Why it’s a great, brave, beautiful Tomorrowland (here be spoilers)

Other people’s opinions… who needs ’em, right? I jest, of course, but with a film like Tomorrowland (aka Tomorrowland: A World Beyond in the UK) there is bound to be an even more splintered variety. A publicity campaign that revealed very little about the story. A vision of retro-futurism that has to appeal both to baby boomer nostalgia and a brand new audience for whom 1964 is as far away from their birth as WWII was from their parents’. An ambitious anti-cynicism message – and here, I warn you again that, while I’m not going to wallow in spoilerific spoilerism, there are some things ahead that probably will give away more than you need to know. I really enjoyed going in blank, so if you haven’t seen the film yet but are expending a little of your generous curiosity towards me, perhaps bookmark this for later? I’ll still be waffling away when you’re done watching.

When I reviewed Tomorrowland, I made some references to the fact that it made important moves from a feminist perspective. On greater reflection, I think it actually goes further than I thought. There are really two strands here – character in the film and characterisation beyond the film – and both of them are extremely promising. I won’t repeat myself too much, but within the film you have two female characters that are independent, intelligent and resist female stereotyping. And it’s not by being a Strong Female Character, but by virtue of being a well-written character who happens to be female. There is also very little male gaze and romance, and such as there is (more on this in a moment) is really about friendship and shared vision. There’s some ass-kicking, but though it’s delivered by an incongruously shaped character – that of a 11-year-old girl – by then, you’re already aware that she’s not human.

So many times, when a physically or emotionally strong female character is delivered to us, it comes from a place of born exceptionalism, or pain. Now, Casey is repeatedly characterised as ‘special’, but it’s to do with her optimistic outlook, not her born or trained physical assets. She has woes and worries – her obsession with halting the dismantling of the NASA platform is more about saving her dad’s job than it is about advancing the ambitions of humanity to build a better world – and a clearly absent mother, but she is not defined by her father’s pain or her mother’s invisibility. Later on, she falls in with Frank because of what he can do for her, and when she helps him it’s out of basic human decency, and not because of anything she feels she owes him (to be honest, they never seem all that fond of each other beyond their shared goals and connection to Athena). There’s no Bella clumsiness, Katniss rage or Buffy strength powering Casey, nor flirty ditziness or emo contrariness. She has achieved what many male characters but few female ones do – a character arc that relies on her growing and becoming more confident in herself and her ability to get stuff done without any superhuman qualities or reference at any point to her physical appearance or romantic aspirations. We have Mikey Walsh levels of faith, here, and an Indiana Jones attachment to a hat – the latter of which is even used as a vehicle to deliver a broadside to the embittered narrative that’s meant to drive most heroes.

So what of actual romance? Well, there is some. And it’s between an ageing cynic and a robot child. Kind of. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, two characters separated by a world of humanity and several decades have to reconcile their feelings towards one another – and one of them has only programmed emotions. Crucially, what we don’t have here is a robot that wants to be human (another female-ish character who is content in herself!), but in a very delicate, beautifully handled scene Athena and Frank have to deal with forty years of unresolved hurt and confusion and in doing so it is Frank who is mostly changed. And therein lies the other great female-friendly power of this film: all the rollicking emotional rollercoaster – all the feelings of love and betrayal – belong to a boy, and a man. In one movie, all the logical thought and optimistic foresight belong to female characters, a rare sight; even rarer, all the drama belongs to men. Between Frank Walker and David Nix we have characters who have, effectively, given up because they’re angry and bitter and feel slighted – one mostly by a single person, the other by the world at large. If there’s a statement as powerful as allowing women to be coolly logical, it’s surely allowing men to display real emotion.

And now, the world beyond. I think what often confuses people outside the Disneyverse is a sense of a bit of a disconnect between product and marketing. Let’s take Tangled as an example, since it’s one of my favourites. Rapunzel is actually a pretty kick-ass heroine, and even on the DVD cover she’s quite fierce – feet planted firmly apart, stern grin and frying pan aloft. But by the time you hit the merchandising – all iridescent princess dresses and batted eyelashes – it’s hard to convince anyone who hasn’t seen the film that she’s actually a pretty rounded and interesting character. I can watch Tangled til the cows come home, but as an adult I don’t really buy any merchandise associated with it because for me it doesn’t really reflect what I love about the film. With Tomorrowland, though, it’s hard to see where there can even be any opportunity for the marketing to be in any way different from the creative property. A few people have pointed out posters that just feature Frank but, despite being someone who’s had a few ‘where’s Natasha?’ moments, I actually think this is a good thing; there are two separate stories here, Frank’s and Casey’s, and I think it’s fine to have marketing devoted to each. And when it comes to merchandise, the most obvious piece – that glorious pin – is as gender neutral as it gets. If you get into costumes and appearance, Casey largely wears jeans, hoodies and a NASA cap. Athena has a couple of dresses, but they’re more retro-futuristic cosplay than tiaras and sparkles (no, there’s nothing wrong with tiaras and sparkles, it’s just nice to have a change). I’m all for backpacks that look like jetpacks, you know? I simply can’t see where this could possibly do anything other than celebrate the gorgeous vintage World’s Fair design inspiration and the general sense of optimism and adventure that is so key to the film.

And therein lies the last part of why I think Tomorrowland is, on the whole, pretty ace. When was the last time you can remember a high stakes potential blockbuster – one without franchise surety, but with star power and a hugely respected directorial force – with such an unambiguously positive message? Morality in Tomorrowland is embedded within having an optimistic vision for humankind, and then – importantly – taking the next step to work towards it. It’s a hell of a sermon – Lindelof has admitted he’d like people to feel a bit guilty – and though there was only one point in the film where I felt it was laid on a bit thick, it’s a bloody important one. It’s a message I’d like my daughter to hear, to take action on. Even though I already want to be a decent human being, which to me means at least trying to put kindness and compassion at the centre of everything, I was unsettled into thinking I’m probably not trying hard enough. The spring’s big tentpole release already covered the ambiguities of riding roughshod over other people’s misgivings when you’re focussed on creating a better tomorrow, but the difference between Tony Stark’s megalomania (I will protect the Earth!) and Casey Newton’s inclusive forward thinking (what can we do to fix this?) is patently obvious. And, much as I love me a complex, morally uncertain superhero narrative, sometimes an undiluted shot of positivity to the arm is exactly what’s needed as an antidote to a pervading sense of the world going to hell in a handbasket.

Sometimes you watch a film and love it, but later can’t quite quantify what it was that made you love it. With Tomorrowland I’ve had the opposite with an increasing sense of certainty that its detractors – and there are a few, especially in the Twitter Disney echo chamber that I sort of love and am fearful of at the same time – are either missing these strengths or considering them unimportant. Since arguing the case on Twitter is a 140 character exercise in frustration, I thought I’d be better served by simply laying it all out here – where I have a hope in hell of landing my point.

If you’re still with me, congratulations, you’re a great big nerd. I like great big nerds, whether or not they agree with me, so let’s talk. Go.

Film review: Tomorrowland: A World Beyond European Premiere

Me in my genuine 1940s finery with my genuine, erm, 2015 Haunted Mansion souvenir.

Me in my genuine 1940s premiere finery with my genuine, erm, 2015 Haunted Mansion souvenir.

For a film about the future, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond sure feels like stepping into the past. In this joyful retro-futuristic romp, The Incredibles director Brad Bird and LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof have created a relentlessly upbeat, Spielberg-reminiscent family adventure with its eyes on creating a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.

It’s 1964, and young Frank Walker is enjoying the sights and sounds of the World’s Fair, including Walt Disney’s It’s a Small World and Carousel of Progress. Everyone is looking ahead to a world of gadgets and gizmos aplenty; Frank himself is toting a new invention to enter into an innovation contest.

Fast forward 50 years, and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), eternal optimist and tech nerd, is battling the closure of the NASA platform where her dad works and the negative attitudes of her peers and teachers, all forecasting doom and dystopia. It’s not looking good – until a strange vintage pin turns up in her possession…

Hugh Laurie making people laugh? Never.

Hugh Laurie making people laugh? Never.

Tomorrowland (to use its simpler US title), rests on the premise that at some point post-1970 our outlook on the future went from chasing dreams to ducking nightmares. And looking at some of most popular and successful franchises around today – although, yes, dystopia in cinema is nothing new exactly – it’s hard to disagree. Somewhere along the line, our vision became more universally dim; less Jetsons, more genocide. And the disaster is invariably man-made. No meteror extinguishes our old-fashioned thinking; we’re dinosaurs on a collision course with our own greed – or worse, apathy. Tomorrowland explores what the world could be like if we rediscovered that spark of enthusiasm – and what that could mean for humanity now. But to have nostalgia for an imagined future, you have to go back to the place that future was envisaged from, and in doing so Bird has also tapped into the childhoods of his core audience; I felt more than anything like I was watching some of the classics of my own upbringing – but for the first time and without the dated haircuts. It was Flight of the Navigator, War Games… maybe even ET, only new and shiny.

Okay, I squeed a little.

Okay, I squeed a little.

In many ways, it’s a shame to give too many details away about Tomorrowland. To me it felt primarily like an old-school family adventure movie – although my daughter, not yet five, is not the key audience, I wouldn’t actually have any problem with her watching it – but also like a film made by Disney fans for Disney fans (but enjoyed by everyone else). Certainly a ride on It’s a Small World will never feel exactly the same… Crucially, though, Tomorrowland doesn’t just revisit the past for the sake of it and then wallow in nostalgic baby-boomery; it does attempt to move the discussion along beyond rediscovery, into action.

Clooney! The guy on the right = joy.

Clooney! The guy on the right = joy.

Just over four weeks ago, I was actually sitting in Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress – and it was a really weird experience. For one, it was one of the few classic attractions I couldn’t remember from childhood; I’d completely blanked it out (or maybe we hadn’t visited? Seems unlikely, though; I remember every version of the Spaceship Earth narration since 1984 – we were that kind of family). Despite frequent updates until the early 90s, it hasn’t aged as spectacularly well as one might hope; progress by this definition largely meant technology – not people. All innovations are presented – as well they might be in view of the domestic preoccupations of 1964 – in terms of household convenience. Women are generally sewing or losing weight or gossiping on the phone, right up until the most modern, forward-thinking scene. It’s all a bit old-fashioned in a generally uncomfortable way. In Tomorrowland, the very essence of futuristic thinking is rooted in humanity, and progress is from the earth to the stars, not from the kitchen to the living room. Besides which, humanity is embodied primarily not in Frank – in spite of Clooney’s global star power – but in the body of a young female character who is not sassy or ditzy or seeking male approval or especially representative of anything other than being an intelligent teenage girl.

Do I look worried because Alex Zane is about to tap-dance on my husband's head?

Do I look worried because Alex Zane is about to tap-dance on my husband’s head?

Better yet – and here, I shall be deliberately vague – key relationships in the film revolve around another female character, the mysterious Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Impressively she is both the lynchpin of which the emotional core of the film and its coolest, most logical mind; it is Walker’s adult male that is the most unhinged and uncontrolled. When is the last time we’ve seen that kind of dynamic presented to young girls? I remember watching what is still one of my favourite films, Jurassic Park, and being utterly frustrated that seven-year-old Lex of the book, who had good reason to be scared due to her young age, had been turned into a snivelling teenager on screen, reassured about “veggiesauruses”. In Casey and Athena we have a couple of bright, shining examples of how a female character can be a character first and female second.

Few films are perfect, and Tomorrowland has its flaws – though I’d argue that most are a direct consequence of its strengths. For one, it is so invested in character and delivering its message that plot can feel a bit rushed; fully three quarters of the film is devoted to setting up what turns out to be a pretty fast pay-off. Still, I didn’t actually notice that until later, when Ramona asked me about the story (she’s something of a Joe Friday about these things). Unsurprisingly for a movie based on a themed land from one man’s dream, there’s a strong emphasis on individual, special visionaries needed to inspire the rest of humanity that I’m not entirely sure I agree with, but it did force me to think about it. Interestingly, the villain here – Hugh Laurie’s David Nix – is not actually outright evil for the most part; to be a bad guy here is to have had the optimism kicked out of you (bad news for Eeyore, I guess). When introducing the film, Bird had difficulty defining the genre into which it fits, because there isn’t just one; while that can be jarring at times, when the film takes an unexpected turn, it’s also refreshing.

Smug people are smug.

Smug people are smug.

In the end, I found myself unwilling to pull at Tomorrowland‘s threads too hard because I enjoyed the whole fabric so much; it’s such a cosy blanket of positivity and hope that I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to unravel it. Also, I really, really want one of those badges.

Disclosure: To make the entire experience altogether more amazing, I was privileged enough to be able to see it at the European premiere, where I edged past Clooney and Laurie on the blue carpet (sadly nowhere near Bird, of whom I am entirely in awe) to the strains of There’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow whilst wearing my favourite vintage dress and a Haunted Mansion scarf because apparently I CAN DO THAT NOW. I am very grateful to the lovely team at @Disney_UK who invited me along and made my week. However, I can assure you the thoughts above are entirely my own (and indeed, who else would want to claim them?).

Update: I’ve had MOAR THOUGHTS about Tomorrowland, and specifically the feminism and insight therein But there are spoilers. So tread carefully.