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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood