Tomorrowland (2015)

Tomorrowland exhibits a split personality rather common in contemporary big studio moviemaking. Based on a well-known attraction that was one of the core components of the original Disneyland, the film furthers a marketing technique that triumphed with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and much less so with The Haunted Mansion (2003), likewise inspired by popular attractions at the funfair, creating a self-perpetuating loop of brand awareness. Director and co-screenwriter Brad Bird seems entirely unconcerned by this, as you’d expect from a director who’s already made a fortune helming films for the studio and so has evidently made his peace with being a popular artist within a commercially urged bubble, as he repurposes his brief to make an ardent statement that somehow manages to be at once highly personal and blandly anonymous. Tomorrowland is the second feature film for Brad Bird, whose animated works The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004), and Ratatouille (2007) are held in high esteem, whilst Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) transferred Bird’s reputation for blending action, humour, and cleverness, a magic recipe of contemporary multiplex cinema, into live-action movies. Bird seems fascinated by the problems of talent in itself – qualities that distinguish individuals and also how to fit them into working systems that make the best use of them. Even the grudging, back-handed compliments Bird afforded critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille scrabbled to appreciate the use of something otherwise held in contempt by most labourers at the coal face of mass culture: the discriminating mind. Systemology is Bird's other fascination, or perhaps rather the method by which he explores the first. He delights in the interplay of elements, both as directorial device and as a storyline precept – clockwork plans, time-and-motion studies, Murphy’s Law contingencies, and ethical contemplations of loose-cannon action abound in his work. Tomorrowland, which transmutes kiddie amusement park ride into a mythical utopian city of intellectual drop-outs who might have read Atlas Shrugged a few times too many, is officially a hymn to the binary power of optimism and creative spark: Bird argues essentially that one requires the other.

Bird kicks off with stars George Clooney and Britt Robertson in their roles as Frank Walker and Casey Newton bickering over the best way to frame the story they’re about to relate, in a painfully cute and slightly bullish manner that serves as warning about what’s coming. Casey’s high-power positivity insists on not giving any time to Frank’s attempts to confront and sensitise his audience (read, Bird’s audience) to real and daunting problems, which must instead be reduced to a mere listicle of rhetorical challenges to be faced down by unspecific can-do. Both Frank and Casey share a crucial experience: both were invitees to the eponymous commune in their time. Young Frank (Thomas Robinson) gained his invitation visiting the 1964 World’s Fair where he hoped to win a prize with a semi-functional jet pack, whilst Casey, a gal of tomorrow today, is ennobled for her relentless attempts to prevent the demolition of the old Space Shuttle launching pad. The common link is Athena (Raffey Cassidy), an apparently ageless girl with a posh English accent and a secret line in killer martial arts moves and other superhuman talents. Athena, actually an android, chose both Frank and Casey to join Tomorrowland by giving each a button marked with a T: the button is a passkey to various portals that give access to a city built in an alternative dimension by savants absconding from mundane Earth. Athena helped Frank reach the city against the wishes of her nominal boss Mr Nix (Hugh Laurie) via a secret door in the “It’s a Small World After All” exhibit (nice touch). Casey, on the other hand, gets her button along with her belongings when being released by the cops, following one of her attempts to sabotage the demolition. Whenever she touches the button, she plunges into a vision of Tomorrowland in all its splendour and ingenious flare. Only problem is, that vision is a now-dated relic of glory days, the Tomorrowland Frank entered in his day, for the city and the dream it represents have decayed for reasons that take an astonishingly long time to be drawn out, and even then are only partially clarified. Turns out at some point, in some way, Nix (subtle, guys) has taken over and depopulated Tomorrowland, and driven humankind close to catastrophe with his transmitter that broadcasts bad vibes.

Bird cowrote the script with former Lost scribe turned blockbuster screenwriter Damon Lindelof, and as with Lost Lindelof suggests comfort with some solid scifi and fantasy ideas, particularly multiple frames of reality, both alternate and simulated, and exploring the near-numinous zone that separates android and human. But for a monument to the power of invention, Tomorrowland reeks suspiciously of a multitude of well-proven models. A clash in a scifi memorabilia store tries to evoke the grand swathe of genre antecedents behind Bird’s vision, but with android assassins posing as nerds, only comes across like a rejected Men in Black scene. The alliance between crank inventor and plucky teen recalls Back to the Future (1985). Other touches suggest a conscious effort to recycle tropes from National Treasure (2004), as Casey and Frank delve into the roots of Tomorrowland (Eiffel, Verne, Tesla, and Edison were founders) and utilise a vaguely Steampunk rocket hidden in the Eiffel Tower. The mission to knock out the evil mind-control broadcast or something similar perched on top of a high building has become the laziest, most predictable climactic situation in modern genre cinema, including two variations by Joss Whedon. The gimmick of the buttons is apt – what child never hooked a collectable badge out of a Corn Flakes packet hoping it might transport them to a fantasy land? – but also bears an odd resemblance to the crucial sunglasses in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) as devices of reorientating vision. Athena blends the dashing, age-inappropriate action moves of Hit Girl and Hanna whilst also evoking such stricken synthetic beings trapped between states of machine and humanity strewn across the history of the genre, such as Data or Kryten. In fact, compared to the dolorous exploration of the human impulses of AI in Alex Garland’s recently feted Ex Machina, Athena is by far the more entertaining and appealing creation, particularly as the film brushes risky territory (by Disney standards) in contemplating Frank’s lingering love turned to simmering infuriation with Athena. He fell for her as a boy only to learn of her cyborg nature, a moment that crystallised all his adult disillusionment, whilst Athena herself tries to prove her self-determination and sentient identity, the only way she can honour his all-too-human ardour.

If Tomorrowland knew how to weave its best, most inspired aspects together and when to bring them to the boil, it could have been a triumph. Instead, it’s a fumbling, often joyless experience, except in brief flashes, like the sight of the Eiffel Tower splitting apart and revealing a hidden rocket, Athena battling giant robots, and the pivotal, appropriately grandiloquent moment of Casey’s first glimpse of Tomorrowland itself, a jutting citadel of silvery spires like the Emerald City rebuilt by Edsel Ford. The key sequence of Casey’s first proper tour of Tomorrowland is a fun, sprawling, lovingly crafted spectacle purveyed in one “shot.” Bird blends colourful futurist vision with retro fantasia, as it depicts wonders of times to come but envisioned through an aesthetic veil that evokes that tony, shiny-eyed, plastic feel of a 1950s advertisement. But Bird is in such a hurry to unwrap his present for the audience that he spoils the impact of this moment by already letting us see Tomorrowland from Frank’s perspective barely after the film has started. Elsewhere, the limitations of Bird's ingenuity are revealed. He stages a fight within Frank’s house, with its many rigged traps for intruders, a scene that should be a terrific, zesty display, but instead falls flat because of cramped, visually dull staging. Nix’s robot henchmen are supposed to menace through perpetually beaming, pleasant facades, but again Bird fumbles this, never finding the menace in perma-smiles. The finale sports a conceptual similarity to the climax of Thor: The Dark World, as a battlers fall through doors into different dimensions, but without any verve or sense of mechanistic interaction. Bird's conceptual and theatrical wit utterly desert him.

The film looks good in an increasingly common contemporary way that’s cumulatively onerous, with slick, metallic textures and muted colour palette. But the big failing here is the script, which recapitulates Lindelof’s incapacity to structure a feature film (after Prometheus, 2011, and Star Trek: Into Darkness, 2013, made it clear enough), and lays bare Bird’s lack of certainty in the non-animated realm when he can’t just build a film around set-pieces. Tomorrowland descends into a ham-fisted screed that only illustrates its themes in the most sententious of methods, and lots of expository dialogue delivered whilst driving cars that still, somehow, leaves much of the story fudged. Like last year’s Interstellar, Tomorrowland obviously yearns to establish its director as Steven Spielberg’s heir apparent. But whereas Spielberg, in his signal sci-fi and adventure films, elevated himself to the pinnacle of popular filmmaking by articulating his essential themes as drama (ET is the personification of youthful wonder, not a commentary on the notion), today the necessity of spelling things in essayistic fashion out permeates his successors’ efforts to a tedious degree. Tomorrowland makes the fatal mistake of telling you it’s about the battle between creation and nihilism when it should be depicting that clash. Anyway, Tomorrowland is actually closer to dumbed-down Joe Dante, particularly Explorers (1986), which similarly depicted adolescent resourcefulness via a melange of tropes that signified its director’s love of the pop culture cornucopia he grew up in during the ‘50s, with the important corollary that for Dante that melange, good and bad, was exhibited as the wares of his imagination and sensibility, whereas for Bird that cornucopia is mere background radiation, a style for him to annex. Moreover, Dante’s storytelling moved with supple propulsion over an hour and a half, where Tomorrowland is sludgy at two hours and still can’t purvey its business properly. Tomorrowland is so incompetently expostulated that it takes an hour to introduce Clooney and properly arrives in the title world with about half an hour to go: one gets the feeling the framing device was concocted precisely to get some George in at the beginning. 

Backstory about how Nix came to be alone and all-powerful in the city is elided, as too is the reason for Frank’s own eventual exile back to Earth. Casey and Frank arrive just in time for Laurie’s dull, vague villain to rant for a while about how he tried to save the world from itself by pushing it closer to the edge with negative messaging in the hope it would eventually create a backlash, only to find that appealing to a species obsessed with end times. So this twit is the best the great city of geniuses can throw up, eh? Little of the film makes sense even when it comes to smaller details. The Tomorrowland induction badges plunge their bearers into a hologram where they move about in the real world whilst seeing the alternative, as Casey finds the hard way after bumping into walls and falling down the stairs. At the end we see quite a few folks receiving the badges in the middle of cities – I wonder how many of them would end up under a bus that way? Okay, a quibble perhaps, but this kind of sloppiness in detailing adds up to create an empty, anechoic work. Clooney, usually such a grounded and graceful performer, is left up the creek playing a charmless, resentful character opposite Robertson’s tediously chipper Casey, who is like Lisa Simpson and Tracy Flick got mushed together in Seth Brundle’s matter machine. Whilst the film sets up Casey as the presumed saviour of Tomorrowland and Earth because of her abilities, in the end this adds up to nothing more than a give-‘em-hell attitude and a mission to blow something up. Hooray for smarts! Her essential dullness is emphasised as Bird gives the film over to the tragic, perverse romance of Frank and Athena for an iota of emotional investment, and Cassidy steals the film.

The real crime of Tomorrowland however is that Bird and Lindelof murder the poetry of their essential ideas by refusing to trust them. Worse, they take a hectoring tone that's close to a form of moral bullying, accosting other artists for their refusal to get with the program. Hell, I agree with their basic proposition that the best answer to dark times is invention and determination, and in a Disney tent-pole flick there’s only so much space for contemplating the essence of pragmatic optimism. But Tomorrowland takes some lazy, second-hand swipes at the current popularity of dystopian dramas in YA books and their cinematic companions, most of which provoke awareness of eternal dangers, whilst Bird offers a “positive” vision that’s evasive and annoying and disconnected from any immediate purpose. Bird’s works have been critiqued as Ayn Rand-esque in their celebration of the enlightened and enabled few (not however a specifically Randian idea, but one that’s traversed several wings of the political spectrum in the past). And although as I already noted Tomorrowland has Randian aspects too, it’s actually just Bird’s fantasy transmutation of working for Disney itself, which in his eyes is the powerhouse of dreams that embraces the quixotic and lets them fly free of all concerns as long as they service key business parameters. Bird ends with a final montage that finally locates the kind of enthusiastic, man-on-a-mission feeling he’s been after, circling back to his killer key image (Michael Giacchino’s excellent if often vacuum-packed score flares triumphantly) as Frank and Casey reach out to the dreamers of the world and restart the great project, including scientists and artists. But would there be a place for William Burroughs in Tomorrowland? Lautreamont? Lou Reed? People who inspired, in other words, precisely by pulling apart the shiny official surfaces and depicting the black shrivelled root of so many hegemonies? The poptimism of Tomorrowland as it exists within the film has been destroyed by its lack of introspection, an irony Bird seems scarcely aware of, and this in turn destroys the metaphor entire. Bird and Lindelof steal that basic story of They Live whilst revising its point: it’s not the big powers of the world holding us back, but the petty, too-cool-for-you naysayers. And whilst that’s no more childish a message than most of the fare Bird is decrying offer, it could well be more cynical. What use is a utopia without anyone to call bullshit?

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