Tomorrowland and Fury Road… Virtue is SO yesterday

Two Kinds of Tomorrow

On Mad Max: Fury Road, the critics have spoken: it’s okay to like diesel-powered gas guzzling trucks spewing smoke across the desert while bands of apes (some of them female!) shoot, stab, club, gouge, crush, disembowel, and otherwise murder one another in the name of Saving the Girls (as long as, beneath a thin layer of grime, they look like fashion models wearing not very much). I’m so glad that the message of this film, which is that it’s bad to hoard water while oddly white-painted people go thirsty, and that even if you’re half nuts, you can redeem yourself by allying yourself with the feminine, has not been lost on the arbiters of public taste. Otherwise, I’d have to draw the conclusion that Tonka Toys Writ Big, which certainly thrilled the adolescent boy inside of me, is not enough to qualify as high art.

On the other side of the ledger we have Tomorrowland, a film that many critics have excoriated, and which is aimed at an even younger demographic. Brad Bird’s new film, which was released more or less simultaneously with Fury Road, has drawn a mild yawn at best, and at worst a sneer, from those who write about movies.

Let me declare that I had a good ride at each of these films; I like Charleze Theron every time she burns up in the direction of a camera, and Tom Hardy is Hollywood’s best import from the immense pool of British acting talent since, well, since everybody else. I’d watch these two actors do almost anything, as long as I don’t have to see Hardy wear another f-ing mouth-mask ever again. As for the best thing about Fury Road, I add my aging baritone to the choir singing the virtue of an action film that’s actually full of action. After two decades in which the director should be calling “Lights, Camera, Graphic Department!” it’s SO yesterday (in a good way) to be watching real people do amazing stuff on the movie screen. Some of the stunts in FR might have been conceived by the Cirque Du Soleil on unclean meth, and the film looks mesmerizingly like it was shot on Mars, if that planet were closer to the sun than ours. Eat your heart out, John Carter. In fact, for a one-trick pony, this horse just won’t quit, it wins the race through the desert like Vigo Mortensen’s mount Hidalgo.

So, how come I like the other kid’s fantasy film better? Well, first, because Brad Bird has a sense of humour: he can never resist making quite sophisticated jokes at the crucial moments of his movies, like when Wallace Sean, embodied as the Supervisor of the Insurance Corporation in The Incredibles, neurotically arranges his pencils on his desk, or when the kid in the Iron Giant needs a mentor, and he finds a composite of Jack Kerouak and James Dean. There is a certain nostalgia about all of Bird’s movies, and Tomorrowland is no exception. In this film, he is asking, “what happened to the optimism we used to have about the future?” It’s a worthwhile question. Okay, he doesn’t come up with some of the really hard answers, like America Has Been Fighting A War Of Imperialist Expansion Since 1905, And It’s Losing the Economic Part, or American Greed Has Trumped American Democracy. What he has come up with is, in fact, a very American answer to the question: Americans have stopped listening to their visionaries.   The tragedy isn’t unfolding because of Cupidity, but rather because of “the vision thing.”  But in fact, to the extent that this is precisely true, and that progressive thinkers have increasingly traded bold vision for mild acquiescence to the politically correct, this film is saying something worth saying.

The action he concocts around this concept is superb, and funny. The always-surprising George Clooney is here discovered as a new incarnation of Dr. Emmet Brown, and the plot takes us back to the future, where the nominal present serves as a launching pad for a chase movie that goes through more worm holes than Buster Keaton in (is it The Engagement?).   We are treated to two of the best performances by young actors that we’ve ever seen at the movies, and there’s a romantic underpinning of the plot that just edges close enough to forbidden territory that it’s dangerous without crossing the line.

This film is, unlike Fury Road, full of computer generated trickery, but I find the unreality of it kind of delightful, as though the director/writer had conceived the film as an animation, like all his best work, and tried to express it as a live-action film. You might ask, “what’s the big deal about that? Isn’t that what Batman, or Sin City is doing?” The answer is, not quite. Those films bring the comics to life; Tomorrowland brings the comic aesthetic to life, or functions as though real life became a comic which was then filmed as live action.

To read some of the criticism, one would think that the plot of Tomorrowland is impossibly complex; I didn’t have this complaint. I did have to shake my head a couple of times, as when Bird sets up a rule whereby the possessor of a certain magical pin is transported to Tomorrowland but is confined by the physical limitations of their daily reality, and then abandons the rule. But I don’t expect or demand too much attention to physics from the guy who brought us a Superhero costume designer who is more intelligently funny in two minutes onscreen than the entire career of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller combined.

At the core of many complains about the film is the idea that its positive thinking message is too preachy, too blunt, too YESTERDAY. (One critic even ascribed to it a debt to Ayn Rand!) I presume they would rather live in Mr. Miller’s sunburned apocalypse of Fury Road for a couple of hours, and talk about the deep ideas being swatted around in that film. That deep ideas aren’t the first thing on the mind of that director is amply proven by one scene in particular, in which a bevy of young women (one played by an authentic Victoria’s Secret model), show off their talents (okay, their tits and asses) as they wastefully douse themselves with the only drinkable liquid for a hundred kilometers. And these are the damsels in distress that the film’s protagonists set out to save. I say abandon ‘em to the weirdos: their self-preservation instinct isn’t developed enough to bother with.

The virtue of Fury Road is in sheer filmmaker skill and chutzpah: the locations, the boy toys, the fight choreography, and the dance of motorized mayhem are all superbly crafted and executed. The living hood ornament of the car of the baddie leader (a scream rocker playing a Gibson Flying V) is almost worth the price of admission. But for the sake of all that’s unholy, don’t watch this film or, heaven and hell forbid, WRITE about it as though there are any ideas in it that you couldn’t jot down on a bubblegum card.

For a real idea or two, grab a ten year-old and put your ticket money down on Brad Bird’s flawed but very clever film. Then leave him with his Tonka toys and take a fourteen year-old (along with your own inner 14 year-old) and go sand-truckin’ for a couple of hours.

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