Review: Tomorrowland



The very problem with this film is that stuff like this doesn't happen too often.

The very problem with this film is that stuff like this doesn’t happen too often.

I barely remember Disney’s Tomorrowland from when I visited the Paris park as a child, so count me as one of those somewhat surprised to see a film being made out of the concept. An effort to try and create a Pirates Of The Caribbean sort of thing perhaps? Regardless, the identity of the source material wasn’t exactly filling me with hope for this one, since it’s rare to find a film based on a quarter of a theme park.

But what did feel me with some hope was the name of the director, the starring man and the promotional material, which teased an elaborate and uplifting sci-fi romp, the kind of thing that is sorely lacking from much of today’s cinema. Bird has some serious chops, albeit mostly in animation, and Clooney’s ability can instantly transform a likely dud into a hit (sometimes), but it was that hook, that call-back to retro future optimism, that drew me in more than anything. Could Bird actually pull off such a vision, without resort to overly-nostalgic elements or patronising of the audience? And could Tomorrowland be more than another John Carter in the making, as so many fear it will?

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a teenaged super scientist in the making, comes into possession of a mysterious pin, the touching of which grants her a vision of a futuristic world of amazing advances and incredible endeavour. Aided by a strange young girl (Raffey Cassidy), Casey’s quest to find this place brings her to the door of brilliant, but jaded inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney), an exile of “Tomorrowland” who is awaiting a coming apocalypse: an apocalypse only Casey may be able to stop.

There was a moment around 45 minutes to an hour into Tomorrowland that I started to realise I wasn’t crazy about the film. Robertson’s Casey finds the home of reclusive Frank, and is accosted by what turns out to be a holographic guard dog. In order to show this, Bird has Casey, and the camera, notice that the dog’s paws aren’t leaving any prints in the mud. The camera pans from the dog’s feet, to Casey’s embedded in the mud, and back. Great. Simply done.

And then Casey goes: “Where are your paw prints!?” And I sighed irritably. Tomorrowland has numerous problems, and among the biggest are the myriad of ways in which Bird and his screenwriters seem to disdain the very audience they are trying to win over, the above being one of the more obvious examples.

And man they are trying to win that audience over so hard at other moments, with an endless weaving of “inspiration” on the screen. That’s all Tomorrowland is overtly about, inspiring people to create a better tomorrow by showing them the potential of what that tomorrow can be. But Tomorrowland loses the run of itself in many ways, and becomes less and less inspiring as it drags on, ironically as the count of the word “inspire” goes up and up.

I don’t actually have a problem with that central thesis, that the people of today, and the visual media of today, are overly-obsessed with a negative, post-apocalyptic view of the future, which stands in stark contrast to how people just a few decades ago viewed the possibilities that might come later. In fact, Tomorrowland’s strongest moments are probably its beginning, when we are introduced to a young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) at the 1964 World’s Fair, demonstrating his somewhat imperfect jetpack to a largely unimpressed David Nix (Hugh Laurie). Some of the only true moments of wonder and inspiration follow when Walker stumbles into the titular future world, where all manner of possibilities seem, well, possible.

From there it’s a sea change to a grimmer and more pedestrian present day, where Casey Newton (Get it!? Newton!? Get it audience!?) repeatedly sabotages the impending demolition of a space shuttle launch site, in a somewhat mindless attempt to stop the defunding and downgrading of NASA. As an introduction to the character, it doesn’t work quite as well as Bird seems to think it will. I think he was going for charmingly rebellious, but to me Casey just seemed more jumped up and childish. And as we are further introduced to her and her view point, “childish” seemed more and more appropriate. How else can you describe someone who dismisses the reasons NASA is underfunded to “It’s easier to give up”? Such a simplistic black and white view of the world and its problems is at the core of why large parts of Tomorrowland and its characters are somewhat irritating at times.

But the more concerning thing, character wise, is how Casey really doesn’t have much of a one. It’s nice that she’s a young woman in no way defined by her gender, and it’s nice that she’s apparently smart and capable. But after the opening, say, 20 minutes, much of that goes out the window as Tomorrowland turns into a never-ending journey, with Casey, nominally the main character, just a passenger on the plot railroad. She is given a pin that gives her a glimpse of Tomorrowland, and then she goes to a place, and then to another place, and then to another place and then to another place, in search of Tomorrowland, like a Law & Order episode where she’s the detective. And taking that as an inspiration, all Casey seems to do, despite being framed as a sort of chosen one archetype, is ask questions of every other character endlessly, so that various things can be explained to her. Travel, question, answer, travel, question, answer. Repeat. That’s Tomorrowland, or at least 75% of its running time, which is a fairly stretched 130 minutes. Casey is the girl “who knows how things work” and can “fix” the world, but that grandiose assessment simply doesn’t amount to all that much in practise (especially when we get to the finale).

The film's best segments come at the start, and feature a young version of Frank and the ageless Athena.

The film’s best segments come at the start, and feature a young version of Frank and the ageless Athena.

Much more interesting is Cassidy’s Athena, more than she appears, though that’s largely obvious right from the off if you are in anyway familiar with science fiction (and this would be the fourth major release of the year that covers AI in some fashion). Tomorrowland moves along at a better ebb and flow whenever she is on screen, because there is just something inherently fun and watchable about the 12 year old terminator (and boy does Bird like his Terminator references), fighting off bad guys Hit Girl style but also clumsily trying to pass herself as a Girl Scout in order to get some info. The film reaches a weird meta state with her at one moment, as she tries valiantly to shut down the constant question train from Casey, as if Bird is using the character to send a message to the audience to not question what he is presenting. But still, Athena at least has a better journey than Casey to portray, as she winds up back in the company of the now adult Frank Walker, who essentially fell for her as a young boy. He’s changed a lot, having the fortune to grow up and become George Clooney. She is still the exact same.

Clooney’s intervention in the plot, to give Athena someone better to play off on and to simply ad that necessary sense of gravitas, is very important. We want to find out why Walker went from Tomorrowland resident and genius in training to a seemingly bitter, isolated Earth-bound man. He contrasts nicely to the ceaselessly optimistic Casey, and his introduction is also the scene of what is easily Tomorrowland’s best action sequence, a cartoonish romp through his invention filled house as sinister agents – think The Matrix, but with weird smiles – close in on all sides.

But from there Tomorrowland falls back into the pattern of travel, question, answer. It’s some spectacular travel to be sure, but there is an unavoidable sense that the Eiffel Tower set-piece, liberally included in trailers, is just rather unnecessary, as it is just one part of a Point A, to B to C to D to E chain. Still, at least there is the Frank/Athena interaction to devour, which, on reflection, might have been Tomorrowland’s most interesting sci-fi element really. It could easily have been an intensely creepy dynamic, this middle-aged man and pre-pubescent girl recalling a love affair from ages past. But Bird and his principals actually manage to make it work: what could have been uncomfortable instead becomes a wistful remembrance of times past and times lost, a chaste reflection on what was and what might have been.

I’m approaching proper spoiler territory at this point (see below). Suffice to say that it takes a very long time to really get to the titular fantasy location, and it’s a bit of a letdown when we finally do arrive. And that’s not just in terms of what actually happens there and the general staleness of the third act, but in how Brad Bird’s inner message in regards Tomorrowland starts to shine through.

I certainly felt, by the time the credits rolled, that Brad Bird could have done a better job inspiring his audience like he nominally wanted to, if he had spent less time sneering at them. Because make no mistake about it, Brad Bird and his writing staff proceed to turn must of the film’s finale into an elaborate and painfully obvious lecture to that audience, with plenty of finger wagging in-between. How dare you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction? How dare you not think positive about the world and it’s problems? How dare you not solve the world’s problems? How dare you hold back the best and brightest? How dare you not buy into my narrative?How dare you, how dare you, how dare you? Not since the patently obvious propaganda of The Lorax have I seen a film that so blatantly and simply presents such an argument.

It’s gets tiresome, and then it gets irritating, and then it gets rather insulting, the idea that the rise of darker science fiction, disaster drama and an emphasis on the post-apocalyptic in pop-culture currently is a festering cancer in society. And it’s all the worse because if this is Bird’s alternative, then you can give me Mad Max: Fury Road any day. Bird sets out to inspire, but nothing inspiring actually happens in his Tomorrowland, it turns out to be a rather drab, downbeat place, an empty shell in a physical and metaphorical sense, where the main crux of the finale is blowing up a MacGuffin with another MacGuffin in order to save the world. That’s not imaginative and it’s certainly not inspiring.

The plot of Tomorrowland get’s some kudos to me for its decent female characters – it really is rather important to present a science-capable young woman who is more than just her gender in deeper characterisation – and some of the individual moments. But this is a film that thinks’ it is way cleverer than it is. Complex issues like global warming, government oversight and encouraging exceptionality get hand waved away in terms of solutions, as if it would be the simplest thing in the world to tackle these problems if we would all just think positive and try. Forget politics and funding and disagreement and hard choices, that’s all immaterial apparently. Scenes in Tomorrowland could turn into college room posters very easily, and it can never really escape this shallowness in its being.

In the acting stakes, Britt Robertson is doing OK in the nominally lead role, but she is severely limited with the way that the script treats her character. There is only so much emoting you can do when your role is that of the audience surrogate question asker, and while Robertson has a few moments here and there when she transcends this conundrum, she’s mostly forgettable.

Much better is Raffey Cassidy in the Athena role. At first, her somewhat stilted delivery can be a little annoying, but starts to fit much better the more you come to understand the character. For a role such as this, it is natural and to be expected that emotional displays will be limited, so they have to be good when they come, and Cassidy delivers.

She also shares the screen very well with Clooney, who himself may not be lighting the world on fire, but delivers a decent performance in a role that he otherwise doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about.  His Walker is a grumpy cynic who has to learn to no longer be a grumpy cynic, and Clooney can play that well enough, even if you think that the simplicity of the role is a waste of his talents.

Elsewhere, Hugh Laurie pops up as the films antagonist, though he gets somewhere in the region of 15 minutes screen time to actually be that protagonist. He gets one long monologue to show off his own chops, but he’s nothing special really. The limited supporting cast behind the rest don’t get all that much to do, with the combination of Keegan Michael-Key and Kathryn Hahn the best of them, the twisted owners of a retro memorabilia store that Casey wonders into during her search for Tomorrowland.

George Clooney adds some much needed gravitas, but he can't save the film from himself.

George Clooney adds some much needed gravitas, but he can’t save the film himself.

Considering the genre and the plot, Tomorrowland really does have to soar visually, and it mostly does. There are some really great shots and camera movements on display here, from that rather epic launch platform vista that Casey approaches early on, through to the glimpses of the Tomorrowland that we see here and there, not least another faux one shot that follows Casey through a non-interactive tour of the place. Bird avoids the traditional sci-fi orange and blue colour palette for the most part, which is a welcome change. Tomorrowland also succeeds, somewhat surprisingly, in the action stakes as well, with sequences at the aforementioned memorabilia store, Frank house and in Tomorrowland itself providing fun, yet all too brief, diversions from the staleness of the plot’s progression. Some of it can get surprisingly violent, but is choreographed and shot with skill.

The CGI is decent too. Tomorrowland doesn’t feel real at all, but that’s OK, considering what it is supposed to be. It’s a retro glimpse of how the future was supposed to look to the people of the 1960’s, a Disney wonderland turned into a crazy reality. Its gleaming white buildings and lightning tinged technology work well together, and the varying amount of automatons that populate it, and the fight scenes that take place there, are well crafted too.

The script is a mixed bag, as is often the case when you have more than one person working on it. As already mentioned, some characters aren’t written well at all, namely Casey, who goes from sentimental tales of wolves/optimism to screaming incessantly to asking questions non-stop. The back and forth between Walker and Athena is taken better care off, and there really is something very heartbreaking about how Walker confronts this image from his past, that is he is barely able to elaborate his feelings for in the present day. But somewhere among all the talk of dreamers, reaching for the stars and creating a better tomorrow for the world, Tomorrowland loses its way.

But of course, Bird, Lindeoff and Jensen save much of their writing acumen for a vital monologue in the third act, which serves as Tomorrowland’s verbal set-piece majore. While it is full of some decent dark humour and works well enough coming from Hugh Laurie’s mouth, its central message is so unpalatable that the effort to change your perception of the world and the future is more likely to fail than inspire.

Some spoiler talk follows.

-God damn, but it takes so long for the trio of central characters to actually get to Tomorrowland. Beyond that brief glimpse of the place in the opening and Casey’s little walkthrough via the weird hologram teleporter thing, you have to wait until the last half hour or so to actually reach the titular destination, the whole point of the film in the first place. And worse, once they get there, they don’t really do all that much there. Tomorrowland doesn’t get to look or seem all that wonderful.

-OK, so the “Monitor”, this time travel telescope thing that Frank invented, was causing the coming apocalypse by telling humanity subconsciously that it was coming? What? It looked like nuclear war, volcanic eruptions and weird atmospheric phenomena, how was negative thinking creating all of that? Tomorrowland went past it all very quickly. Stop asking questions audience or the androids might be shut down!

-Man oh man, but Bird and company really do take a dump at the post-apocalyptic genre of media in this film, acting as if the enjoyment of it is a serious ill in society. It’s condescending and patronising, part of this current in Hollywood recently of badmouthing popular things – see Birdman for a far more palatable example – like the superhero saturation and disaster movies. And I don’t like it. Especially when the alternative offered is this weak.

-Case in point: For all of its pretensions at being smarter than other sci-fi, deeper than other sci-fi, and more inventive and inspiring than other sci-fi, Tomorrowland still comes down to using a big explosive to blow up the magic machine that is causing all of the problems. Even the “power of hope” crap would have been a more apt resolution than that.

-While it was a genuinely affecting moment, I can’t have been the only one remembering Lucy Liu in Futurama during Athena’s death scene: “I’ll never forget you…MEMORY DELETED”

-I was in two minds about it, but in the end I think I appreciate how Casey’s mother – dead or out of the picture clearly – didn’t get brought up again after that first and only glimpse of her. That plot point was ripe for some cliché revisiting later in the story, but in the end it was just kind of unnecessary.

-So, Casey goes to the field to see Tomorrowland, then she goes to the memorabilia store to get more info, then she goes to Frank’s house to find him, then she goes to the TV station to get to the teleporter, then she gets transported to Paris, then she flies off in the rocket underneath the Eiffel tower, then they fall back to Earth and tear through a hole in space-time (or something). That’s a lot of travelling for this kind of plot. Cut out the Eiffel Tower Brad, and give yourself 10 extra minutes to actually show Tomorrowland as somewhere you want to be.

Hugh Laurie's Nix is the focal point of the films aggressively irritating message.

Hugh Laurie’s Nix is the focal point of the films aggressively irritating message.

-Speaking of those travel segments, how about that brazen bit of Coca Cola product placement after the transporter scene?

-When we do get to Tomorrowland, we find much of the place deserted and dishevelled, and we never get a reason why really. Is “Governor Nix” that bad of a ruler? Is Tomorrowland under-populated? Did they forget to bring any genius cleaners?

Tomorrowland is also a bit unclear on just why Frank was expelled from the place originally. He lost hope in the future? That seems a bit of a limp reason to exile him with a standing death sentence if he returns.

-Worth noting the films body count. Mostly robots of course, but they are still human looking robots, and seeing Casey wail on one’s head with a pipe, disfiguring it severely, was far more “adult” in look than I was expecting.

-Hugh Laurie’s monologue is all well and good, if a bit super-villainish. But Bird can’t be excused for the way that it is, very much so, a lecture from a podium to the people watching the film, to the extent that at one point the Nix character walks to the centre of the frame and basically looks down below the camera.

-The film is set-up for sequels of course, a franchise in the making, but I didn’t find the end point intriguing in the least. It doesn’t really matter though, with the box office ensuring that this will be the last we see of the Brad Bird optimism lecture.

-I’d like to take a moment to talk about the growing discussion on Bird and his signature themes. He does have a fascination with elites, but I do feel that it is very unfair to label his films with “Randism”. If Bird ever does show stuff relating to the Atlas Shrugged school of being a thoughtless asshole, it’s nearly always in a negative context. Governor Nix, in this film, could be a character from Rand (or Bioshock, anyone else get the Andrew Ryan vibes?) but he is undoubtedly the antagonist, happy to see Earth crash and burn because the people there aren’t exceptional. If Bird was truly crafting a Randism film, the Earth would have collapsed into disorder the moment the best and brightest left for Tomorrowland. I suppose the ending basically keeps Tomorrowland’s “Only for the best and brightest” status in check, but with enough wriggle room that this might change soon.

-None of that is to say that Bird is entirely guiltless, because I’ve always found some of the undertones to The Incredibles – which are plainly “The best people in our society shouldn’t be dragged down by the normals” and “The idea of everyone being special is a bad one” – to be a little iffy for my taste, even if the film surrounding them is brilliant. But then again, Ratatouille went the other direction entirely: the whole theme of that movie was “Anyone can cook” and the elitist head chef and food critic were the bad guys. So, while I can totally agree that Bird has a fascination, maybe an unhealthy one at this stage, with elitism in his films, he mostly veers away from the kind of positive portrayal of objectivism that made Ayn Rand an unfortunate best seller.

Spoilers end.

Tomorrowland is a disappointing film. With the director of such wonderful sci-fi offerings as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, an accomplished writing team, someone like Clooney in a lead role and the financial backing of Disney, it could have been a bright, shiny, optimistic masterpiece, maybe something on a par for sci-fi what Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is for fairy tales/fantasy. But, instead, because of an overdone and insultingly simple message that is rammed down the audiences’ throats with abandon, a lazy character journey for Britt Robertson’s Casey and a running time dominated by simply getting to the main point of the plot in as elaborate a way as possible, Tomorrowland falls well short of expectations. Looking back at Bird’s stellar record so far, it’s clear to me that he could have, and should have, done better with what was available to him here.

Tomorrowland is looking like a bit of a financial headache for Disney at the moment, a John Carter redux, but, unlike poor Andrew Stanton and his overly-maligned classic sci-fi tale, Tomorrowland really does deserve its fate. In a quest to be as inspiring as it could possibly be, it instead made me want the whole thing to be over sooner than it was. Not recommended.

A let-down, but I suppose the director was due one.

A let-down, but I suppose the director was due one.

(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).

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