When does a trilogy become a quadrilogy? It’s only clear with the benefit of hindsight that Toy Story 3 felt felt like such definitive closure because the audience, especially those who grew up with the movies over 15 years, identified so intensely with Andy. As Andy gave away the toys (or characters), which meant so much to him, the audience was put squarely in his position for maximum emotional effect. But this is to discount the toys. Toy Story 4 asks itself and successfully answers the question, “How can Woody, the ultimate dutiful toy, evolve?” When does a trilogy become a quadrilogy? When there’s more story to tell. And why, besides a sweet box office haul, Toy Story 4? Because the characters need it.
Longtime Toyheads may be disappointed that Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Hamm, and the gang are relatively sidelined in this film. For me, it’s the sign of a focused movie, and much preferable to the How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World move of giving every tertiary comic character an arc. It also leaves room for shiny new and returning toys!
The delightful Duke Caboom is given a tragicomic backstory worthy of Sergeant Calhoun from Wreck-it Ralph. Gabby Gabby is already one of the great Disney villains (with one major caveat it would be a spoiler to discuss). Bunny and Ducky get a nice running joke that plays with the rules of the Toy Story world. Bo Peep returns after a one-movie absence, with a new streetwise characterization and, with the benefit of 2019 animation, gorgeous porcelain detailing.
And then there’s Forky. Made out of a spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, and not much else, this brilliant addition to the cast gives a new perspective on the weird rules of what it means to be a child’s toy, or indeed, alive as a toy. Caught in an identity crisis between spork and toy, Forky longs to be thrown away. In this quite subversive move, we remember the harrowing furnace sequence in Toy Story 3, and realize quite explicitly that Forky wants to die like that.
It might even be said that for those still unconvinced by a fourth Toy Story, Forky is an avatar for the whole movie. He doesn’t understand the point of his existence – he constantly feels the pull to the trash can, like a rejected story idea in the writers’ room – and ultimately finds self-worth, understanding, peace, and purpose.
And what Toy Story 4 successfully plays out is a movie with a small scale, but apocalyptically high stakes for the characters. Most of the movie takes place in one antique store, and across the street, in a seasonal carnival. But the characters want what they want with every plastic fiber of their being, and wrestle with existential crises as well as external ones. And you will reward the film with tears for it. I’m not super-duper familiar with Toy Story. I like the movies, I grew up with it to an extent, but I don’t have nostalgia for it baked into me. Toy Story 4 emotionally flattened me, so just imagine what it’ll do for people with a deep love for this series. Why Toy Story 4? Because despite what Woody says to Bo Peep, you can teach an old toy new tricks.
P.S.: I appreciate the cameo of a couple late 1970s Kenner Star Wars figures. There’s an Obi-Wan Kenobi, and I believe a Greedo – though because I just got a glimpse, it could be Ponda Baba/Walrus Man.
“A hostile alien army came charging through a hole in space. We’re standing 300 feet below it. We’re the Avengers. We can bust arms dealers all the livelong day, but that up there? That’s the Endgame.”
So many superhero narratives find villains as the proactive ones, enacting plots and schemes to attain a goal that the heroes must stop. But after losing in Avengers: Infinity War despite viewers thinking so desperately that they’re right, the Avengers must finally live up to their name. And indeed, Infinity War was structured as the villainous Thanos’ movie in a way that Avengers: Endgame simply isn’t. It’s the beloved heroes’ time to shine, because for some of them, we may never see them again.
“… If we can’t protect the world, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.”
At great personal sacrifice, Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeded in using the six Infinity Stones to cull half of all life in the universe. Now, do what’s left of the Avengers move on, or attempt a Hail Mary play to save the fallen? Their only chance lies in a daring “time heist”; but not all the time traveling heroes were always on the virtuous side…
Avengers: Endgame is structurally interesting. Concomitant with its three-hour runtime, it has a very clearly demarcated three-act structure, almost to the point of containing three discrete but linked movies. Before Act One proper kicks off, just the first 15 minutes feels remarkably distinct from the rest of the film, playing out like its own compact “traditional” Avengers movie, before things take a sharp left turn. Act One is a quiet, mournful, and wryly convivial gathering of the team. Act Two is time travel hijinks. Act Three is a Lord of the Rings-scale battle followed by Return of the King-scale denouements.
Act Two is the weakest by the hair, while still filled with wonderful touches and featuring a treatment of time travel that seems to carry more weight than one might expect. By emphasizing that when you’re in the past, the stakes are just as high as when centered in your native present, the time travel aspect has more narrative gravity than a jokey gimmick. That being said, this Russian nesting doll of a sequence contains tons of deep-cut references and surprise returning characters (for the first time in the MCU, one previously exclusive to TV) that detail-oriented fans will appreciate.
In this third of the film, Endgame pokes fun at previous MCU movies in clever and subtle ways, like calling out how the Avengers are “posing up a storm” just to intimidate a villain, or how a character seems so much cooler from within their own cinematic POV than on the outside looking in. But best of all is a truly hilarious sequence where the Avengers have to study up on Infinity Stones and their intertwining history with previous movies, which puts these characters in the position of MCU viewers trying to make sense of the minutiae of the cinematic universe over Chinese takeout.
One of the great things about the MCU as a serialized story is that the characters change over time. And in a genius move on the part of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, this is made explicitly part of the plot through Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) character. The heightened dramatization of her inner conflict and growth makes her my favorite character in Endgame.
But the film services its ensemble remarkably well. There are satisfying payoffs to ten-year character arcs and a very sci-fi-TV-series-finale approach to showing familiar characters in unfamiliar situations in a less-than-ideal future. For example, the direction taken with Thor has to be seen to be reckoned with or believed, but it’s clear that Chris Hemsworth’s desire to lean into the character’s comedic stylings has been honored. I won’t spoil which characters are given the most definitive closure, but I find the standout performances in the movie to be Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Karen Gillan (Nebula), and Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton). The secret to the MCU’s success is the character work, and these performances have a particular dynamism here.
I appreciate composer Alan Silvestri’s deployment of established leitmotifs, including his own Captain America theme and Christophe Beck’s Ant-Man theme. The time heist score deftly weaves in Doctor Strange cues just to aurally key into the temporal nature of the shenanigans, even adapting it to decade-appropriate twists. But most importantly, Silvestri’s understated but sweeping music effectively underscores moments of great sensitivity, evoking the same emotional texture he brought to such films as Back to the Future and (though I’m not a fan) Forrest Gump.
Part of the journey is the end, and part of it is the surprise. Yes, at least one familiar character dies. And when they do, another character delivers a final line to them that is an absolutely perfect fit. Avengers: Endgame is filled with moments so warm it’s like being wrapped in a blanket, moments so heart-rending it’s emotionally exhausting, and moments so fist-pumping you’ll get carpal tunnel. All in all, it brings more than satisfying closure to Marvel’s unprecedented era of quality genre storytelling. The first time I saw it I held a couple minor reservations, but the second time it landed even better. I wouldn’t have gone so high at first, but: 10/10.
P.S.:**“DON’T SPOIL THE ENDGAME” SPOILER WARNING**
After Infinity War’s Natasha/Okoye/Wanda vs. Proxima Midnight fight, Endgame tops it with a beautiful moment highlighting the MCU’s female heroes. It’s especially appreciated after killing off Natasha. That larger battle sequence embraces more “comic book-y” imagery, including the unforgettable shot of Steve Rogers facing down Thanos’ entire army, Carol Danvers’ look, and Wanda Maximoff at the most “Scarlet Witch” she’s ever been. Wanda going toe-to-toe with Thanos is a definite highlight of the movie for me.
For those familiar with the lightsaber duel in Star Wars: The Force Awakens… In the spectacular one-on-one fight between Steve Rogers and Thanos, Mjölnir is summoned to Steve’s hand like Luke’s lightsaber is summoned to Rey’s hand. And, somewhat similar to Kylo Ren punching himself in his open wound to bleed out, Steve aggressively fastens his shield strap over an open wound. He’s taking the best of both worlds!
Notice how many characters are motivated by love for a daughter… Clint and Laura Barton; Scott Lang; Tony Stark and Pepper Potts; and of course, Thanos himself.
What more can be said about the original Star Wars? It’s a film so influential and beloved that the film industry and film fandom are still feeling the shockwave from its May 25, 1977 release. The first paragraph of its opening crawl has been adapted into a 2-hour-plus movie. Halfway glimpsed background characters have been turned into sought-after action figures. George Lucas’ tale of underdog rebels battling the evil Empire has spawned an empire of its own, but let’s return to the beginning.
“You Can Type this Shit, George, but You Can’t Say it”
I say beginning, but this is a movie that starts in the middle of a pitched space chase. No one-and-a-half-hour buildup to action; we are dropped in medias res into a star war. The situation is sketched quickly and efficiently. The Empire is an overwhelming dominant force; the Rebellion is skittering away on a little blockade runner.
Lucas has often dismissed the importance of dialogue in favor of visuals, and the film plays into that thesis at many points. When Darth Vader barks orders at his subordinates (“I want them alive!”), John Williams’ score violently crescendos, in the style of a silent movie. During the prison block escape, the dialogue is buried in the sound mix. Two of the most iconic scenes in the movie, the binary sunset and the throne room medal ceremony, lead with visuals and don’t bother with words. When the Imperial Star Destroyers chase the Millennium Falcon near Tatooine, the danger has already been set up by the opening shot.
Lucas’ framing is mostly classical, but filled with visual interest. On the flashier cinematic side of things, my favorite shot in the film is when the camera follows Princess Leia’s cell door closing down to the floor, tracks with an officer’s foot, and adjusts back to eye level.
While there is certainly some excellent dialogue in Lucas’ screenplay, sometimes his words do let the movie down. The most egregious example is his decision to add the Jabba the Hutt scene into the Special Edition, which tediously re-covers the ground from the previous Han/Greedo scene, occasionally using the same phrasing to make the same points (not to mention the awful visual gag of Han stepping on Jabba’s tail).
John Williams’ landmark score constantly complements the words and visuals, telling the story with a punchy, magical soundscape that oddly also sounds excitingly DIY. The magisterial main theme opens the curtains; the ambling Jawa theme fits their silly design perfectly; the Force theme is instantly iconic; the perhaps underused Leia theme provides contrast to all the bombast; the “TIE Fighter Attack” cue remains thrilling; the “Battle of Yavin” music is some of the best action film music ever; and “The Throne Room” is a perfect triumphant dénouement. And: “Binary Sunset”, end of.
“You Think a Princess and a Guy Like Me…?”
The cast of characters is painted in broad strokes, as archetypes. There is very little psychological complexity to them yet. But this works for the movie because of the spirit of universal adventure it embodies. Luke is the earnest underdog hero; Leia is the brash and savvy politician of action; Han is the insouciant scoundrel; Obi-Wan is the wise mentor; Vader is the black cloud of evil. Maybe the most complex characters are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-esque droids C-3PO and R2-D2, who show a whole range of cowardice, bravery, affection, and irritancy.
Vader and Tarkin are an excellent villainous double-act (which one is the film’s main villain…?), with an interesting dynamic between them. Peter Cushing brings a lot of smarm and charm to the role, with his delivery of “you’re far too trusting” being a particular classic. At the time, Lucas even felt that Vader was a weak villain without a Tarkin-type figure to play off of.
Another iconic double-act is Han and Chewbacca. Chewbacca takes the idea of the loyal dog to a fantastical extreme, where he becomes an equal partner. But how much is this true in-universe? After hiding in the smuggling compartments, Han playfully fuzzes up Chewbacca’s head; in a deleted cantina scene, Han strokes Chewbacca under the chin exactly in the manner of a dog. Later films would never literalize the Chewbacca-as-dog dynamic like this again, an indication of this film very much in the process of figuring things out.
Not to mention the crazy-in-retrospect, right there on screen love triangle element between Luke, Leia, and Han, which course-corrects later. Lucas not only categorically saw Luke and Leia as love interest characters at this point, he’s also on record saying that he wanted Leia to “run off with” Chewbacca and that he “wouldn’t mind” killing Leia off. That course correction couldn’t come too soon.
Approaching Tosche Station
A key element of Star Wars, and especially this first movie, is silliness. That’s both intentional screwball humor, and unintentional kitsch. Why do these Imperial officers keep baiting and egging on Vader when he can choke them with his mind? What did Luke hope to accomplish by firing on the sheer face of the Death Star? And most pressing of all, is the VT-16 really quite a thing to see?
Given the controlled chaos of the production (at one point, the Sandcrawler was mistaken for a new type of tank and the movie almost started an international incident), the number of continuity errors is understandable. Greedo is seen walking around after he’s already been killed. A lot of the ADR on the Imperial officers is painfully obvious. At one point Vader’s dialogue and gestures are out of sync. There’s the amazing moment of the stormtrooper bumping his head. You can see David Prowse’s eye a couple times when Vader’s in his TIE Advanced.
But really striking in retrospect are the anachronisms. Luke says there’s nothing C-3PO can do for him “unless you can alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport me off this rock.” Right there you have references to time travel and teleportation, two ideas that have never made it into the Star Wars mythology (Rebels’ World Between Worlds notwithstanding). If Luke has a concept of them, does the galaxy have its own version of science fiction?
Naturally, there are even more anachronisms at a script and draft level, but it’s amusing to look back on them. Vader threatens Leia with, “You will come to know such suffering as only the Master of the Bogan Force can provide…” And check out this little speech from Obi-Wan about Leia:
She’s part of the royal family. They won’t get any information from her… She knows the art of mind control… She’s a swan sensana.
That died a death on the way to the screen, but this description of her mental power does remind me of the bene gesserit from Frank Herbert’s Dune. All the references to spice must also be allusions to Dune, and the concept of a messiah from that novel also finds its way to Lucas’ epigraph on the script: “… and in the time of greatest despair, there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as The Son of the Suns. – Journal of the Whills, 3:127”. Suffice to say, we could have had a very different Star Wars saga.
The First Step into a Larger World
George Lucas did revise well, and came out with a screenplay packed with amazing (and funny) lines. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” “I’ll be careful.” “You’ll be dead!” For all that the power of the binary sunset scene is wordless, the last time I watched the movie, Owen and Beru’s buildup to it (“he has too much of his father in him”) made me cry while the sunset itself did not. The film, like many first installments, is a marvel of scope if not scale. The Empire Strikes Back probably beats it on a scene-to-scene basis, but the original Star Wars wins out through structural purity. Watching the film now, in light of everything that’s happened with the franchise in the forty-one years since, there’s the sense that Star Wars has outgrown this. The simplicity of the film is pure, but also singular, and not sustainable for an evolving series. But no matter what, the franchise will never stop honoring it. The original Star Wars truly was the first step into a larger world.
In your typical Jurassic movie, the first sighting of a brachiosaurus is a moment of pure wonder. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, this moment is framed differently. On Isla Nublar, in the ruins of Jurassic World, Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) jumps out of a jeep to observe this majestic herbivore, and the whole moment is minor key, both in terms of Michael Giacchino’s score with its sorrowful motifs and the backdrop of an island in natural chaos; we’re then shooed along to the next scene by another character. The uncharitable reading of the scene is that it’s an obligatory reference to past films in the series, presented with a confused tone, trying to invoke a sense of wonder and subverting it at the same time, and rushed through anyways, so what’s the point? You don’t know which thread to hang onto. Fallen Kingdom is a movie that struggles to cohere its ideas together, even as it remains competently entertaining in the moment.
When Isla Nublar’s now-active volcano threatens all dinosaur life on the island, Jurassic World executive turned committed dino preservationist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is recruited by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall, doing his best Ryan Reynolds impression) to help get the dinosaurs to a stable ecosystem. But darker plans, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), are afoot.
Dinosaurs are great (and the film puts them through the wringer, to an extent that will make some viewers uncomfortable), but we need a connection to human characters to fully engage with these movies. The characters given to us from screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow are difficult to invest in, both in this film and previous entry Jurassic World. The biggest problem for the returning players is that it seems like almost everyone’s character has been retconned.
In World, Claire sees the dinosaurs only as “assets”, then learns to respect them as animals. That’s a character arc. In Fallen Kingdom, Claire recalls the first time she ever saw a dinosaur, recalls it as a miracle, and says she “still believes that”. So the writers frame her as retroactively being a dinosaur lover from the beginning. Connolly and Trevorrow, you wrote this character. This isn’t going to fly. Owen Grady’s (Chris Pratt) personal connection with the velociraptors is key, and mined for emotion, but at the top of the movie, he acts like he couldn’t care less about the dinosaurs (seemingly for the sake of a half-baked tough-guy arc). The late John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) is quoted as saying, “these creatures need our absence”. This is consistent with his characterization in The Lost World, after seeing his theme park/glorified zoo turn disastrous. But according to corporate heir Simon Masrani in World, Hammond’s dying wish was that the park be finally open and thriving. So when Connolly and Trevorrow need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of the theme park in full swing, it’s one thing. And when they need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of dinosaur rights, it’s another.
Something I have to give the writers credit for is not forgetting that it’s Claire, not Owen, who is the lead of these movies. But then again, there’s so little character real estate for either of them, it’s almost arbitrary at this point. New supporting characters don’t improve the ensemble much either. Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) is tech support comic relief, grating more often than amusing. Zia fares better; but the whole scared man and cool, calm, collected woman in the wild double-act felt obvious even earlier this year when it showed up in Dwayne Johnson vehicle Rampage.
When the good guys are such ciphers, once again I gravitate to the scoundrel: Vincent D’Onofrio in World, now Ted Levine’s Ken Wheatley in Fallen Kingdom. Levine is a lot of fun to watch, albeit playing a supremely clichéd mercenary character, and doing a better job twirling his mustache than the other villains of the piece. But the writers have to spoil the fun of his villainy by giving him an obvious President You-Know-Who line. Now I can’t even enjoy him being bad! Character is not this movie’s strong suit.
If Fallen Kingdom has a strong suit, it lies in the visuals. I haven’t liked director Juan Antonio Bayona’s other films, but it’s not because they looked bad. World’s gunmetal blue visuals are blown out of the water here, and Bayona adds some flair to some of the money shots. Hands-down the best moment of the movie comes when the dinosaur evacuation is ending. From the dock, a lone brachiosaurus gazes at the retreating boat. The ravaging eruption at her back, smoke billows around her and takes on an orange tinge, suggesting the amber from which the dinosaur was created. Back to amber, dust to dust.
The finale at the Lockwood Estate offers a variety of action (in contrast to the uninspiring disaster movie material beforehand). The pleasingly grotesque auction; the stygimoloch rampage (tragically, the name of that dinosaur is never spoken on screen. Throw us a bone!); the most elaborate one-on-one fistfights of the series. Bayona’s flourishes come most into play here, playing up the surreal “haunted house” quality of a raptor on the loose in a domestic setting.
But it’s the missteps that stand out. The T-Rex card is played in the first scene, a sequence in which the stakes aren’t clear. A token animal rights story is more-or-less shelved early on, and I don’t know what central point the movie is trying to make. The “it was all a lie” moment from the trailer doesn’t land with the proper context or motivation. There’s a very dumb twist late in the game; the worst part is that it’s there just to facilitate one inane, facepalm moment. The ending is attention grabbing, but poorly thought-out, an epithet that applies to most of the screenplay.
For all its sins, Jurassic World hangs together more than its sequel. Fallen Kingdom offers some decent visual styling and two likable leads (as a consequence of being smoothed out with a rolling pin), but is also hamstrung by a confused screenplay. While passably entertaining, the film is also no more than the sum of its genetically hybridized parts. After the previous installment slashed a swathe through filmgoers’ wallets the whole (Jurassic) world over, Universal spared no expense here. It was in service of a movie that’s just okay. A weak 5/10.
If you can get through anger, denial, bargaining, and depression, acceptance is a wonderful thing.
It can allow you to find 1993’s Super Mario Bros. endearing in its earnest goofiness. It doesn’t forgive the lost potential of what could have been a touchstone moment in legitimizing video game source material in the medium of film, but it allows you to take the ashes of this pop cultural train wreck on its own terms, and have a little straightforward fun with it. Yes, certain elements of the movie cross the event horizon of silly and enter the realm of the absurd, and yes, the aesthetic choice of portraying the Mushroom Kingdom as a sub-Total Recall dystopia is… disappointing for those expecting Mario actor Bob Hoskins to have another jolly old Who Framed Roger Rabbit romp, but going with the flow of Super Mario Bros. is not a miserable experience. It’s an oddly diverting one.
It’s an understatement to say that Super Mario Bros. has gotten flack as an adaptation of the video game franchise. And sure, the contrast between bright, colorful, fantastical Mushroom Kingdom from the games and neo-noir, steamy, dystopian Mushroom Kingdom from the film is one of the biggest communal punching bags in the history of fandom. But I think there are successful, or at least entertaining, translations of game elements.
It makes a twisted kind of sense to take goombas back to their roots as actual “goombahs” (emphasis on the “bah”) in the Mafioso connotation of the word. Daisy, not Peach, is the female lead, and is given passion, agency, and strength of character while also growing into her role as Princess. Iggy and Spike’s shift from buffoonish henchmen to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-alike free agents is too bold a choice to write off. The bob-ombs are great. And when a voice in the crowd shouts “It’s a bob-omb!!!”, it’s one of the movie’s best absurdist jokes – in our world, “It’s a bomb!” is one of the last things you would ever want to hear, but just adding that one syllable makes it hilarious. And best of all, the running joke about Mario being frightening of jumping is kind of wonderful.
The outside-the-box spirit of the movie means it goes for crazy abandon. Fiona Shaw’s gangster’s moll character is electrocuted and gains the Bride of Frankenstein’s hairstyle, for… reasons? Dennis Hopper’s King Koopa makes his lair the top floor of a World Trade Center tower, making those scenes an odd watch nowadays. And this is a movie where the day is saved by blaring “Somewhere My Love” by Frankie Yankovic. (Yes, that weirdo’s father.) It’s all a carefree level of odd that’s consistently watchable. As the postscript section below lines out, Super Mario Bros. foreshadows elements of other films. One film it fails to foreshadow, despite its best efforts, is its own sequel. This movie has the sheer nerve to end on a cliffhanger! Of course, an ongoing story was not to be. Making less than half your posted budget will do that to you.
This way, Super Mario Bros. can live on as a curiosity, a one-off that blog posts like this can put under the microscope for some arcane purpose. But as the Mario license expands – cue marquee for Nintendo Land, coming to Universal Studios in 2019 – another movie must be on the cards. Now for all my advocacy, I can’t say the 1993 effort is a good film. I have fun with it and will stick up for certain aspects, but it seems extremely unlikely that any future Super Mario movie won’t clear this bar of quality. (Double negatives are where it’s at!) The 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie is flawed, an occasionally embarrassing patchwork of off-the-wall ideas, but it’s got heart, kid and a spirit of adventure. It’s certainly better than a piece of garbage like Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.
P.S.: Super Mario Bros. has a line in anticipating aspects of other movies. Predating the mighty Jurassic Park by a mere two weeks, Super Mario Bros. also features a primitively animated sequence voiced by a cheesily accented narrator explaining how dinosaurs can live in the present. Also, lovable Yoshi is in line with JP’s popularization of the velociraptor as iconic design. The reptilian goombahs swaying to music in an elevator foreshadows the celebrated (relative term) scene in 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where the Turtles improvise music during a long elevator ride. And well before the days of Harry Potter, future Aunt Petunia Fiona Shaw tells Daisy, “You have your mother’s eyes”.
2016 is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. This puts the onus on Star Trek Beyond to be something more than an entertaining ride, and as it turns out, Beyond gives the franchise a big wet kiss for a birthday present. The film feels very Star Trek-ky, like a story of the original 1960s show on steroids. It’s a dizzying action bonanza, it’s a meaningful tale of ideals being lost and found in space, and it’s surprisingly engaged with what Star Trek means. While still flawed, Beyond has charm to spare, delivering as both a blockbuster and a subtly nerdy filibuster on what the franchise represents.
In the 23rd Century, the USS Enterprise is more than halfway through its five-year mission of exploration and diplomacy. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) feels the ennui of life in deep space, while first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) receives some disheartening news. A distress signal to the Federation’s advanced starbase Yorktown leads the Enterprise into a deadly trap, engineered by the primal Krall (Idris Elba). With the crew grounded on an alien planet, can Kirk and company save them? And can communications officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) unravel the mystery of Krall?
Perhaps the greatest strength of this current sequence of films is the cast, admirably filling the shoes of venerated actors who originated the roles. Beyond pulls off a nice trick, being much more of an ensemble movie than its two predecessors. Whereas before laser focus was on Kirk and Spock, here every main character gets at least a couple moments to shine. Screenwriters Simon Pegg (also starring, as engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung facilitate this by splitting up the cast into pairs and letting the characters play off each other. So a contemplative Kirk mentors young ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin, tragically no longer with us); Scotty bonds with resourceful alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, endearing); Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) learn what the villains are about; and best of all, Spock and sawbones Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban, always the MVP) balance their delightful verbal sparring with a lot of heart.
So checking in with the heroes is a lot of fun. But also, the screenplay is not afraid to pepper wonderfully moral and dorky Star Trek goodness throughout. There’s something really cool about hearing the heroes of a massive action tentpole dole out fortune cookie wisdom about unity, peace, humanism, and the importance of diplomacy. And when these characters have been established as relatable and endearing, this stuff is even more important, because it’s aspirational. By starring relatable characters living in an enlightened time, Star Trek is saying that the future of humanity is brighter, and presents this as a matter of fact.
The technology on display factors into this as well. The Yorktown is a great location, an M.C. Escher painting of a starbase, where gravity bends to the architecture. But just by being there and being so impressive, the base symbolizes how far humanity can go when united. Fittingly, the approach to Yorktown is the most spectacular sequence in the film. With jaw-dropping SF visuals and Michael Giacchino’s truly lovely score, it’s really something.
But of course, the Federation’s idealism is challenged by Krall. The problem with Krall is that he’s better in concept than in execution. A foil for the utopian Federation who believes that only struggle and chaos breed progress, he creates a twisted parody of the Federation by bringing down ships from different cultures and feeding on diverse species for his own personal gains. The idea is there, but it’s not more than half-cooked in the movie proper. (Krall’s character does take an essential turn, but I can’t say more about that twist without boldly going into spoilers. See the P.S.) Krall isn’t a total loss of a character; but what we have on screen for most of the runtime is a handicapped Idris Elba, feral and growling, looking for MacGuffin #14 to make generic superweapon #82 to enact stock villainous plan #47.
No one said that stopping the stock villainous plan couldn’t look good, though. Director Justin Lin goes above and beyond crafting the action, spinning the camera on its axis and defying gravity with great energy. A particular highlight is the harrowing, if slightly overlong, attack on the Enterprise sequence. (In my first viewing I sometimes lost the geography of these dynamic scenes, but a second go-round rendered them more coherent.) Because Lin had come off directing four Fast and Furious spectacles, his hiring was a subject of a lot of snark and sarcasm. But what’s lost in these discussions is that the true draw of that freewheeling franchise is not the surface stuff, but the teamwork of people who love each other. And that’s very Star Trek.
Beyond exudes a constant love of Star Trek, from an understanding of its tropes to numerous easter eggs for fans. A few favorites: When Kirk fights Krall, the music resembles Fred Steiner’s (in)famous fight music from the original series. The Yorktown was the name of the Enterprise in Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek treatment. There are explicit references to the era of the underseen Enterprise TV series. And the approach to Yorktown reminds me of the absurdly long, lingering and loving approach to the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, just more narratively economical.
The humor is also on point throughout, which is no surprise considering co-writer Simon Pegg’s previous credits on extraordinary dramedies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and TV sitcom Spaced. Much of the entertainment value here just comes from seeing the ensemble play off each other, with McCoy and Spock in particular spinning earnestness into comedy gold. The character work and action are on form, supported by a big heart. And even as an element like Krall and his faceless swarm is rough around the edges, the way Beyond gets the Star Trek of it so very right is nothing (for Keenser) to sneeze at. A weak 9/10.
P.S.: *TO EXPLORE STRANGE NEW SPOILERS*
The Balthazar Edison twist is absolutely in keeping with the tropes of the original show, where several starship captains went native and insane. (See “Patterns of Force”, “The Omega Glory”, “Bread and Circuses”, and “Whom Gods Destroy”.) So when Kirk is fighting Edison he’s fighting us, the aggressive and tribalistic human nature that the Federation has risen above. Speaking of that scene and its meta-conflict, “That’s what I was born into” gives me chills and may go on to become an iconic Star Trek quote. I love that this message of idealism is the Trek equivalent of an action movie one-liner.
Meanwhile, following the death of Leonard Nimoy’s Ambassador Spock, Zachary Quinto’s Spock considers quitting Starfleet and picking up where the elder Spock left off. And the young Spock finds in the Ambassador’s possessions the cast photo from Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier. So it’s the very idea of Star Trek, and the community of that original group of characters, that convinces Spock to continue in Starfleet. Fascinating.
There’s a bit where Scotty says that he didn’t want to beam Spock and McCoy up at the same time, for fear of “splicing” the two. Trek fans know that splicing the two would result in someone resembling one James T. Kirk.
And finally, the twin dedication to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin is poignant. Especially when Kirk’s “To absent friends” toast cuts right to a shot with Chekov. To the stars they return.
The live-action remake that’s been called one of the most technologically advanced movies of all time is here. Disney has gone back to the well of their offbeat 1967 animated classic The Jungle Book, and given it new life as a technical marvel on a similar level to Avatar or Life of Pi. With only the bare necessities of live-action elements (Neel Sethi as lone man-cub in the jungle Mowgli; a bit of dirt; a few excellent tufts of grass), The Jungle Book as directed by Jon Favreau impresses consistently and immersively with its visual effects. But ironically, the secret to this remake’s success is the humanity it finds in unlikely places, and once the nostalgia goggles come off and the 3D glasses come on, 2016 has delivered a better Jungle Book than 1967.
Mowgli is a man-cub raised by a stately wolfpack, watched over by the wise Black Panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). But the formidable Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) cannot abide a human in the jungle and vows to put Mowgli in his rightful place: the tiger’s belly. Charged to find refuge at the nearby man-village, Mowgli makes his way there, on the way encountering characters like the hypnotic snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), the affable bear Baloo (Bill Murray), and the imperious Gigantopithecus King Louis (Christopher Walken). But on the journey, what kind of man will Mowgli become?
The basic bones of the story are familiar, but it is the adjustments to that story (relative to Disney’s own animated version) that make this a dynamic retelling. There are weighty themes of technology (called “tricks” in the jungle), and what it means for a human capable of that level of potentially dangerous creativity to live among animals. The concern for the jungle as a viable society is reflected by the incorporation of the Law of the Jungle, and other cultural practices such as the species-crossing water truce when a seasonal watering hole opens for all predators and prey alike to feed upon. These themes help to make the jungle feel like an ecosystem and a society; it’s good world-building. And of course that jungle is gorgeous to look at, made even more impressive by the fact that it’s almost entirely digital. The VFX artistry is overwhelming, but there’s not much more to say about it beyond variations of “wow”.
So let’s turn attention to the animal characters. A great paradox of the 1967 film is that it tries to sell a divide between the human Mowgli, and the jungle… while portraying half the animals as all-too-specific human caricatures. The elephants were la-di-da officers, God save the King and all that, representing the British Raj occupying government in India; the vultures were modeled on the Beatles; King Louis was a scat-singing jazz musician; and Baloo was a laidback swinger. The tagline? “The jungle is jumpin’”. It’s funny, then, that the characters of this Jungle Book are more human than the human spoofs. Bagheera is a philosopher, and fierce when he needs to be, not just an inflexible caretaker. Baloo is a con man with a heart of gold, and when he takes a brave heroic action late in the film it hits that much more because of this characterization. Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) is an active presence resisting Shere Khan’s tyranny. The elephants’ overhaul is particularly noteworthy. They are recapitulated as the closest thing to gods in the jungle, but not because they represent white imperialism as they did before. They do not speak; they are majestic, inextricably tied with nature, and their military drilling song from the animated movie would be absolutely incompatible with this interpretation. (Speaking of music, this film is no pure musical, but I’ll say that fans of the music won’t be disappointed – and stay through the credits!)
The characters who really steal the show for me are the trio of villains. Scarlett Johansson excels in a creepy, all-too-brief appearance as Kaa. Idris Elba’s eloquent snarl fits Shere Khan like a glove. The tiger becomes a great villain almost just by force of personality, as it would take a couple more Shere Khan scenes to really lock in his character motivation. Elba’s vocal performance is so mesmeric that he overpowers any deficiencies in the writing.
But my favorite character is Christopher Walken’s King Louis, radiating both mirth and menace. Louis wants Mowgli’s technological tricks to dominate the jungle, and the threat in Walken’s performance gives an extra layer to his delightful rendition of “I Wan’na be Like You” (now stripped of the uncomfortable racial coding it carried in the animated version). Louis’ desire to gain the power that humans possess is reflected in his residence in the ruins of a Hindu temple. This makes him a great foil for Mowgli, as the youth must find his own definition of manhood. In general, holding court with King Louis, and the entire sequence at his temple, is the highlight of The Jungle Book in my eyes.
So at last we come to Mowgli, the man-cub everyone’s making such a big fuss about. While Neel Sethi has a lot of charisma to carry such an abstract performance surrounded by green screens, that doesn’t negate a few… odd acting moments of his. He’s trying his damnedest with little to bounce off of, so I understand, but suffice to say Sethi’s Mowgli isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite character. He’s someone that things happen to, the viewpoint character who’s essential to the cast dynamic but not much more. When given lines like “Are you kidding me?” and “Seriously?”, the feral child isn’t all that feral.
While the film makes strong structural changes when it comes to the succession of incidents surrounding Mowgli, it doesn’t fully escape the episodic nature of the previous 1967 version. A few scenes still feel a bit disjointed from the whole, and the tonal shift with the introduction of Baloo is a sharp one. Indeed, a lot of what’s awkward about this Jungle Book is the line it walks between heavy dramatics and callbacks to the insouciant animated version. This manifests in a few ways. For one example: The action is commendably visceral without being inappropriately violent, but there is one fight scene at the climax that is lit very poorly in an apparent attempt to obscure the implication of gore, and to draw the line at a PG rating. I understand the need for compromise, but the scene would have benefited by commitment in either direction.
Getting back to technical matters, the artificial cinematography by Bill Pope is ravishing, many tableaus of simulated nature being worthy of being framed on someone’s wall. And composer John Debney delivers a really solid score, turning from darkly loungey (the opening Jungle theme and Kaa’s theme) to lushly gorgeous (the destined-for-repeat-plays Law of the Jungle theme) to instilling a sense of awe (the elephant theme) to percussively dangerous (Shere Khan’s theme).
Jon Favreau has overseen an efficient, beautiful to look at, thematically interesting Jungle Book populated by memorable versions of vintage characters. The changes from Disney’s previous incarnation of the story are of particular fascination, in fact so much so that I didn’t always discuss the film as standing on its own. (And look out for a very different ending in this version.) But on its own, 2016’s Jungle Book is a stunning virtual creation. This is a film I quite like, but taken with last year’s Cinderella, which I love, hopefully Disney’s live-action remake winning streak can continue. A weak 8/10.
P.S.: *MILD SPOILERS* What’s going on with the Lion King influence? Shere Khan is not only given a facial scar, he takes over the wolves’ territory similar to how Scar took over Pride Rock during Simba’s exile. Shere Khan’s death falling into the fire is visually akin to Mufasa’s. There’s a herd scene reminiscent of the one from The Lion King. And by making Baloo a con artist who advises the young hero to relax and wait for the bare necessities, he resembles Timon.
The story of Paddington Bear is a simple set-up: a (sentient and adorable) bear makes his way from darkest Peru to England and finds a home with the Brown family; tea-time adventures ensue. So when I tell you that writer-director Paul King’s translation of the source material onto the silver screen is brilliantly funny, charming and thematically rich, the accomplishment is all the more impressive.
As this very British film begins, Paddington immediately punctures the stodgy and posh English character, and the laughs just keep coming. Clever wit, Rube Goldberg slapstick, sight gags, jokes about millennials, they’re all here, ticking off the boxes of an audience spectrum from little kids to teens to adults. But what really impresses me is the way some of the humor is used to illuminate very defined and meaningful themes of immigration and racism. I’m not kidding! This stuff is gold in Paddington, as it hits upon a genius conceit: because Paddington’s status as a bear is only treated as exotic rather than unbelievable, the screenplay has a readymade allegory to comment on racial issues. When the Brown family passes the unattended Paddington in the train station, Mr. Brown moves to shield his children from the bear, fearing that the stray will try to “sell them something”. This is sharp satire.
The visual tableaus in this movie are entertaining in and of themselves. The world of Paddington is fully realized and thought out. I don’t just mean the bit about talking bears walking around, but that this is a place where the colors are a bit heightened, the people as well, and the sets just pop. Seriously, Gary Williamson’s production design is fantastic. And it’s just a pleasure to inhabit this world, which is a bit like Wes Anderson meets Home Alone.
This is also a very cinematically literate film, with a sequence like a DIY Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol Burj Khalifa set piece and a shot that is most likely an homage to The French Connection! And the colors are desaturated in a usually vibrant setting when the story takes a darker turn, which is so satisfying to notice, because it shows that the filmmakers are really thinking things through.
The ensemble as a whole just rocks, with Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, and Peter Capaldi knocking it out of the park, Ben Whishaw a great fit to voice Paddington, and this is not to mention Nicole Kidman as a despicable villain. There are one or two jokes that don’t quite land, so the film is not perfect. But it is damn near bulletproof, with a wonderful script from King, storybook production design, and the wherewithal to deal lots of laughs and lots of substance to chew on as well. 9/10.
The Last Five Years
I’m a musicals guy. The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, A Hard Day’s Night, Chicago, Pitch Perfect, Frozen. So here comes The Last Five Years, a film whose storytelling is conveyed almost entirely in song, and I think two things. One, that sounds awesome, like a constant conveyer belt of entertainment. Two, it sounds like it would be super-tough to maintain the impact of those songs over a 90-minute runtime. So I can now report that yes, the film is entertaining if you’re on its wavelength, and that yes, these songs get samey pretty quick.
Maybe part of that sameyness lies in the tight focus on the central drama. So what’s the film actually about? It’s about a young couple’s five years together (2008-2013), and from the first scene/song the audience knows that it ends in messy divorce. The film’s structure has Cathy (Anna Kenrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) singing the lead in alternating songs, and adding to the crisscrossing device, Cathy’s songs start from the post-divorce period and rewind through time, while Jamie’s songs start from the beginning of their relationship and progress forward through time; the streams converge at Jamie’s proposal song to Cathy.
Both performers give it their all, and the constant musical conceit keeps the engine of the film running. It’s just that the songs tend to blend together after a while as they hit very similar dramatic and comedic beats. And I should mention that The Last Five Years is based on a stage musical, so there are occasionally oddly stagey moments that don’t jibe with the naturalistic vibe of most of the film.
Best song? Well, even though I certainly think Kendrick as Cathy is a better singer and performer, Jamie’s song “Moving too Fast” stays in the mind as a standout. (And its jazzy backbeat gives it energy, a beat the really reminds me of Jeff Beal’s “Start the Watch” cue from the Monk score… by the way, I love that show.)
Really, The Last Five Years comes across as this monster triple-album of a musical that might be hard to appreciate at times, but I had fun with it. If you can stand “miles and piles” of more-or-less similar songs, I recommend it (and yes, that’s a reference to a song from this film). I couldn’t ask for a much better descriptor than one of Cathy’s lines in this very film: “That’s pretty long, but it’s fun”. 7/10.
Clouds of Sils Maria
French filmmaker Olivier Assayas writes and directs this enigmatic drama, set primarily in Sils Maria, a settlement in the Alps. Respected actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) got her big break in the junior role in a drama featuring a relationship between a young seductress and an older woman, and is now being approached for the latter role. Being eyed for Maria’s old role is tabloid-attracting Hollywood sensation Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz). Maria retreats to Sils Maria (where this script was written), and with the help of personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) must prepare for the role and her co-star.
The dominant aspect in this film about acting is predictable: the performances. Binoche takes the insecurities of the acting world and brings them home with empathy and class. Matching her as a calming anchor is Stewart, whose “straight woman” is key to the duo’s dynamic. The two leads tear through Assayas’ script, alternately wordy and overly atmospheric, and their chemistry drives the film. Incidentally, Stewart’s performance got her a historic award: the first César Award (French equivalent of an Oscar) to ever go to an American actor. It’s well deserved. Rounding out the trio of main characters is Moretz’ naive thespian, bringing a schizophrenic energy to a film that at times really can use an unpredictable edge.
One thing that somewhat annoys me is that this is another film like Birdman that scores some cheap shots against superhero movies. There’s a sequence where Maria and Valentine watch Jo-Ann’s performance in an X-Men knockoff; despite a reference to a character actually called the Scarlet Witch (as in Avengers: Age of Ultron), the fictional film has this horrifying, strobing cinematography (in 3D, no less) that looks like it would make anyone want to throw up. But this diversion does have some nuance: Valentine stands up for the merit of the genre when done well, the deliberately silly dialogue is fun, and in Clouds of Sils Maria‘s world at least, we have a female-led superhero movie apparently meeting with financial success (*cough* please be good, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel *cough*).
Anyways, the film’s verbosity is contrasted by the ending, which really goes for the throat of ambiguity and thus keeps a distance from the audience. A major character’s fate is left up for grabs, as it were, and there’s fickle character work that dares you to call the film out on it. This is an alienating effect that you just have to accept, and it fits in with a film that at times seems more interested in appearing transcendent than in meeting the audience halfway.
The powerhouse acting, picturesque setting, and empathetic screenplay are all pluses in Clouds of Sils Maria‘s favor. But its obscurant tendencies do, ahem, cloud some of its good intentions. It’s a well-made film, nurtured by the auteur Assayas. It just thrives on an irritating ambiguity too much in the home stretch. A weak 7/10.
It’s 22 years since the first problematic trial run for a dinosaur theme park, but now Jurassic World has turned the idea into a viable and thriving amusement park. Despite housing, you know, dinosaurs, it’s deemed that interest needs to be stoked with a new genetically spliced super-dinosaur. And so park head Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), the oddly secretive genetics division, and corporate sponsors Verizon collaborate to present the Indominus rex. When it gets loose, Claire and velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) must work together to weather the crisis. But will Claire’s visiting nephews Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) be safe?
Our four core characters, while all well-acted, are a mixed bag. Main character Claire is engaging, pedantic, sharp, clueless, endearing, and avoidant by turns, though this is not the mess of a poor character, but rather the building blocks of a relatable one. So she worked for me; it’s just a shame that there are such boringly coded moments given to her in a strange character arc from all-business to nurturing (more on this point in the P.S.). Owen Grady is more of a stock badass with a selfless streak, but Pratt carries him through with his charm and natural screen presence. It’s where we get to the kids that things get a bit unbalanced.
Jurassic World struggles to integrate the child perspective in the first act, with intercutting between the adults’ story and the kids’ being tonally jarring. This is not to mention a divorce subplot crowbarred into the screenplay, one of several human moments and half-measured character points that just don’t gel. We get a couple think-piece debates, which I do sort of enjoy, but precious little charm. But what is so strange to me is that this is the one thing director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow should have knocked out of the park. His only other film, again co-written with writing partner Derek Connolly, is the excellent Safety Not Guaranteed, which is entirely comprised of warm, affecting and eccentric human drama. The other screenwriting team here is Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who have also carved a reputation for effective characterization (especially in a film beloved to me, Rise of the Planet of the Apes). This makes Jurassic World‘s milquetoast screenplay, largely lacking in idiosyncrasy and human interest, yet more puzzling.
One area in which the story does perk my interest is in its self-awareness. The screenplay makes some jokes about corporate culture, focus groups and product placement (for a couple scenes it’s sort of doing antiseptic Fight Club), but especially how these concerns relate to blockbuster films. Just observe the first set piece we saw from the trailers: a Great White shark (read: Jaws, the “first blockbuster”) being eaten by a gigantic CGI mosasaurus (read: modern tentpoles). It’s a bald-faced statement, and it was producer Steven Spielberg’s idea! So we have this self-aware narrative, and in the allegory of the film, Jurassic World is the Indominus rex, the brand new attraction that is meant to stand out in a sea of shiny summer movies. But like the Indominus Rex, this film is made up of a few different agendas being spliced together, looks solid, is functional, but at the end of the day doesn’t inspire too much excitement.
Part of this film’s M.O. is its capitalization on Jurassic Park nostalgia, and indeed, Jurassic World is overflowing with references to that first film, to hit the audience right in the feels. Some of it works, or at least is interesting, like when Zach and Gray find an iconic prop from the first film and proceed to burn it. Some of it is sort of pointless; observe the scene of the gallimimus pack running in the field, ripped straight out of Spielberg. To the film’s credit, there is another identical shot reference to the first movie involving a helicopter that does recapitulate the tone to something new (wonderment to dread). But the biggest reference of all is John Williams’ wonderful Jurassic Park theme. However, in Jurassic World, its full-blast version is never played when a dinosaur is on screen! What?
Easing our way more and more into stuff I really enjoyed about this, I must say the pteranodon/dimorphodon attack teased in the trailer is a scene where the action really comes alive. It makes use of the active park (more of a novelty than you’d think), it’s chaotic, it’s fun. But even this is tainted for me by a seriously miscalculated death scene in its midst. Okay, okay, I said I’d be positive. Vincent D’Onofrio as security chief Vic Hoskins is one of those cartoony characters who is so much fun to watch. He’s literally Hugh Jackman’s Vincent Moore from CHAPPiE done right. D’Onofrio gives him a smooth lunacy, and an affected gait. At first I thought it was a sign of confidence, then realizing it must be the result of a battle-born wound. A limp that comes off as a swagger – that’s Hoskins in a nutshell.
Amidst all my mixed feelings, there is one scene (glimpsed in the trailer) I feel is near-perfect. It’s a scene in which Claire and Owen come across the field of dinosaurs ravaged by the Indominus Rex, and they get up close and personal with an apatosaurus. It’s a largely show-don’t-tell scene that lets everything breathe, while also using animatronics in by far their most effective showing in the film.
To paraphrase John Hammond, “You’ll have to get used to Jurassic World, it suffers from a deplorable lack of personality”. Though I feel it’s often workmanlike and lacking in spark, the greatest praise I can give is by saying, it feels like a Jurassic Park movie. Some elements of it do work, it has a few strong visuals, and on balance, it’s better than the other two sequels. There are just a variety of flaws keeping it from being worth preserving in amber. A weak 6/10.
P.S.: I know, Alan Grant has basically the same arc in Jurassic Park. The difference is, that one was well thought-out, well-structured, and established emotional connections through moments of charm all along the way. Remember Alan being weirded out by Tim’s hero worship in the cute car-changing scene? And the last scene in the helicopter that tells you everything you need to know about the end of this subplot without words? When we get to Jurassic World, now I’m asking you to remember that scene where Zach and Gray ask to stay with Owen, despite the fact that all they’ve seen him do is have his life saved by Claire? And the one where Claire tells Zach and Gray to hold hands…? My point is, Claire changes as a character in ways other than this, sure, but don’t introduce this point if you’re going to half-ass it.
P.P.S.: For a nice little through line with a cool payoff, track who dominates the control room throughout the film, up until the very last scene.
P.P.P.S.: Bryce Dallas Howard is making a habit of showing up in the fourth installments of franchises – observe Terminator Salvation.
The future ain’t what it used to be, according to director and co-writer Brad Bird, bringing a passion project of sorts to the screen for his fifth film and second live-action entry. Young Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is surprised to find a pin from the 1964 New York World’s Fair with the extraordinary property of transporting her to a world beyond her own, Tomorrowland. In chasing this dream of a shining land, Casey is thrown into an adventure and web of intrigue involving enigmatic Athena (Raffey Cassidy), jaded Frank Walker (George Clooney), and clinical David Nix (Hugh Laurie).
I’m a bit torn with Casey, because the script gives her corny dialogue and a persistent sense of incredulousness that wears thin. On the other hand she is a reliable hero for this story, intelligent and never wilting. I’m not torn with Robertson’s performance, as she has undeniable screen presence; Britt Robertson can carry a film, and I think a lesser performer would have dragged it down.
She’s playing a super-reactive hero, but that fits with the film; this is a movie loosely based on a theme park section… that actually feels like a ride at times. There’s an early sequence that reveals a secret portal in a familiar Disneyland ride that really does convey a sense of childlike wonder – you play out the scenario in your own mind and think what it would be like if it happened to you. But most notably, the sequence where Casey just goes with the flow of Tomorrowland for a few minutes feels like she, and the audience, are on an immersive simulated ride.
The screenplay has an oblong structure that will leave many viewers at sea, and I do think that the structure could be better, but at least it’s not formulaic. As one example of bizarre structure, there’s a villain reveal at the climax, and the script proceeds to put this brand new villain through every beat a villain who had been built up over the course of a whole typical action film would go through at its climax. After this thread comes up out of the ether, the newly minted villain’s death is shot-for-shot identical to another villain’s end in a certain 1990s James Bond movie! That said, Bird directs action with flair (as previously seen in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), and composer Michael Giacchino’s cues evoke Walt Disney’s 1950s futuristic vision very well (it also helps that Giacchino masterminded the spectacular “remixed” Space Mountain theme for the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland).
But the main triumph of Tomorrowland is one of design. This is a film in which things look cool, which is no surprise, as Bird’s enthusiasm for the presentational aspects of his worlds has always been a constant. Tomorrowland itself is stunning, of course, money shot after money shot that do a great job in creating a connection between Casey and the audience, as I mentioned before. My favorite detail there is a spaceship launch runway straight out of When Worlds Collide! (How is there not an “Art of Tomorrowland” coffee table book out right now?) There are also some subtler elements that bear the Brad Bird stamp of retro-futurist nostalgia, including the pin featured prominently in the marketing. (I would have said my personal favorite is the countdown clock housed in a row of light bulbs, but it turns out that wasn’t designed for the movie. For the record, it exists in our world as a nixie tube.)
So there’s fun to be had with the film. But what really dragged Tomorrowland down for me is a dumb, heavy-handed script. It’s got themes that are superficially attractive, but are constructed on the most simplistic of foundations. Threaded throughout the film is the idea that humanity has seen dystopian fiction and “given up” on the future. Uh… do you know what an allegory is? The majority of dystopian stories are prisms that hold up current issues in our world in a heightened future, to make cogent and purposeful points. Fahrenheit 451=don’t become jaded to your cultural liberties. Mad Max: Fury Road=don’t let an unchecked patriarchy “kill the world”. Divergent=you are a special snowflake. I mean, a sign of giving up? This is vaguely insulting in a world where Thai rebels use the Hunger Games salute of solidarity, and that story complements their ideals in protests against an oppressive regime.
And don’t be too quick to lionize a Boy’s Own, gee whiz, Jetsons-esque, rocket-packed utopia. Firstly, in Tomorrowland, the chosen few are actually called “plus ultras”. This really reminds both of Brave New World‘s class distinctions (Alpha, Gamma, etc) and Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s newspeak (Big Brother is doubleplus good). But beyond that, think about the larger question of why this particular vision of the future came to prominence in the late 1940s into the 1950s.
After World War II, a crucible of intense human cruelty and conflict, America entered a Cold War with the Soviet Union, sometimes known as the atomic age. With the threat of mutually assured destruction and nuclear fallout a specter over everything, would you rather practice your duck-and-cover routines, or play pretend that you’re in a shining future of hover cars and jetpacks? It was an easy escape, a necessary one at the time. The film puts forward this idea that dystopian fiction breeds complacency – the future’s screwed, why should I care? But most of those dystopian stories are talking about real issues, while Tomorrowland‘s idealized future arguably breeds laziness and indolence to a greater degree – I need escapism in which all the answers have already been found and I don’t have to worry about anything.
Bird’s first film The Iron Giant nailed a tension between the escape of ray guns and the backdrop of the Cold War, and that complexity has been replaced here with a binary. And a final thing: Tomorrowland really is an atomic age vision. As a place of recruitment for “chosen” people to have their especial potential institutionally recognized, and brought to ultimate fruition, you can’t get much less socialist than that.
All that being said… the thing is, yes, I would like to see utopian fiction. It’s not the theme that I can’t get behind, but the way it’s presented. I believe, in the writing of this screenplay, that there must have been a way to ignite that sense of optimism in a way that is both less problematic and more thematically rich. A great start would be explaining what Tomorrowland means to us. I don’t know how a utopia in another dimension populated by our best, brightest and most well-rounded will affect those of us who don’t qualify and remain in our world in any way other than the negative. I mean, they’ve got all our “dreamers”, right? I’m sure a second viewing would provide me with better clues as to how the whole setup works from our world’s perspective, but the film as it stands seems opaque and elusive on the issue. Yes, it’s absolutely wonderful to skip the climate change-denying middlemen in a world without that bureaucracy, but how exactly do the two worlds relate? You can be clear about your themes, and without having to be simplistic; maybe if the script spent less time with ham for hands it could sharpen and crystallize the theme it so wants to promote.
Overwritten and under explained, this is half of a good movie. I like Britt Robertson’s central performance, and some of the aesthetic elements, but so many of the screenplay’s beats don’t land properly. Sometimes fun, sometimes frustrating, I’m sorry to report that Tomorrowland is Brad Bird’s first lackluster film. 5/10.