The 2010s have been a boom time for doomsday preppers. Just look at the articles that have sprung up in the mainstream media documenting the rise in this radical mindset: “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich” (New Yorker, January 2017); “For Doomsday Preppers, the End of the World is Good for Business” (New York Times, August 2017); “America’s Midlife Crisis: Lessons From a Survivalist Summit” (The Guardian, August 2017).
While survivalism spiked during the Obama years, the mentality is by no means limited to one political party’s radical fringe, as this article from the QZ reminds us: “The Liberal Prepper Movement is On the Rise in Trump’s America.” The number of Americans who identify as preppers or survivalists has reached 3.7 million.
The time is nigh, then, for a drama like “The Tomorrow Man,” which captures the everyday rhythms of an armchair prepper. Ed Hemlser (John Lithgow) lives alone in an unidentified rural community surrounded by wheat fields (the film was shot around Rochester). He keeps a hidden fallout shelter on his property, where he stocks a backup generator and the requisite towers of Spam. He makes a seemingly daily pilgrimage to his local supermarket, where he buys extra canned tuna, paying always with a check. He has an ex-wife with whom he does not speak, and an adult son with whom he speaks too much—bloviating and berating him from his recliner for not preparing his family for the pending apocalypse. He derives a sense of community from a Reddit-like forum in which he posts cryptic musings and dire prophecies.
“The Tomorrow Man” is an unlikely premise for a courtship, but one soon develops between Ed and Ronnie Meisner (Blythe Danner), a single woman Ed spots in the checkout line ahead of him, buying nonperishable items and always paying with cash. Ed sees, in Ronnie, a kindred spirit—or as he puts it later, a “fellow traveler” in the underground world of survivalism. She does not correct this perception, listening with a pupil’s fascination as he mansplains the merits of alkaline batteries. Theirs is not so much a meet-cute as a meet-paranoid.
It doesn’t take long for this timely character study from first-time writer-director Noble Jones to devolve into a paint-by-numbers romance, in which viewers watching with only one eye open will be one step ahead of the characters. The more we learn about Ronnie, we discover that she suffers from her own unhealthy habits of consumption, and the movie becomes a rote and yawning catalog of each partner challenging and changing the other. The musical score, by Paul Leonard-Morgan, is especially lachrymose, a sentiment that feels entirely unearned.
But the film’s larger detriment is that it fails to grasp the survivalist zeitgeist. There is no sense of specificity or contemporaneousness in Noble’s conception of Ed, a character who speaks in the vaguest of generalities. “The Tomorrow Man” treads so carefully so as not to offend right-wingers or left-wingers or real-life preppers that it just feels watered-down. In real life, someone like Ed would be parroting Alex Jones; in this movie, there’s no evidence he’s ever heard of the guy. This script could have been written and filmed 20 years ago were it not for the presence of the occasional smartphone. (For a truly great movie about doomsday prepping—one that feels more pertinent with every passing year—revisit Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” from 2011.)
Needless to say, honest survivalists will hate this movie, as it treats Ed’s condition as a dysfunction that must be reformed so that his square peg can fit snugly into society’s designated hole. “The Tomorrow Man” congratulates a bland march toward conformity, with a cheeky epilogue that oozes the cheapest of ironies. The best that can be said of Noble’s debut is that he cast and directed two fine actors still in their peaks. Both deserve better.
“The Tomorrow Man” opens today, May 31, at Cinemark Palace 20 and Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, and Cobb Downtown at the Gardens in Palm Beach Gardens.