Tomorrowland and the problem with Damon Lindelof

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If very few casual filmgoers pay attention to who directed the films they go to see, even fewer pay attention to the writers. This is a shame, because knowing who wrote a given film can tell you just as much about what you’re in for as knowing who directed it, in a lot of cases.

For example, if people knew, as I do, to treat the phrase “written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci” like a giant red flag with accompanying marching band, door to door awareness campaign and PBS after school special saying “don’t go see this one” then a lot of spectacularly bad movies wouldn’t have made the soul-destroyingly high amounts of money that they did.

And speaking of writers to look out for, Damon Lindelof. Lindelof is perhaps best known for being the driving mind and main writer for Lost, and has since gone on to write or at least have a sticky finger or two in the writing of Prometheus, World War Z, and now Tomorrowland. While Kurtzman and Orci’s signature moves include gaping plot holes and the kind of awkward, stammery humor that makes me want to take a nap in a cement mixer, Lindelof is a different beast. Oh yes, the plot holes are still absolutely there, but Lindelof’s favorite game is to make the audience wait a million years while withholding as much plot-important information as possible, teasing us with a mystery to the point of frustration and then finally revealing it to be something either nonsensical, patently ridiculous or some combination of the two.

tomorrowland posterWhich is exactly what’s been done in Tomorrowland, the new film directed by the talented Brad Bird and based on the Disney theme park attraction of the same name. The film focuses on a young girl who is given a glimpse of a secret world created as a kind of city-sized think tank, where the greatest scientific minds can gather to develop their inventions and ideas without the constraints of politics, money and presumably ethics boards and any kind of accountability. Somewhere out there a despondent games writer is frustratedly deleting a word file marked “Bioshock 4 Story Outline.” Getting back to Tomorrowland, our hero Casey must enlist the help of Frank, a bitter inventor who was kicked out of Tomorrowland for reasons unknown.

That’s the bare bones setup, at least, the frame on which the story is hung like so much laundry. But the thing is, that’s not the actual plot. There’s more going on, some crisis that Frank keeps hinting at, some larger end goal that needs to be accomplished, and given what I just told you about how Lindelof typically operates, you can probably figure out that a) the movie spends the first 90 minutes or so spinning its wheels, refusing to tell us anything and chiding us when we, through Casey, try and get some answers and b) that when we finally find out what’s going on it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense and critically undermines a large chunk of everything we’ve seen up till that point.

There’s a scene where, upon asking for some simple answers, Casey is told by Frank “Stop asking questions, can’t you just have a sense of wonder?” and he might as well be looking dead into the camera at this point. Christ, there’s even a scene where the little robot girl that selected Casey and Frank to get in on this whole adventure pretends to shut down when Casey starts asking very simple, reasonable questions. Not for any discernible reason we ever learn, either.

The first 90 to a hundred minutes of Tomorrowland are a theme park ride, a series of distractions and light shows meant to distract us from the fact that, since we have no clue of the stakes, the larger goals at hand, what it’s all really working towards, we don’t have any reason to care about any of what we’re seeing. And then when we finally do learn what it all has been about, it turns out to be nonsensical, confusing, poorly explained and more than a tiny bit preachy.

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People who saw Tomorrowland before I did described it as having a great first two thirds, and then falling apart in the end, but I don’t really think that’s the case. What I think is happening is that once you find out the actual plot, you start to look back on those early days of ignorance with a fond nostalgia. It’s like looking back at the days before you had to pay taxes or wait in lines at government offices. How wonderful and simple it all seemed then, you think, forgetting the fact that nothing interesting ever happened to you.

And what makes Tomorrowland watchable, with all its blatant Lindelof-isms is seeing Brad Bird occasionally break the surface before a slimy tentacle emerges after him, fixing around his neck and dragging him back down while it mumbles something about the mystery box. The premise is sound and rich with storytelling opportunities, and a lot of the visuals, action sequences and sight gags are fantastic. The end result is like when you have a friend who’s really great and awesome and can do great things, but they’re stuck in a toxic, oppressive relationship with someone who just wants to drag them down into their own mediocrity.

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Lindelof isn’t to blame for all of Tomorrowland‘s failings. Brad Bird, as much as we’d like to deny it, is only human. It’s entirely possible that the problems with Tomorrowland are as much his own fault as Lindelof’s.

We’ll probably never know. But the end result, either way, is a visually dazzling, often extremely clever movie that makes you wait for most of its run-time to reveal that the engine driving it is actually a rube-goldberg machine consisting of old wind-up toy parts held together with scotch tape and optimism.

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