Save the planet, kids
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