth at one another instead of actually performing actions that communicate them without incredibly clunky dialogue.  There are multiple instances where the film will stop, physically stop in its tracks, whilst a character stares just slightly off to the side of the camera and monologues about the righteous indignity that Brad Bird has against our collective cynical apathy.

That second paragraph in this review?  That is quite literally a 3 minute monologue that our nominal villain gives just before the really-quite-terrible whizz-bang action finale kicks off.  I half-expected Bird to just at one point walk on-screen, tell everyone to take 5, and finish the rest of it himself.  The cynical and optimist push-pull protagonist dynamic is the sole thing that Frank (George Clooney) and Casey’s relationship is built on, instead of it being only a part of two fully-rounded characters.  There are no real characters, no emotional stakes, just endless sermonising, that I agree with which is something I find incredibly annoying, about how awful cynicism is and how things need to change.

In fact, I take back my complaint about Lindelof’s “mystery box” storytelling.  He was only trying to hide the fact that there isn’t really a story to this movie, so let’s give him points for trying to make this an actual film instead of just an extended lecture from a High School principal about how very naughty we’ve all been.

Not to mention the times when its themes and ideas end up becoming contradictory for one reason or another.  Tomorrowland believes that our best and brightest should be given their own perfect utopian space to work unencumbered by politics and the law and such, where they are free to create anything they want.  Frank, however, was kicked out of Tomorrowland for… inventing something he shouldn’t have.  There’s a setpiece set in a geek and sci-fi nostalgia shop that’s run by a pair of robot villains (a wasted Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn) that insinuates that relaxing and regressing too much in nostalgia instead of thinking up bold new exciting futures is bad and a waste of potential.  Tomorrowland itself… is designed almost entirely like how people in the 60s thought our future would look like and shares influences with the area at various Disney parks.  The film keeps saying that positive thinking, non-violence, and forward-thinking will create a brighter future… but the finale boils it down to fighting robots and trying to destroy the one machine that is certainly going to kill the future.

What’s most frustrating about such massive systemic flaws is that I can see the film that Tomorrowland could and should have been poking through every now and again.  Specifically, the film looks outstanding.  I mean, of course it does, it’s Brad Bird!  The man has always been gifted visually, and I honestly would have been offended if the film didn’t look fantastic.  Besides, I’m a sucker for the visual designs of how people in the 50s and 60s thought the future would look.  There’s a lightness and optimism to the film’s visual palette, a sincerity and love that communicates the general messages of the film in a way that feels natural instead of via the tin-eared lecturing provided by the plotting and dialogue.

There’s also Britt Robertson’s fantastic performance as Casey.  Bird and Lindelof’s script doesn’t give Casey much of a character besides relentless and boundless optimism – this is a high schooler who sits through multiple lectures about how the world is doomed, is the only character who wants to ask the question of how we fix it, and leaves her lecturers speechless when she does, in case you want another indication of just how non-existent this film’s subtext is – but, dammit all, Robertson is going to try and imbue Casey with one, anyway!  It’s a relentless charm offensive, full of charisma, wonder, and a quiet insecurity and sadness, the kind of performance that normally leads to deserved stardom and a long and healthy career.  There are even points where she’s acting circles around George Clooney – who is often good, but feels more than a little miscast as the grumpy cynical member of the main cast that’s rounded out by Raffey Cassidy, as a pre-teen android called Athena, whose relationship with Frank is something I am not even going to touch with a ten-foot pole.

In all of Tomorrowland’s 130 minutes, there are precisely 5 of those where it works totally.  Casey sneaks off to a large open field in order to discover the world that appears when she touches the pin without any of the distractions and restrictions of reality.  So she touches the pin and is instantly dropped into the centre of Tomorrowland.  It is an utterly magical place, filled with pristine surfaces, bright cheery colours, beaming sunshine, skylines, jetpacks, flying cars, rocket ships with seats just for you.  Brad Bird demonstrates all of this in one shot, taking his time when following Casey through this utopia, letting that optimism sink in, as Michael Giacchino’s score emphasises the wonder that is adamant in Casey at this wondrous place.  For 5 glorious minutes, Bird stops shouting at the audience and just shows.  He visualises what our future could be like instead of lecturing us on it, and the sheer joy and childlike hope it features swelled my heart and almost moved me to tears.  It is magical.

But then it is cruelly cut short, the utopia fades away and Casey is left back in reality, waist deep in a swamp.  The pin was not a gateway to Tomorrowland, it was an advertisement for it, marketing for a utopia that exists but not in the way that it sold as.  Infected by cynicism, hopelessness, and a leader that would rather sermonise the people he was originally trying to save instead of actively going out of his way to save them.

I can’t think of a better metaphor for Tomorrowland, really.

Callum Petch can give you a kiss in the morning and a sweet apology.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

Dish and Dishonesty (S3 Ep1)

In the latest entry to our 100 Greatest TV Episodes series, we’re introducing Nicholas Lay, a new guest writer to the site, who’s inducting one of the most intelligent episodes from the BBC classic comedy, Blackadder.

by Nicholas Lay (@laidbaremedia)

dish and dishonesty 1In the spirit of the frantic general election that last week, as per usual, made a mockery of the political and social system in the UK, it seemed only natural that my contribution to Failed Critics 100 Greatest TV Shows should be the timeless send up of British politics that is the opening episode of the late 80s sitcom, Blackadder the Third. While II and Goes Forth are arguably stronger seasons, certainly in terms of consistency, and are no doubt more popular, I find it difficult to hold any single episode in higher favour than Dish and Dishonesty. Set during what could perhaps be considered a ‘brave’ time period selection – the turn of the 18th/19th century British Regency (a historical period lodged primarily in further education compared to the primary school-taught, everyone-knows-a-few-facts-about-them Elizabethan and WWI periods of II and Goes Forth respectively) – the episode features some of Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s finest, altogether smartest writing, terrific performances and comic timing across the board, as well as probably my favourite Blackadder sequence of all time.

Right off the bat there are jokes aplenty regarding the rather backward electoral structure of the age, with facts presented that could essentially produce the humour out right due to the almost tragic nature of their genuine existence. Curtis and Elton of course sprinkle their delicious sense of exaggeration on virtually everything, but as is the case throughout Blackadder the comedy stems from the reality that, while ridiculous, each social and political aspect ridiculed to the extreme isn’t actually that far away from the truth. Within the first five minutes or so we’re treated to a brief history of the unfair manner of voting procedure (“Look at Manchester…population, sixty thousand; electoral roll, three”), an introduction to the running joke of an overly adolescent Pitt the Younger, and the outrageous class divide as depicted by Blackadder himself, who describes MP Sir Talbot Buxomley’s interests as “flogging servants, shooting poor people, and the extension of slavery to anyone who hasn’t got a knighthood”.

Although helped by the fact that period pieces tend to stand the test of the time with greater success than their contemporary cousins, Curtis and Elton were evidently masters of the sitcom set up of their day. Immediately punching out lines and gags of this ilk over and over again, they really allow the old day BBC studio audience to get their teeth into things from the off, thus pulling the whole thing off spectacularly well throughout. Incidentally, the episode is a fine example of a time when a live audience laughter track genuinely did drive and enhance the comedy, from the perspective of both the working actors and the end user, so to speak, in the form of the audience at home.

Working in tandem is the superb delivery provided by the cast, led by Rowan Atkinson’s legendary title character, whose bitter sense of both curiosity and utter loathing alike manifest themselves marvellously with each straight close-up of his subtle, completely apt facial expressions. His calm, permanently sarcastic demeanour in the face of complete buffoonery, both above (Hugh Laurie’s elite thicko, Prince George) and below him (Tony Robinson’s ever-present dogsbody, Baldrick), results in punch line after spot on punch line. Laurie excels opposite as the brain dead Prince, the non-state related concerns of whom remain consistently at the forefront of the comic proceedings (“Socks are like sex…tons of it about and I never seem to get any!”). The nauseating guest characters are as close to perfection as one is likely to find in sitcom history, with Dennis Lill’s grotesque, flushed elitist Buxomly’s brief cameo matched by the depiction of two-time Prime Minster Pitt the Younger, played wonderfully by Simon Osborne. Like the “Darling” gag during Goes Forth, the joke that the PM is a mere teenager is simple but genius in both subsequent connotation and all round execution, as he continuously spars with Blackadder in fantastically immature, highly patronising fashion.

The highlight of the episode is the development of the by-election held in the fictional corrupt rotten borough of Dunny-on-the-Wold, discussed first by Blackadder and the Prince (in no other context could the lines “a small hen, its late forties” and “window tax” be delivered with such understated aplomb and work so damn well), before culminating in the eventual election declaration. One of the all time great moments of British television, the fourth wall-breaking election result – presented as a BBC-type event with contemporary political commentator Vincent Hanna speaking directly to the camera/audience – is a masterpiece of witty political satire. From start to end it precisely dissects the sometimes seemingly insane practice and nature of politics in the late 18th/early 19th century, alongside modern day politics and the ugly, concurrent themes of power, wealth, and corruption. The sight of Prince George holding Colin the dachshund and approving Mr. Hanna’s acknowledgement of the beast sets the tone for a scene in which each scenario, portrayal, and line is pure, side splitting gold. Baldrick’s old timey version of political “gagging”, Pitt the Even Younger crying to his mother in defeat, the Standing at the Back Dressed Stupidly and Looking Stupid Party’s policy of the compulsory serving of asparagus at breakfast, and Mr. Hanna’s Country Gentleman’s Pig Fertilizer Gazette media outlet are just some of the standout moments, all held together by Blackadder’s treacherous, completely transparent rigging of the vote. Never again did a single scene have my heavily inebriated weeknight YouTube-watching first year history university student-self on the floor quite as long as this.

A momentous, everlasting piece of British comedy, Dish and Dishonesty opened a season that deservedly won the BAFTA for Best Comedy Series in 1988, with the episode itself a cornerstone of its success. The blend of quirky, restricted staging and cynical writing forever associated with the series is at its absolute strongest here, a factor from which the cast rose to the occasion to produce a practically flawless thirty minutes of television. To any fan of history, comedy or political satire who may have missed it, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. If you still don’t wish to give it a try, then I say, in the words of Mr. Pitt the Younger, poo to you with knobs on!

The rest of our 100 Greatest TV Episode articles can be found here.