Before I get started, I wanted to point out a strange thing about our current entertainment rating system: It can be gamed and as such, is unreliable to the common user who relies upon it to determine whether they should see a movie or not. When wonderful films such as ’Strange World’ can get only a 74% on Rotten Tomatoes, we are done a disservice by the reviews of bigots and other shortsighted individuals in our society. Worse, that a 74% in the eyes of many critics is a sign that a movie company is over the hill.
What a ridiculous perspective.
My advice? Get your reviews from more open-minded individuals. Learn to recognize the problematic reviews which attempt to prejudice the viewer to an idea in the film, discounting the effort because they don’t want or like a particular idea of the film, in any way shape or form. Most such reviewers don’t hide their bias. Once they announce themselves, you should probably…
NOT CONTINUE TO READ THAT REVIEW
If you read most of the reviews of this film, they range from stellar to absolute trash with far more of them on the absolute trash range of the scale. It is a challenging film, not because it isn’t a good film but because it takes a stance opposite of what most movies and entertainment holds as the status quo. This film is NOT for you if:
• You are a fan of fossil fuels. Pando is a metaphor for cheap energy.
• You are a fan of exploiting the environment for profit. (see above)
• You dislike mixed marriages.
• You dislike gay teens and the parents who support them.
• You dislike sensitive men who learn from their experiences.
• You like the idea of the world as a living, interactive environment.
If we are being honest, this film has something to offend everyone who is invested in people being held in thrall to their perspectives and the social needs of a greater society. Reviewers HATED the LGBQT perspective even though it was barely touched on in the story. If you are a person who is against films considered to be “woke” you will hate Strange World.
ANYWAY, BACK TO OUR STORY
Avalonia, the land of our tale takes place in, is in valley surrounded by impassible mountains. So impassible, no one has ever climbed over them. Ever. Enter Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), the most bombastic, amazing and capable adventurer in Avalonian history. Being the roughest and toughest exploring adventurer alive, Jaeger expanded the boundaries of Avalonia until he reached the mountains and vowed to get past them to see the world on the other side.
This film is panned by anyone who profits from the status quo (and the bots that work for them) because the film features the white male protagonist, Grandpa Jaeger Clade, as the archetype of the adventuresome idiots of the pre-industrial age who “adventured” because they could.
Such manly men, with manly mustaches, looked at every corner of the world as a place for them to exploit and “leave their mark.” To this film’s credit, they do not address imperialism or any other such aspects of colonial exploration with Grandpa Clade, and I appreciate it, but the sentiment was there. Grandpa Clade is a callback to the preindustrial age of “heroism” from the Victorian Age.
His son, also the lead white protagonist, Searcher Clade is the depiction of a more modern age of invention. Searcher, while born on the adventuring front, and having traveled with his dad until he was a teen, was never truly cut out for the job. Clumsy, accident-prone and insanely curious, he was a scientist wearing an adventurer’s coat and it never fit him. His efforts were focused on trying to harness the natural world instead of Jaeger Clade’s desire to dominate the natural order.
Why do I mention they are white men? Because the societal expectation that the protagonist of a film be a white man in order to be effective is an idea long past its prime and in this particular instance, unnecessary. Even a progressive film must make some concessions, I suppose.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER
After Jaeger and Searcher part ways, Searcher’s efforts would transform their world — which for all intents and purposes resembled a Victorian-Era Amish paradise, filled with horses and buggies, no electricity and no forms of easily available motive energy.
When Search managed to grow the mysterious new plant called Pando, he creates a new industrial revolution allowing citizens to power their society from the energy-charged fruit of the Pando he cultivates on his farm.
For the scientifically curious, this movie is filled with puns and references to ideas such as the name of our adventuring family, the Clades and the name of their plant energy source Pando.
A clade is: a group of organisms believed to have evolved from a common ancestor, according to the principles of cladistics. Cladistics is a method of classification of animals and plants according to the proportion of measurable characteristics that they have in common. It is assumed that the higher the proportion of characteristics that two organisms share, the more recently they diverged from a common ancestor.
Pando, translated from the Latin, means ‘I spread’ which was a wonderful story hint on the true nature of pando. On our Earth, Pando is an aspen clone that originated from a single seed and spreads by sending up new shoots from the expanding root system, making it one of the largest single organisms on Earth.
Science fun aside, the most problematic aspect of this film and judging from the hate-filled reviews is the son of Searcher and Meridian, Ethan Clade. Ethan (played by Jabouke Young-White) is a typical bi-racial teenager, sensitive, moody, embarrassed by his parents and their affection for each other.
Ethan, like most of the kids his age, is obsessed with a combat card game called Primal Outpost, where the object of the game is to get along and manage a world’s ecosystem by living harmoniously with said ecosystem. One of the other things which makes Ethan distinctive is the fact he is the first openly LGBTQ character in a Disney production. Ethan is infatuated with his classmate Diazo (Jonathan Melo). I am certain this caused much of the controversy around this film and likely lead to its poor showing and unfortunate perspective as a poorly-envisioned Disney production along the lines of Treasure Planet.
One of the most understated characters is mom, Meridian Clade (Gabrielle Union). She is an industrious farmer, loving wife and mother, extraordinary pilot and psychologically, one of the most stable characters of the film. While the men of this film seem firmly entrenched in their roles and unwilling to change their minds about anything, Meridian does not fight their discovery of the Strange World, she embraces it and sees the effect it has had on her son. She is the first one to talk to Ethan about his challenges with his father (and later Grandfather), his love interest, Diazo, and the need to choose a path for himself. She doesn’t get nearly enough screen time in my opinion, but when she is on the screen, she makes her presence known.
Let us not forget the leader of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), who adventured with Jaeger in the early days and after his loss, became the leader of their society, implementing pando as a greater good for the society. Over the course of the story, she stays focused on what is best for the people of Avalonia, even when she doesn’t agree with Searcher. She is a great character, heroic, charismatic and kind, the kind of leader you would want to follow into the literal bowels of an alien landscape.
IS THIS A GOOD FILM?
Yes. This is a good film. It might even be considered a great film, a decade from now. It’s greatest strengths is its mixed cast of diverse and interesting characters, each on a journey of self-discovery, while navigating a strange world, ala Fantastic Voyage.
As a science buff, I enjoyed watching the world unfold and figuring out what I was seeing, even while dodging a world actively trying to eat the protagonists. I enjoyed the conflict between the three generations of Clade men as each believes themselves to be the best iteration of the family legacy and yet finds they still have much to learn about what being a leader, friend or father means. I was secretly pleased to see Grandpa Clade barely bat an eye toward Ethan’s interest in a young man, meaning Avalonia has always been more progressive than our world. His advice for gaining said young man’s interest might not be the most effective, but his concern for his grandson’s happiness made that moment stand out to me.
RATED: 8 out of 10
See this film on Disney+; it is a visual feast, with excellent characters and environments far beyond early depictions of such worlds. The ecological message is a real one too. We, as a society, will have to start thinking about a world without oil, without easily available motive energy and we need to do it today. Otherwise what happened to Avalonia, will most certainly happen to us. The film ends on a dark note, but one which assuredly can be overcome with dedication, focus and effort on all our parts.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.