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Non-Review Review: Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland encapsulates a number of recurring themes in American mainstream science-fiction,

In many respects, it harks to sixties utopianism. Tomorrowland positions itself as a spiritual companion piece to films like Star Trek or X-Men: First Class or Interstellar. Although most of the film is set in the present day, its retro futurism is firmly anchored fifty years in the past. An early flashback takes place in the 1964 World’s Fair. Space flight is explicitly described as the “new frontier”, recalling Kennedy’s famous speech. Tomorrowland is absolutely fascinated with the idea of organised space flight as a beacon calling mankind forward.

Field of dreams...

Field of dreams…

It almost seems like, to paraphrase George W. Bush, “The future was better yesterday.” There is a paradoxical nostalgia to Tomorrowland, which feels like a desperate plea for the modern generation to abandon their own visions of the future and embrace those of their predecessors. It is a fascinating conflict at the heart of the film, and not necessarily one that writer Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof comfortably resolve. There are aspects of Tomorrowland that do feel distinctly uncomfortable and contradictory.

At the same time, it feels like a genuine and heartfelt criticism of the tendency towards the apocalyptic in mainstream fiction – an impassioned and aggressive urge to embrace a more hopeful and optimistic future. Tomorrowland has its heart in the right place, but it occasionally gets a little lost.

Going against the grain...

Going against the grain…

There is a pulpy fun to Tomorrowland, as you might expect from a Brad Bird film. The movie has an incredible energy, zipping along under its own power. As befitting its fascination with fifties and sixties science-fiction iconography, Tomorrowland throws out high concepts with wry abandon. Bird’s direction keeps the film moving forward with enough speed that the audience never really stops to question or to nitpick what is happening. The basic ideas are strong enough to reel the audience in, even if there are some sizeable gaps internal logic.

Then again, Bird and Lindelof are clearly fashioned a classic coming of age story. Tomorrowland centres itself on young Casey Newton, a very clever young woman who seems to look towards the stars in wonder. She finds herself drawn into a web of intrigue, discovering a (literal) whole new world where science-fiction dreams seem to have become reality. Casey finds herself confronting killer robots and reinvigourating jaded mentors as she attempts to find her way towards this magical world where anything is possible.

Oh, Hugh know...

Oh, Hugh know…

Tomorrowland follows a lot of the tropes of these sorts of stories quite carefully. Bird and Lindelof work hard to suggest some secret magical world operating just behind the mundane reality that we all take for granted. In a prologue flashback, another young inventor takes a magical elevator from the It’s a Small World After All ride and has a robot fix his jetpack for him. The elevator isn’t glass, but it remains pretty great. Tomorrowland does an excellent job cultivating that sense of magical (or science-fictional) realism.

There is a sense that Tomorrowland is clearly intended to serve as children’s adventure story. Adults in the narrative generally find themselves revealed to evil robots or largely absent parents. Judy Greer has about two lines of dialogue as Casey’s mother. Casey’s father has a slightly larger role, but the film is careful to push him off-screen for the bulk of the action. Similarly, the father of young inventor Frank Walker appears in one scene that serves to explain just why Frank abandoned him and went off into the world alone.

TARDIS? What's a TARDIS?

TARDIS? What’s a TARDIS?

George Clooney and Hugh Laurie are the most prominent adults in the cast, and Tomorrowland is quick to minimise their involvement. Clooney plays Frank Walker as a reluctant mentor to Casey, an adult struggling to retain some of his childish optimism. Hugh Laurie is absent for a considerably long stretch in the middle of the film, even when the script might have flowed a bit easier had it been willing to extend his part. Casey Newton is placed front and centre of the story, largely chaperoned by a recruiting robot in the body of a ten-year-old.

Applying the logic of that sort of childish runaround, Tomorrowland works very well. It is full of memorable images and distinctive visuals – whether the smiling assassin androids or small supporting roles given to Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn. The hazily-defined internal logic is forgiveable, because everybody involved is having such a good time. There is a well-choreographed set piece arriving with the precision of a meticulously-time metronome. Brad Bird is a director who excels at this sort of energetic and exuberant film-making.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…

The movie also benefits from some fantastic casting. Britt Robertson does great work as Casey Newton, a teenage lead who could easily seem awkward or flat. Robertson imbues Casey with just the right amount of snark and wonder to keep the film moving. Tomorrowland leans quite heavily on Robertson to carry a lot of the film. Outside of a framing device that bookends the film, Clooney is largely absent from the first hour of the film. That’s a considerable pressure to put on a young performer, and Robertson acquits herself admirably.

Tomorrowland demands less from its two adult leads, but George Clooney and Hugh Laurie help to give the movie a bit of heft. Clooney is very experienced at playing jaded jerks hiding a heart of gold, and the role of Frank Walker fits him perfectly. Hugh Laurie is landed in a role that feels somewhat underwritten, given the focus on the younger cast members. However, Laurie delivers admirably. He sells the character very well, particularly in a big monologue towards the end of the third act. The script gives Laurie a lot of thematic heavy-lifting, and he does great work.

Daze of future past...

Daze of future past…

At the same time, there are serious problems with the film. It is interesting to see a film grapple so overtly with contemporary trends in science-fiction; it is fascinating to see a movie like this constructed largely as a criticism of the modern state of the genre. Tomorrowland sells its central themes quite well; perhaps too well. Towards the climax of the film, it does feel like the movie has made its point so clearly and effectively that some of the character exchanges feel superfluous or redundant.

More than that, the climax of Tomorrowland does not really work as well as it should. It is difficult to explain the problems with the climax without spoiling key plot details, but there are structural and thematic issues at work. Structurally, there is a very clear shift in emphasis from one character to another; it seems like the script temporarily forgets who the protagonist of this story is supposed to be. Thematically, the powerful emotional image of the climax seems to forget that Tomorrowland has set itself up as a utopian and optimistic science-fiction story.

Nix on that...

Nix on that…

There are some other minor elements that don’t work as well as they might. Frank Walker’s emotional character arc is firmly tied to the android Athena. Frank met Athena when he was a young boy; she is an android built to resemble a young girl. Frank grew up; Athena never could. It is a powerfully tragic set-up about the baggage the people leave behind when they grow up. There is a reason that Neverland remains such a potent fairy tale metaphor; why the idea of the child who can never grow up has inspired so many stories.

The problem is that this plot hinges on George Clooney reacting as a jilted lover to twelve-year-old Raffey Cassidy. At one point, Frank stops just short of admitting that he was in love with Athena, while he speaks to Casey about their relationship in terms that evoke a particularly traumatic break-up. It is a rather odd image, never quite conjuring tragic resonance to which the script clearly aspires. Instead, the relationship between Frank and Athena often feels a little creepy and uncomfortable.

Walker: space ranger?

Walker: space ranger?

Then again, this contrast between young and old underscores one of the central riddle of Tomorrowland. It is a film about rejecting the apocalypse; about working to build a better future instead of accepting the worst nightmare. However, it feels a little strange that so much of Tomorrowland is spent looking backwards. Frank’s vision of the future is given primacy. “You said the future didn’t used to be like this,” Casey remarks in the opening scene. He admits, “When I was young, the future was different.”

Tomorrowland is not the story of Casey finding a new and optimistic future; it is the story of Casey blowing the dust off Frank’s old and optimistic future. For a movie that places such emphasis on creative thought and a need to build new ideas, the film is strangely set on a very precise and very particular future. It seems like Casey does not have the option of setting her own foundations and building from there; she might be free to elaborate, but she is ultimately working from plans that she inherited.

“Well, SOMEBODY like Elysium…”

It is interesting to note that Tomorrowland shares certain thematic connections with Brad Bird’s script for The Incredibles. Both are essentially stories about how brilliant and creative people need to be freed from the constraints imposed by those around them; that these clever and special people need to be unburdened of the expectations of normal people. In Tomorrowland, the eponymous dimension is cited as a place where great minds can work free of political interference; Mr. Incredible would have longed to escape to a place like that.

There is an argument to be made that Brad Bird has written two of the best Randian thinkpieces in recent memory. The Incredibles and Tomorrowland arguably espouse the philosophy of Ayn Rand in a more compelling and entertaining manner than the bloated and terrible adaptations of Atlas Shrugged. These are stories about communities of special and creative people who find themselves struggling to coexist with a rabble unwilling to share (or acknowledge) their vision.

“WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF TOMORROW!”

Tomorrowland is an interesting piece of work. It is a fun and exciting film, even if it wrestles with the big ideas that underpin it.

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