Save the planet, kids

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Memo to cli­mate scep­tics: the Walt Dis­ney Com­pany, one of the most pow­er­ful en­ti­ties in the world of en­ter­tain­ment, has pro­duced a movie that is es­sen­tially a call to arms ad­dressed to the young peo­ple of the world. The mes­sage of To­mor

row­land ex­plic­itly calls on kids to stand up and do some­thing about the en­vi­ron­ment and the per­ils of cli­mate change. Don’t be pes­simistic and cyn­i­cal like your el­ders, it ex­horts; be pos­i­tive and op­ti­mistic, and play your part in sav­ing the planet.

This mes­sage is couched in a rather un­usual sci-fi fan­tasy movie in which — thank good­ness — there are no su­per­heroes or su­pervil­lains and no cli­mac­tic scenes of de­struc­tion in which some big city is al­most de­stroyed.

The film’s direc­tor, Brad Bird, started his ca­reer in an­i­ma­tion and had con­sid­er­able suc­cess with films such as The Iron Gi­ant (1999), which was a trib­ute to 1950s era sci-fi movies, and The In­cred­i­bles (2004), a Pixar clas­sic about a fam­ily of su­per­heroes. Clearly, Bird is in­ter­ested in the way science fic­tion in popular cul­ture has changed through the years, and that theme is prom­i­nent in his sec­ond live-ac­tion fea­ture (af­ter 2011’s Mission Im­pos­si­ble: Ghost Pro­to­col).

Much of To­mor­row­land is steeped in nos­tal­gia for a time when the fu­ture looked rosy. The new film takes its ti­tle from an ex­hibit first staged at the orig­i­nal Dis­ney­land in Cal­i­for­nia in 1955, then re­jigged as a ma­jor ex­hibit of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where the It’s a Small World ride trans­ported fam­i­lies into a vi­sion of a fu­ture Amer­ica. That event, in which a naively op­ti­mistic view of the fu­ture proved im­mensely se­duc­tive for all those for­tu­nate enough to visit it, fea­tures promi­nently in Bird’s film. One of the young peo­ple who at­tended the To­mor­row­land ex­hibit in 1964 was Frank Walker (Thomas Robin­son). Young Frank had re­sponded to an in­vi­ta­tion ex­tended to in­ven­tors to come up with their lat­est idea, but the judge (Hugh Lau­rie) to whom he at­tempts to demon­strate his jet pack (de­signed to al­low the in­di­vid­ual to fly and con­structed from a mod­i­fied Elec­trolux vac­uum cleaner) is unim­pressed (“How does this make the world a bet­ter place?” is his firm put-down, to which Frank replies, “Can’t it just be fun?”) De­spite this re­buff, Frank catches the at­ten­tion of a mys­te­ri­ous young girl named Athena (Raf­fey Cas­sidy), who tells him “I’m the fu­ture,” gives him a lapel pin fea­tur­ing the let­ter T and or­ders him to fol­low her.

Thus Frank finds him­self in the city of the fu­ture with its soar­ing sky­scrapers, gi­ant ro­bots and amaz­ing gad­gets.

At this point, the film abruptly shifts from the young Frank’s ad­ven­tures in 1964 to the world of Casey New­ton (Britt Robert­son), a teenage girl of the present who lives with her fa­ther (Tim McGraw) near the NASA fa­cil­ity at Cape Canaveral. Casey is a born op­ti­mist who be­lieves in a pos­i­tive fu­ture. (“What if there’s noth­ing there?” she’s asked. “What if there’s ev­ery­thing?” she replies.) Casey, too, finds her­self in pos­ses­sion of one of those mys­te­ri­ous Tpins which, when she touches it, trans­ports her to a field of wheat close to the shim­mer­ing tow­ers of To­mor­row­land, look­ing for all the world like Oz.

In­evitably Casey will meet up with the adult Frank (Ge­orge Clooney), who has be­come a recluse and has lost all op­ti­mism he had as a small boy (“The fu­ture was dif­fer­ent then,” he says. “Now it’s scary”); and in­evitably Casey’s op­ti­mism will re­store Frank’s faith in the fu­ture so that, as­sisted by the mys­te­ri­ous and age­less Athena, they can con­front the forces of dark­ness and pes­simism.

To­mor­row­land is in many ways a cu­ri­ous film. Lav­ishly shot in sev­eral coun­tries, the film is an un­easy mix­ture of the naive, the polem­i­cal, the fan­ci­ful and the rou­tine thriller, with bad guys sim­i­lar to the vil­lains in The Ma­trix and an uber-vil­lain whose name, sig­nif­i­cantly, is Nix (Lau­rie again). It’s a some­what in­di­gestible mix­ture and though some scenes are fun (Casey’s en­counter with a cou­ple of sin­is­ter char­ac­ters, played by Kathryn Hahn and Kee­gan-Michael Key, who own a sci-fi me­mora­bilia store in Hous­ton), there’s a ten­dency to­wards preach­i­ness, es­pe­cially at the end with ex­hor­ta­tions di­rected to the young to ig­nore the pes­simism of their el­ders and get out there to save the planet. Wor­thy as th­ese sen­ti­ments may be, they are de­liv­ered in too ob­vi­ous a fash­ion, as though Bird and his col­lab­o­ra­tors had no con­fi­dence that their young au­di­ences will re­ceive the film’s mes­sages about the need for pos­i­tive ac­tion to save the planet.

The Aus­tralian film Par­ti­san is also about the in­doc­tri­na­tion of chil­dren, though the ap­proach of direc­tor Ariel Kleiman couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent from that of Brad Bird. This is a film that, while it im­presses in its style and in some of the per­for­mances, at the same time in­fu­ri­ates the viewer be­cause it’s sim­ply so ob­scure. The ob­scu­ri­ties begin with the ti­tle it­self: why Par­ti­san when there are no par­ti­sans in the film? And where on earth is this grim story, with its de­cay­ing ur­ban set­ting, tak­ing place? (It was filmed in Ge­or­gia, pre­sum­ably in Tbil­isi).

Given in­ter­na­tional alarm at the groom­ing of teenagers to be­come fol­low­ers of ex­trem­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions, Kleiman’s film is timely; but what’s the point of baf­fling the au­di­ence in­stead of pro­vid­ing in­sights?

The cen­tral char­ac­ter is Gre­gori (French ac­tor Vin­cent Cas­sel), who ap­pears to be in charge of a com­mune. We first see him wel­come the birth of his lat­est child, Alexander, to Su­sanna (Florence Mez­zara). Fast for­ward 11 years and Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) is now one of the older chil­dren in the com­mune. For un­ex­plained rea­sons, Gre­gori is train­ing th­ese kids to be killers. The younger ones prac­tise with paint guns, but Alexander has al­ready grad­u­ated to the real thing — he has be­come an as­sas­sin.

Af­ter a mur­der has been suc­cess­fully car­ried out (again, frus­trat­ingly un­ex­plained — who was the vic­tim?) the com­mune mem­bers cel­e­brate with a feast and karaoke. When Su­sanna gives birth again, Alexander be­comes de­voted to his baby brother and be­gins to un­dergo a change.

Kleiman ob­vi­ously wants the viewer to for­get about the whys and where­fores and sim­ply to ob­serve the ways in which this form of ter­ror­ism de­vel­ops. For some, his min­i­mal­ist ap­proach may be enough, and he cer­tainly suc­ceeds, at times bril­liantly, in cre­at­ing a strange, un­set­tling mood. But it re­ally isn’t enough to ob­serve th­ese metic­u­lously com­posed wide-screen images, or to be im­pressed by the re­al­ism of young Chabriel’s per­for­mance. We surely need to know why th­ese things are hap­pen­ing, and in his de­ter­mi­na­tion to ex­plain ab­so­lutely noth­ing, Kleiman be­comes his own worst en­emy.

Britt Robert­son as Casey in

To­mor­row­land, top; and Jeremy Chabriel as Alexander in

Par­ti­san, left

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