Tomorrowland has been a commercial flop. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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It wasn't just audiences that caused Disney's George Clooney blockbuster Tomorrowland to flop

To look at the campaign for Tomorrowland, you’d think Disney had already decided it was yesterday’s news.

Disney has always had a profitable sideline in live-action movies for viewers slightly older than those who flock to its animated films. The likes of the Herbie comedies (beginning in 1969 with The Love Bug) and Mary Poppins were lucrative examples, but there were also largely unsung examples of the studio appealing to a marginally older demographic.

Some remain unsung for a reason (such as the 1979 comedy Hill’s Angels, about a reverend who recruits a group of plucky women to join his fight against the Mob) but there were also high-points like the 1981 adventure Dragonslayer, which demonstrated a high level of craftsmanship and flair and a genuine respect for its audience.

It is to this tradition that the current Disney fantasy Tomorrowland aspires. It is an intermittently interesting science-fiction movie that tries to incorporate big philosophical ideas into an adventure format – and fails. The first third of the film romps along quite nicely; in the remaining two, a so-so cast essentially reads the plot aloud. Basil Exposition would have balked.

If Mad Max: Fury Road employs a visual vocabulary that enables it to be understood globally, Tomorrowland is the opposite: when it isn’t incomprehensible, it is dull. And when it isn’t that, it’s strangely worthy – Benetton might have rejected the all-nations final montage – with odd glimpses of the Nietzschean tendencies that its director Brad Bird displayed in parts of one of his earlier movies, The Incredibles. Tomorrowland features a master race of super-talented, spick-and-span child prodigies, but doesn’t specify what its idealistic future might hold for youngsters who belch and fart and don’t always do their homework on time (or at all).

None of this would be noteworthy if the picture didn’t star George Clooney and have an estimated budget of around $175m. In those terms, it has been a commercial flop, grossing just $32.9m from its first three days in the US. (It came third in this week’s UK box-office chart, behind Pitch Perfect 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road, two films that had already been on release for a fortnight.)

Its relative failure has led some commentators to question the wisdom of having a female lead in a blockbuster – in this case, 25-year-old Britt Robertson. Of course, that’s poppycock; Twilight and The Hunger Games seemed to do just fine with the considerable impediment of a young woman in the main part.

A bigger problem is that no one really knew in advance what the film was about. The trailers were confusing, the plot impossible to distil. Ambiguity can be wonderful in cinema. Enigmas are far too thin on the ground these days. But an audience needs to have its interest piqued if it is going to hand over the price of admission, and Tomorrowland didn’t manage that on a large enough scale.

Disney must also bear some of the blame for its complacent attitude towards marketing the film. As long as three months ago, I was hearing rumours that the studio was nervous about the lack of viewer awareness surrounding Tomorrowland. No one had heard of it, no one knew what it was, no one was expressing any excitement about seeing it. Disney did little to change that situation.

The minimum-access press junket arranged to promote the film, where journalists get a blink-and-you-miss-it interview with key personnel, was the sort of thing that might be expected for an Avengers or Star Wars movie, where everyone is clamouring for time with the filmmakers and stars. In the case of Tomorrowland, the studio should have done everything in its power to get the film out there, rather than employing the same strategy it used to sell Avengers: Age of Ultron (which, let’s face it, would still have broken box-office records even if it had been promoted with nothing more than a sandwich board).

It’s one thing for viewers to say, having seen the film, that it was a disappointment. But I feel sorry for the filmmakers in this instance. They never had much of a fighting chance. Perhaps the nuances have gone out of promotion on this scale, so that anything that isn’t a blockbuster risks getting lost down the back of the settee. To look at the campaign for Tomorrowland, you’d think Disney had already decided it was yesterday’s news.

Tomorrowland is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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