Thursday, May 28, 2015

Movie Review: Tomorrowland

Directed by: Brad Bird.
Written by: Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird & Jeff Jensen.
Starring: George Clooney (Frank Walker), Britt Robertson (Casey Newton), Hugh Laurie (Nix), Raffey Cassidy (Athena), Tim McGraw (Eddie Newton), Kathryn Hahn (Ursula), Keegan-Michael Key (Hugo), Thomas Robinson (Young Frank Walker), Pierce Gagnon (Nate Newton), Matthew MacCaull (Dave Clark), Judy Greer (Mom).

After a brief opening scene, where the two main characters – an older inventor Frank (George Clooney) and a teenage girl, Casey (Britt Robertson) – bicker like characters in a 1930s screwball comedy, Tomorrowland gets right to its best sequence. When Frank was a boy, he headed to an amusement park to enter an “Inventor competition” with the jetpack he built (it doesn’t quite work – but he’s close). The head judge, Nix (Hugh Laurie) isn’t overly impressed – but who we assume is his daughter, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) is – she gives Frank a pin, and tells him to follow them when they leave. He ends up on a very slow theme park ride – “It’s a Small World”, before the bottom drops out of the ride, and he finds himself transported – to Tomorrowland. What follows is a sequence of pure, childlike wonder – as Frank has to rely on his non-functioning jetpack to work to save him. The scene is a triumph of special effects and imagination – and gets the film off to a tremendous start. This is what you go to see a Brad Bird movie for. Unfortunately, Bird never hits this high watermark again for the rest of the movie. The film doesn’t really make much sense from a narrative point of view – or at least it has huge plot holes, and things the film never really bothers to explain (like, say, where the hell Tomorrowland actually is). There are isolated moments that work, and the film remains full of visual imagination every time we’re in Tomorrowland – which truly is full of things you’ve never seen before. But that just raises another problem with the film – we spend the vast majority of the overlong 130 minutes of Tomorrowland the movie on boring old earth.

After that magical opening sequence, the action switches from the childhood of Frank, to the teenage years of Casey. Her dad (Tim McGraw) is a NASA engineer, but he’s about to lose his job (thanks, Obama!), but Casey is trying very hard to make it impossible for NASA to close its operations, which would keep him on the payroll. This, of course, leads her to be arrested. When she is released, among her possessions is a pin – just like Frank got as a kid. When she touches that pin, she is transported to a magical place – or more accurately to a field, where she can see the magical place in the distance. She eventually gets there – but there is a time limit to how long she can stay. But once she sees it, she needs to go back – and she heads out on a journey that will involves robots, Athena, who hasn’t aged since we saw her with a child Frank, and Frank himself, who definitely has.

Bird is a talented filmmaker – in fact, he is a great one, as the three animated films he began his career with – The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007) – are all brilliant, and his live action debut, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) – is the best of the series, and one of the best pure action movies to come of America in recent years. He has, at least since The Inredibles, been accused by some as being a kinder, gentler version of Ayn Rand – looking down at those who are not “exceptional”. I almost have to believe that Tomorrowland is a response to that – a laughing one – as when we find out the origins of Tomorrowland, they are in fact very similar to Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. But Bird’s vision is far more hopeful than Rand – he believes in exceptionalism to be sure, but thinks it can accomplish great things – especially if we keep a positive outlook. That is really the message of Tomorrowland – that we should stop concentrating on the negative things in the world, and stopping resigning ourselves to the inevitability of destruction, but rather concentrate on how we can fix things – make them better. That is where Casey comes in – she is the most relentlessly optimistic person you will ever see in a movie. When her teachers tell her about disease, global warming, or even teach dystopian novels in school, she always wants to know if they can fix it. Make it better.

That’s a message I can get behind. Sure, I like dark movies – and some of the best sci-fi in movie history is dystopian – but sometimes we need a positive message – and if nothing else, Tomorrowland has a positive message. Yet, it’s delivered in such a confusing movie. Time and again as I watched the movie, I was left scratching my head at the plotting – as the movie raises questions it doesn’t answer (Where is Tomorrowland? What rules govern it, who gets kicked out, and what happened to it? Who is chasing Frank and Casey, and on whose authority are they acting? How did Casey get chosen? What special skills does she have? What is this test she scored so high on, and how did they measure it?, etc, etc.). Bird seems to have a lot of things he wants to get to in Tomorrowland, and he rushes into them headlong – and as a result the narrative suffers.
Tomorrowland is far from a bad movie. It’s well acted, well intentioned and full of visual imagination. I like its positive outlook on the future – or at the very least, that it holds out hope if we want it to. The final moments is syrupy and sappy of course, but it works. But not enough of the rest of the movie does. Bird is a talented director – but this time he does what he hasn’t done before – place the visuals over the story. Bird is so good because the two are of equal weight in a Bird movie – that isn’t the case with Tomorrowland – which is what makes it a major disappointment from Bird.

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