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.

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

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.

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

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