Saturday, June 6, 2015

The ups and downs of "message sci-fi"

And, here I am again with another movie review.  This time, a family-friendly science fiction adventure from Disney:  “Tomorrowland.”

I don’t usually go in for this PG-rated goody-goody stuff.  (The fiction I write tends more to the dark side.)  But, I was pleasantly surprised by this film.  It’s gotten luke-warm box office returns and mixed reviews, but I enjoyed it tremendously. 

It’s premise and plot are unconventional (which hasn’t earned it too many fans) but I found its eccentricity refreshingly original and endearing.  It introduces itself with a bit of self-satirizing banter between the story’s two main protagonists, arguing with each other as to where the story really begins.  They decide to begin it at a 1960’s world’s fair, with Frank Walker, a young boy who seems to embody the scientifically pioneering, forward-looking, dreamy-eyed spirit of the America of an earlier day.  The kid has invented a jet pack (which doesn’t work in any practical way, but is still loads of fun) and dreams of bright future eras of scientific advancement.  A mysterious little girl entices him into a fantastic adventure, transporting him as if by magic into a futuristic utopian world that is everything he’s ever dreamed the future could be.  That was then.  Of course, we all know, America’s dream didn’t come true.

So, half a century later, the starry-eyed boy whose dreams failed has grown up into a grumpy, embittered, cynical, eccentric scientist (played by George Clooney, if you can believe it, ladies) living alone in a run-down house, protected by his futuristic gadgetry and cut off from the outside world.  The current crop of young dreamers is represented by Casey Newton, a feisty teenaged girl (played by Brit Robertson) whose father works as a space engineer for NASA.  As the space program’s budget dries up, her dad’s career spiraling into a black hole and America’s capacity to dream following suit, Casey rebels, refusing to believe the spark of imagination is truly dead.  Contacted by the same mysterious girl (who turns out to be an android) who reached out to Frank Walker back in the day, she glimpses the future world he once saw and sets out on a cross-country adventure to find him, pursued every step of the way by killer androids from the future.  “Terminator” on a Disney road trip.  What more could you ask?

The special effects are imaginative and beautiful, making artful use of an imagined holographic technology.  You see an illusory world, while walking blind through the real one, bumping your head against invisible walls.  Memorable scenes include the young heroine transported in her mind into the future world while riding in a seemingly invisible car or walking chest-deep into a lake, two worlds merging, dream-like.  The film has something for everybody, but to an aging sci-fi buff like me, it hit close to home.  As in a scene where Casey’s quest leads her to a sci-fi curio shop run by a way-out, freakishly eccentric couple who satirize the science fiction lovers of this world.

The film is a rebellion against the post-apocalyptic science fiction which is currently popular, reminding us of the more optimistic brand of science fiction that was popular in an earlier day.  Back when we still dreamed of better days ahead, still daring to believe that human beings are capable of reaching for the stars through our own ingenuity.  The message of the film is summed up in a quaint riddle Casey learns from her dad:  Two wolves fight.  One embodies despair, the other hope.  Which wolf wins?  Answer:  Whichever one you feed.

The film is the most fun when it turns into a wild chase story which takes us from the U.S. to Paris, France.  The joy of this film is in its sheer wackiness.  Parts of it reminded me of Doctor Who.  Other parts reminded me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the DaVinci Code.  From a butt-kicking, yet endearing artificial intelligence that outwardly looks like a twelve-year-old girl, to the absolutely absurd idea that the Eiffel tower is actually a gigantic antenna build to receive sub-space radio signals from other dimensions, it’s a wonderfully fun and wild romp through the impossible.  We’re told that Gustave Eiffel, Thomas Edison, Jules Verne and Nikola Tesla headed a consortium of geniuses who wanted to create a utopian world of pure scientific research, free of the interference of greed, war or politics.  We see the Eiffel tower split open, revealing a hidden rocket silo beneath the streets of Paris.  Our heroes launch into outer space and slip into another universe, where the utopian world of scientists abides.  Or, rather, doesn’t.  The dream of a better world has failed.  The question is, why?

Turns out, Frank Walker killed the dream.  How?  He invented a machine that reveals the future.  And yes, the future is dystopian.  Global warming, ecological collapse, war.  Walker had figured that if the disbelieving masses could be shown that their present path led inevitably to disaster, they would do the right thing and change course, creating a better future.  It didn’t work.  The leader of the failed scientific utopia (the villain of the piece) explains that showing people the apocalypse breeds only despair, not hope; it makes them feed the wrong wolf.  “Showing them the apocalypse only made them embrace it,” he explains.  “They wrote books and made movies about it.  It became a culture.  They lost all hope.”

This hit home for me, too.  I’ve attended a lot of strategy sessions with ecological activists debating about what is the most effective strategy for educating the public about the dangers of pollution and ecological damage.  There are basically two schools of thought:  one which advocates frightening the public with disconcerting scientific evidence, and one which says that a more positive approach is more effective.  I’ve personally leaned more to the former, while this movie advocates the latter.

The film ends in a typical sci-fi action film way, with the citadel of evil collapsing in a cataclysmic explosion.  But, the failed dream is rekindled, bright young minds from all over the world recruited to build a better future.  Hope springs eternal.

This film is never going to know the success of Harry Potter, but it certainly deserves an “A” for effort.  It’s a kid’s film on the face of it, but it carries a message very much for adults.  An important message which, sadly, many will simply shrug off.  The ambition of a writer to convey a message to his or her audience through fiction is a difficult challenge:  To make the story the conveyer of the message in such a way as not to alienate the audience by being “preachy.”  Some writers make the attempt.  Most who do fail.  But, it’s a noble endeavor.  And, hit or miss, you might put on a great show trying.

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