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Review: Tomorrowland

Michael C here. Last week I was here to announce that one of my anticipated 2015 titles exceeded my expectations. This week I need to come to grips how another of my most anticipated could miss the mark so badly.

Like the theme park from which it takes its inspiration, the future in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland is not a tangible thing, but an idea, a gleaming Jetsons cityscape forever just over the horizon inspiring the better angels of our nature with its promise of utopia. It’s not “the future”. It’s THE FUTURE! 

Unfortunately, where Disney World can get away with organizing a collection or attractions around nothing but a spirit of uncomplicated hope, a movie needs to build a structure around those feelings, and it’s there that Bird’s film struggles. It aims to stir the soul but its impact is dulled as it gets lost in its scattershot, thinly conceived screenplay. Enjoyment of Tomorrowland depends on one's ability to appreciate its vibe of retro optimism enough to overlook how far short it falls of its lofty ambitions...

Despite my eagerness to climb aboard its rocket ship tour of wonders, I found myself looking for the escape hatch long before Tomorrowland sputtered to a lackluster finish. 

Tomorrowland’s surface may be bright but its story’s undercurrents are bracingly dark. The plot is like a sunshine-y T2 where the impending Judgment Day will be deferred not by a violent rampage but by the dogged optimism of Casey, the story's high school-aged hero played by Britt Robertson. The daughter of an out-of-work astronaut, she uses her technical know-how, and her penchant for mischief, to stall the demolition of a NASA launch pad. There are echoes of Interstellar with the use of an abandoned astronaut as symbol for humanity’s lost capacity for wonder.

Casey’s can-do spirit puts her on the radar of Tomorrowland, a fantastical city described as a refuge for best and brightest, a place where the thinkers and the dreamers can escape the limitations of the workaday world and reach their full potential. (Those who have found a streak of Randian objectivism in Bird’s series of elite protagonists are having a field day with this) Casey soon finds herself in possession of a mysterious pin which, when touched, whisks its possessor to a sun-dappled cornfield with the magical city shimmering in the distance. It turns out something is rotten in Tomorrowland and Casey is the last hope to rescue the city’s lost spirit of hope (or something) thus saving the world. First step in her adventure is to track down a disillusioned recluse (played with craggy charisma by George Clooney) who was once a former whiz kid like herself, so he can help her find a way back while eluding a gang of killer black suited robots.

"Do I have to explain everything? Can’t you be amazed and move on...”

Clooney snaps at Robertson when she persists in asking totally reasonable questions. The exclamation may as well be directed at the audience at a point when the accumulated weight of unanswered questions and vague plot points is reaching critical mass. I don’t want to pile on Damon Lindelof who has become something of a whipping boy ever since the end of Lost left so many viewer’s feeling swindled (and who, in fairness, shares writing credit with Bird and Jeff Jensen) but Tomorrowland’s flaws fit his trademark screenwriting bait and switch so perfectly it is impossible not to notice. 

The formula goes like this: Begin with big promises of wonders to come, including a nebulous threat that propels the action forward with such urgency there is no time for explanation. (Tomorrowland veers into self-parody with a robot character that shuts down when asked direct question about the plot.) Step two: Pile up more questions, which expand the mystery without developing the story. Any characters who were supposed to have answers turn out to be in the dark (“What do we do now?" “I thought YOU knew”) Step three concludes with an avalanche of exposition which doesn’t contain answers so much as a lot of answer-ish sounding noise. Wrap things up with a flurry of action and hope nobody notices that reasons for all the secrecy in the first two acts is never addressed.

It could rightly be argued that ideas and imagination are more valuable than plot coherence, but Tomorrowland itself foregrounds the plot, tying itself in knots trying unsuccessfully to find meaning in its various convolutions until we are left with nothing to hold on to, save a sort of free-floating positivity. Vague optimism masquerading as ideas. The result is a grand vision of the future that rings hollow. A Tinkerbell that can only be kept alive with relentless clapping, as if the enemy isn’t pessimism but realism. When Casey is learning about the melting polar ice caps in school she interrupts to demand the teacher segue immediately to potential solutions. It’s supposed to be inspiring but it comes off as oppressive, Disney-ish in the most corporate way possible where any negativity is to be immediately squelched and covered over with happy thoughts.

Even with the bungled big picture, Tomorrowland is still capable of charming in the details. The whole enterprise has a cleanness of style that makes for painless viewing even when the screenplay is flailing, and there are sparks of the kind of crackerjack action that one would expect from the director of MI: Ghost Protocol. There is a temptation to give Tomorrowland a pass solely for bucking the trend of dour, joyless blockbusters that can’t reach the credits without massacring an urban metropolis. Tomorrowland seems like the perfect antidote to this, personal and buoyant where the other films are leaden and assembly line forgettable, but the sight of all that squandered potential managed to bum me out even in the presence of this overflow of good cheer.

Grade: C+

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Reader Comments (12)

Nicely written, even if I admit to being a fan of it myself.

May 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrianZ

No mention of Athena? Even though I agree with a lot of your criticisms, one of the reasons I was able to enjoy the film is because of that character and the way Raffey Cassidy (the girl who plays her) was able to mix that robot-like demeanor demeanor with a sense of child-like wonder and she became the character I connected the most to. I also loved the interplay between our three leads (Clooney, Robertson and Cassidy), since all three of them are effortlessly charming and fun to watch on-screen (even if the film around them is problematic)...

May 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

I thought Cassidy did fine work. Her performance was easily my favorite in the film.

May 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

I quite enjoyed Tomorrowland. The script goes wobbly in the middle, the cutesy opening bit should've been cut, and Tomorrowland itself never quite manages to evoke the sense of wonder Bird so clearly wants it to - those are all flaws (not the only ones, either) and shouldn't be overlooked. It's probably Bird's least accomplished film to date. But that's an awfully high bar to miss, and I wish every failed blockbuster had the wit, sense of adventure, directorial chops, and militant optimism of Tomorrowland. Sorry you found it corporatized and phony. I thought it was more than a breath of fresh air - it was a call to arms against the nihilism of contemporary culture, and especially blockbuster film culture, and Bird can make 50 capital-M message movies on that subject if he wants, because that shit cannot be underlined enough.

May 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

To me it was one of those movies that I found myself going along with most of it, only to come out of it and find it to fail on so many things the longer I think about it. One of the things that annoyed me the most is that Casey suffers the Harry Potter syndrome. A character thats the main character and supposed to be so smart, so special, except she never does anything smart or special. She doesn't do anything, things happen to her, until the last act when she conveniently solves everything with just a couple of lines of dialogue. The movie just comes apart completely once they get to Tomorrowland honestly.

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterpaco.

I loved Tomorrowland. All the criticism against it, however reasonable, sounds close-minded to me. Furthermore, I see nobody question the dystopia of Hunger Games (and other young adult fiction) and majorly, the new Mad Max film. Baddies like Immortan Joe have created a dystopian micro-society with no water, keeping a bunch of models captive, but that's understandable because OMG who killed the world? Questions be damned. Ambiguity, action and ass FTW and if that's not enough let's piggy back on feminism! But if a group of gifted individuals wish to form a utopian society it's elitism! If a film is offers hope, it is giving a message and that's a strict no-no!

Regarding Casey. That she is supposed to be special but she doesn't do anything. Maybe what's special about her is the undying optimism she carries? Something that failed Frank? If I might add, Harry also has what nobody else has in the Potter series. Courage. What Gryffindor truly stands for. I don't know why things like optimism are courage are considered 'nothing' and not 'special'.

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNik

I was a bit ambivalent while watching Tomorrowland, until I realized that it wasn't a movie meant for me. It's an actual kids movie. The kids are the leads, Athena is the heroine, and the adults are incidental. The message is straightforward: get involved in positive actions to save our planet.

And what great kids! Not snarky jaded little brats. Persevering, caring for each other, brave, adventurous, wanting to use their intelligence to make the world a better place. I was happy to see Pierce Gagnon have a more cheerful role. I love that little guy.

I also don't think the movie is "Randian" at all. Waaaay too altruistic. Working together cooperatively to make a shared better world is Rand anathema.

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Adri - I agree with you that the Ayn Rand read of this film, and of Bird's work in general, is way overblown. I had a detour where I got into the reasons why - including the exact reason you mention - but I end up deleting it because the review became too long and off-topic. Maybe I should write it up as a full piece on its own.

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Nik- I agree with you on that, but it can be very boring watching those kind of characters. Yeah it was cool that she was optimistic but they didn't completely find a way to integrate that in the story where she was actively doing something. It kind of felt like they made a movie around the Ellen Page character from Inception.

May 27, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterpaco.

In many ways TOMORROWLAND is the kind of moving that is more disappointing than an outright bomb because you can see the ambition, and posit an alternate universe where it works.

Sadly, we live in the universe where TOMORROWLAND doesn't.

May 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoeS

TomorrowLand is a great movie, and if you are the kind of person that waits for a movie to be released on DVD beleive me when I tell you, you will miss all of the beautiful magic that the film offers. The only reason that this movie is not the box office bonanza that it should be is "timing". The movie fans for the last 3 months has been hammerd with "Dinosauritis" and Super Heroes who again bands together to save our fledgling world. We all know that dinosaurs doesn't really exist and unfortunately neither do Super Heroes", but movie goers love them anyway. Do yourself a favor and let your mind work it's own magic of imagination as you watch "TomorrowLand", it is truly worth the trip. Go, and have some fun.

June 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn V. Alexander

So at the end the only people who DON'T get a badge are white males, so not a feminist movie.

September 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterQA

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