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What does Tomorrowland’s flop tell us about the appliance of science fiction?
The National, June 6th, 2015 / Pat Kane (published version here)
At least measured by the gross revenues of the film industry, what the planet loves to watch most is science fiction and fantasy.
If you look at the top 20 all-time worldwide list of movie bestsellers, six are what I’d called strict SF. There’s no magic or mysticism - it’s science and technology that makes wonders happen: Iron Man, Transformers, Batman, Jurassic Park, with James Cameron’s Avatar the most successful movie of all time.
The other seven are a combination of kids-oriented animation (Toy Story, Frozen) and classic fantasy (Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, the Tolkien and Pirates of the Caribbean movies). The Avengers and Star Wars movies are hard to place, playing fast and loose with both genres (Thor and Loki fighting killer robots, laser-wielding Jedis channelling The Force). The rest of the list is James Bond, Titanic, and one movie about some very fast driving.
I will confess to being an SF purist. I can be dragged along to fire-breathing epics, where smaller people swing swords at bigger people (and even bigger monsters), for custody of glowing rings or stones. But to be honest, I’m only tolerating it.
It doesn’t matter how bristling the aliens, or how grandiose the spaceships, or how weirdly powerful the gizmos in the protagonists’ hands. A proper SF movie holds out the promise that all this is at least possible, if not probable, according to how well we are able to wield matter, energy and information.
Fantasy films let us indulge in the belief that we can submit to “powers” and “forces” that we don’t need to explain. Forces so mysteriously and unpredictably powerful that they subject us to fate and magic. For me (and it’s fighting talk, I know), fantasy subverts our confidence in our ability to plan and shape our lives.
By contrast, I find science-fiction basically humanist and empowering. We can do this now, and if we are determined and rigorous and brilliant enough, we might be able to do that in the future. Deep down, SF asks us to commit to the necessary labour of understanding this complex material world, in order to act with focus and precision in it.
So did you think were just choosing la-la-escapism with a box of popcorn in your lap? No chance. “Any sufficiently advanced technology begins to look like magic”, said Arthur C. Clarke - and I think that’s the right way round.
You can visualise a talking dragon all you want - but you won’t ever come up with a real one. However, if you think up the all-purpose tricorder that featured in any sixties’ Star Trek episode, you will eventually get to an app-filled iPad in the early 21st century. Science fiction’s tech possibilities often inspire generations of engineers and designer to eventually make them a tech reality.
Given my SF purism, then, I am worried at the news that the new Disney movie Tomorrowland - starring George Clooney as a grouchy scientist, and with Brad Bird of The Incredibles directing - has been such a resounding flop at the turnstiles.
No spoilers beyond what you’d get in the trailer, of course (I thoroughly recommend you see it). And to be fair, Tomorrowland’s plot invokes the same apocalyptic threats as its movie theatre rival at the moment, the new Mad Max movie - a world coming to pieces under global warming, warring regions and social division.
But rather than wallow in end-of-days misery like many SF blockbusters do (the movie features its own parody of these, with billboards advertising “ToxiCosmos 3”), Tomorrowland at least holds out a vision of a fully-functioning utopia.
Of course, you get to it via that old quantum-physics canard, the parallel universe. But once the protagonists make it through their glowing portal, they find that the best and the brightest are hover-boarding and space-porting like there’s no tomorrow (or perhaps, like there’s only tomorrow - see this YouTube viral explaining some of Tomorrowland's backstory).
The critics have already pointed out the commercial interest behind this movie’s gleamingly positive vision of the future. Tomorrowland is modelled on Disney’s original EPCOT (experimental prototype community of tomorrow). As we might expect, the MouseCorp is always keen to have its blockbuster movies establish an audience for yet another attraction in its global themepark empire.
This jetpack looks like it’s crunched into the ground after a few yards. However, I’m guessing it’s more to do with Tomorrowland’s thoughtful approach, and maybe its slightly preachy tone, than its lack of eye-popping digital effects.
There’s a great scene in Tomorrowland where the young geek girl hero, Casey, is listening to her science teacher intone about how her generation must bear the burden for the coming climate disaster. Casey leans forward brightly: “But can we fix it?”
Well, can we fix it? I hope that the relative failure (so far) of Tomorrowland at the box-office doesn’t discourage the movie industry: surely the insatiable appetite for SF blockbusters can bear a little subtlety and diversity. The appeal of Hulks thrashing Norse gods wearing spandex will pall eventually. Won’t it?
There is a new movement in science-fiction writing they could tap into. SF giants Cory Doctorow and Neal Stephenson want to (occasionally) harness their fellow writers to a useful task. How can their fictional talents make plausible and human a future we might want to live in or bring about, rather than luxuriate in the despair of the “toxi-cosmos”?
The website of Stephenson’s Hieroglyph Project currently features an item which tells of “a global network of activists coordinating drones, tracking poachers smuggling ivory during on a transnational voyage, bringing the criminals to justice”. HG Wells, Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke would have approved.
As with so many other aspects of modern Scotland, we’ve covered all the bases on this. With writers like Mark Miller and Grant Morrison, we have enough superheroic imagination to generate a score of movie franchises. But with the work of the late Iain M. Banks, we also have a big-concept science-fictional universe to match anything, anywhere.
Banks’s The Culture is as conflict-strewn and crisis-torn as any film-maker would need (read Wikipedia and Iain's interview on The Culture). But the tensions occur in a galaxy where humans (and their AI companions) are way beyond the struggle for scarce resources; have to make decisions about what pleasures to pursue (than what pains to avoid); and commit themselves to exploring the wonders and perplexities of the universe.
Given that it’s Iain M. Banks, there are always prat-falls, perverse outcomes, and blackly humorous moments. But if the shiny, jump-suited optimism of Tomorrowland can’t deliver a hit for the studio system, would the louche, super-intelligent hedonists of Players of Games or Consider Phlebas deliver any better result? I’ll leave that to the producers and moguls (while hoping dearly that someone could make it happen).
In any case, stand back a little, and it’s quite a realisation. You can take yourself out on this Saturday night, step into a hall with the town’s dust on your shoes, and in a few minutes make the choice to occupy five or six possible future worlds - scary, stylish or sublime.
“He canna Scotland see wha’ yet/Canna see the infinite/And Scotland in true scale to it”, Hugh Macdiarmid once wrote. We may be unsure of where our national future is headed. But in the meantime, let’s keep our imaginations roaring - for the price of a weekly cinema ticket.
Pat Kane (www.patkane.today) is a musician and writer.