The de facto chorus in “America” (1968) by Simon and Garfunkel talks of going to look for the title country. It is about two people, boyfriend and girlfriend presumably, who board a bus in their quest. They spend most of their trip observing either the people around them or the scenery they pass. At one point, the man says to the woman that he is “empty and aching” and he does not know why. As with many of the songs written by the famous 1960s folk duo, there is a lot of meaning to unpack in their words. I will try to boiled it down. The lyrics touch on a mood that typified this country for so long. There was something to be seen just over the next horizon, even if there were also inconvenient native peoples who might object to American wanderers and later settlers. There was a time for exploration. By the 1960s, despite President John F. Kennedy kicking off the space race into the “final frontier,” that spirit had diminished. This has caused a culture that has been at odds with itself for generations. Believe it or not, this is all a metaphor for today’s film, Strange World.
The first people you meet in Strange World seemingly belong to that older order. They are Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid) and his son Searcher (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal). Searcher is raised to follow in the footsteps of his famous explorer dad. The object of their explorations is to find a route to the other side of the impassable mountains that surround their land known as Avalonia. During one of their trips, Searcher comes across a new, glowing green plant that seems to store electricity. Given that their mission could mean the survival of Avalonia, Jaeger is dismissive of the find, whereas Searcher is convinced that it could mean something big for their home. Their disagreement over the importance of what comes to be known as “Pando” ends with Searcher finally admitting that he does not want to be like his dad, and Jaeger stomping off into the snow, never again to be seen. Twenty-five years pass, and Searcher’s wonder plant Pando has revolutionized Avalonia. He is not just a famous farmer, but he has a wife, Meridian (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and a son, Ethan (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White). They have a fairly typical family life on their Pando farm, and Searcher is raising Ethan to take over his land one day. The McGuffin comes when Searcher begins to realize there is something not quite right with his crops. Shortly thereafter, a large airship arrives, and from it emerges Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), the leader of Avalonia. She is there to inform Searcher that her scientists have discovered that the Pando is all connected to one source, but that their efforts to get to that point have hit a snag. She needs Searcher to be an explorer once more to trek with their team to pick up where the last one left off. He reluctantly agrees, but before they can get too far down into the hole created before, Searcher learns that Ethan had stowed away. This information comes via Meridian, who had caught up with the airship to tell Searcher. And, of course, her own ship gets attacked by flying creatures and she is conveniently on hand to take over pilot duties on the airship before it crashes in, well, the strange world they suddenly find themselves in. Their descent is not without its troubles. Searcher manages to get separated from the others, and there is more plot convenience when he comes to in the vicinity of his long-lost father. Back at the damaged air ship, Ethan insists on going after his father, despite Meridian telling him to stay put while they make repairs. Being a teenager, he goes anyway, and he eventually encounters a blue amoeba like creature he names Splat. For the moment, Splat’s main purpose is to lead people to their demise in the maws of tentacle monsters. Yet, some electric shock therapy from a Pando ball recalibrates Splat into a loyal companion. This is in time for Splat to lead Ethan to Jaeger and Searcher. When Ethan finds them, he is overjoyed to meet the grandfather he never knew but grew up idolizing, particularly since there is a statue of him in the town square. Together, they make it back to the air ship and, of course, it is all fixed and ready to go upon their return. Once more, though, Jaeger and Searcher are at odds as to how to proceed. They both want to continue with their original plans, and what calms the situation for the moment is that the way ahead is the same for both of them. In the meantime, they devote their energies to influencing Ethan, who is learning to distrust both of them. When they get to the Pando source, Searcher believes that the various organisms are attacking it to destroy the Pando. In response, he comes up with a way of turning the beans into an insecticide to kill what he views as pests for his crops. Splat has a different idea that he gets Ethan to notice, but in an echo of the argument earlier between Jaeger and Searcher, Searcher will not listen to his son. Yet, when Ethan angrily jumps ship, Searcher goes after them. They are taken outside and they realize they have made it to the other side of the mountains. This is not the only revelation. When they turn around, they find they are floating in front of a giant eyeball. They conclude that they had been inside a giant living organism the whole time, and that the Pando has been killing it. They then switch to helping the creatures get rid of the Pando. The enormous heart beats once more, and after granting Jaeger his wish, they are able to go home. And I suppose everyone lives happily ever after.
There are a few evident messages in Strange World, but I will save most of that discussion for the next paragraph. One of the reasons I brought up Simon and Garfunkel in the introduction is because of the line about being empty and aching and not knowing why. This film did little for me. I will give it credit for being creative. While watching it, I kept trying to think of a description that would bring together all the elements on display. The best I can come up with is Jules Verne on acid. It is not quite Steam Punk, which has always seemed to me Verne-esque. Perhaps some of my apathy pertains to the rowdy group of teenagers sitting a few seats down from me. I brought my niece to see this film, and while they loudly carried on about seemingly anything other than what was on screen, all I could think was, gosh, I hope she does not turn out like them in a few years. Then again, what was there for them to latch onto in the movie? Do they care about the nod to Verne? I asked my niece afterwards if she had heard of the early science fiction writer, and she said no. To be fair, she is ten. Without context, all they are seeing is a bunch of pretty colors and shapes. Still, I do not understand why anyone would pay to be in a movie theater and do anything but what they had paid to do. Like the man on the bus, I do not understand what is happening.
As for the messages in Strange World, there are a few for this Catholic to cover, as mentioned a moment ago. There is somewhat of subtle one with Ethan’s sexuality. I do not know why we need to be dealing with that issue in this setting with a teenager. Again, I am “empty and aching,” but luckily it is not a major part of the plot. It is more of a distraction, if anything. The bigger issue is the generational message. One of the Ten Commandments is pretty clear when it says to honor your father and mother. What does that mean? Though I am not a parent, I do a portion of that role for my nieces. We hope that our children turn out well, and, for better or worse, we tend to find that our way of doing things works best. In turn, we try hard to impart those lessons onto the next generation. The Bible also tells us that at one point we must leave our parents and make our own lives. That is because as much as our parents play a role with God in bringing us into this world, ultimately He has a path for each of us that is unique to our forebears. We must follow that path because, more often than not, avoiding it leads to struggle. This is a truth our three generations must learn. Searcher will not be an explorer like Jaeger, and Ethan ends up doing something other than farming. They each do what they are called to do, and one thing God makes clear is that doing so, while always right, will not always be easy.
Despite all this, I do not give my final recommendation to Strange World. For all its slick presentation, I am not sure how it is much different from anything else Disney has done lately. There are agendas in it, too, that I would rather avoid. I would say this for anything, but then again, I make a living out of deconstructing narratives. In the end, I was just not all that interested.