Ten reasons why the wonderful new movie Tomorrowland may have failed to make a dent at the box office, even though it certainly dinged the optimistic hearts of those who love it — and who will continue to cheer for it when the Blu-ray releases in September.
1. It wasn’t what the mainstream adult audience thought it would be, a straightforward and fairly mindless kids’ summer adventure movie. A further guess is that audiences are simply not used to that much raw optimism, or to seeing a positive vision of the future — it’s like an alien language to people who spend day after day wallowing in a diet of relentless bad news and pessimism about the future. Rational optimism perhaps takes a certain level of acclimatisation, before you can take high doses of it. Maybe you can only take that much optimism if you came of age between 1952 and 1975, or are an intelligent under-16 year old with all of today’s awesome opportunities spread out before you.
2. Clooney fans may have found a grouchier and seedier character than they’d seen him as before. Just my guess, as I haven’t been a Clooney fan until now. Actually, he’s great in the movie, like seeing Cary Grant on top form. But opening the movie with his giant face grumping down at the audience was the wrong choice.
3. There was some virulent ideological mis-interpretation by a few reviewers, which Google News ranked highly while the film was in the cinemas in the USA and UK. Socialists claimed it was an entry drug for kids who would be encouraged to read (horror!) Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and turn libertarian. Some on the political right hysterically found it to be ‘promoting’ global warming (actually, the novel reveals that the destruction is clearly nuclear). Either way, this led to some insidiously poisonous reviews in prominent political news outlets on both side of the political spectrum, from Breitbart London (I’m looking at you, James Delingpole, for allowing such a uniquely optimistic movie to be so thoughtlessly denigrated), to the Huffington Post etc.
4. Cynical snarly critics in the establishment press and on the movie-review websites, eager to trash it and move on to the next trashing. They were probably once the sort of obnoxious little boys who pulled the wings off butterflies or tied firecrackers to the tails of puppies.
5. Tomorrowland‘s primary audience, psychologically, appears to be girls aged 9-15 — which makes it a very rare bird indeed, in a world of packed to the rafters with boys’ formula action movies. Better, the lead actors are clever girls who look and act like real girls — and neither are swooning over sum cute boyz. The film’s another, secondary, audience is nostalgic 50+ baby-boomer males — of an age to remember the Moon landings, the planned manned Mars mission (Project NERVA), and the Great Optimism of the post-war era. All the others in the audience may have found themselves feeling a little shut out of the party, and resenting it without quite knowing why.
6. The marketing run-up appears to have been mismanaged or misjudged, something probably not helped by apparent back-stage studio wrangling about the shape of the movie (the main editor on the first cut was apparently abruptly sacked). The standard paint-by-numbers marketing playbook was never going to work effectively, for a $200m tent-pole movie as unique and new as this. Also, the ARG game ‘The Optimist’ may have been held way too early (2013), or could have been re-run closer to the opening. The free back-story comic-book was only available digitally to those in the USA and using Apple Macs or the latest Android tablets, thus slamming the door on tens of millions of curious Windows desktop users and those outside the USA. I suspect that many of such shut-out people would have disproportionately included older literary / serious SF / comics fans — a group who instead appear to have given a collective shrug, if they even heard about the movie.
7. There seems to have been no awareness at all, by 99.9% of the press and Web reviewers, that Tomorrowland is a transmedia work of storytelling, with a huge story-world behind it. Reviewers obviously couldn’t find or didn’t take the time even to quickly view the official interactive ‘explainer’ website Take Me To Tomorrowland. Still less to note the superb illustrated prequel novel Before Tomorrowland, the prequel Plus Ultra back-story comic-book, the archive of the ARG game, or the novelisation that contains a different ending and additional back-story. That lack of research is par for the course for harried newspaper office journalists, but Web fan-reviewers should be able to offer readers more than a glancing 30-minute fly-by.
8. There were no genuine ‘super-fans’ cheer-leading and Web-weaving for the movie. I’ve hastily planted a few seeds in that regard, in the last 48 hours, but who knows if they’ll ever blossom in the years ahead. Plus, during Tomorrowland‘s release-week super-fans of Tron and Tron: Legacy were highly annoyed by speculative and very ill-timed press reports blaming the ‘failure’ of Tomorrowland for the cancellation of Tron 3. So there’s a possibility that some of that Tron fandom animosity fed into the negative reviews.
9. The inclusion and/or presentation of the violence and physical injury was mis-judged (spoilers: someone takes a lot of severe knocks and blows, gets really aggressive with a baseball bat, someone else gets badly hit by a truck, policemen are quickly killed or maybe just teleported away, there’s a fist-fight, etc). The level of violence, Disney-fied though it is, probably turned off a lot of the nervous early-attender moms — who I’m guessing quickly told others on social media that it all was a little too heavy for the under 10s to see. And they’d have been right to do so. One could also note that a couple of the product-placements are crassly noticeable (the coke bottles, the car factory), but that’s a minor point.
10. My guess is that Tomorrowland simply taps too deep into the human psyche and also into the zeitgeist. A wide range of huge-but-silent depth-charges have been slipped under the surface of this movie. If only one or two of these detonate in the mind of an adult viewer, Tomorrowland may well feel rather too uncomfortable, and perhaps in ways that they can’t even articulate. On top of that, the movie basically asks the viewer to totally turn around the pessimistic way they approach and view the world. Many would rather pick holes in the movie, or simply misinterpret it, rather than throw away their comfort-blanket of pessimism.
Finally, it should probably go without saying that Tomorrowland was directly contending at the U.S. box office with some very strong movies, a fact probably not anticipated when Disney set the May release date (it was originally a December movie — but then the planned May 2015 Star Wars movie was moved back, leaving a vacant summer slot, and they also had to wait four months for Clooney to finish Monuments Men). Plus, the overall box office take across all movies was poor for Memorial Day 2015, and big movies in general have not done as much business as expected during the first half of 2015.