It’s like a PG-13 Watchmen, but they left in the creepy bits.
Brad Bird has never directed a bad movie, and I still kind of maintain that. He’s one of American cinema’s best big-canvas storytellers not named Spielberg, already having proven himself numerous times over the years, from The Iron Giant, to The Incredibles, to Ratatouille, to the fourth Mission Impossible. Despite all its shortcomings, Tomorrowland may very well be his most stylistic and coherently directed film from a visual standpoint, but it’s also a film that falls victim to the other man in the marriage, screenwriter Damon Lindelof. Of course, it’d be disingenuous of me to place blame on any one individual since they both have screenplay credit, so I’ll start by saying that Bird is equally at fault – but behind the camera (and the computers), he elevates the script beyond measure. Is that enough? Well, in my mind it often is, especially when a film is an ode to creativity and positive thinking such as this, but the film also features an incredibly uncomfortable dynamic between George Clooney and a 12-year-old girl.
The modern Disney mythology is a deep well to draw from, and this is perhaps the studio’s most bizarrely derivative project since Pirates of the Caribbean. Tomorrowland has been a prime feature of Disney theme parks since their inception, with locations in Orlando, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong, and the fact that it hasn’t updated its now retro-futuristic feel is somewhat charming. It’s what people in the 1950s imagined the 21st century would be, but more importantly what it could be. Shiny, colourful rockets that would take us to distant planets, maglev trains that transported people from all around the world to their stations, and a style of architecture that is now timelessly futuristic despite being outdated. It was a place of joy and wonder, but mostly it was about hope. It represented the hope of pre-space age era that led to Moon landing, the continued hope that people held on to when the world turned its attention away from the stars and towards the Cold War. For some, it’s a place even represents that hope today, in age where NASA, the world’s foremost space pioneers, have just barely re-planted their feet. But what if that place were real?
Casey Newton lives not-too-far from a former NASA launch site. She wears her father’s NASA cap, and uses her own homemade gadgets to sabotage the vehicles charged with tearing the station down. Her father’s going to be out of a job soon, and the launch station representing her dreams and aspirations, pointing upward towards the same stars we see her pointing to as a child, is soon going to be nothing more than a memory. A memory for her, and a memory of a time when space exploration was still a reality. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar spoke of a world that once gave up on grand scientific ideas that sprung from childlike imagination. This is that world. It’s a world where smart, science savvy kids are told how and when the world is going to end, and their questions of how to fix it aren’t answered by the teachers once charged with inspiring them, but Casey stays optimistic through her frustration. She tried to bring that same optimism back into her father’s life, repeating the bedtime story he used to tell her about a battle between wolves representing darkness and light (“Which one wins? The one you feed.”) and she even ropes her little brother into her misadventures while still trying to protect him from the harshness of reality. For all these reasons, Casey has been chosen. Chosen for what? Well, that’s something the film takes a very long time to actually get to, but it does manage to have some fun along the way.
There’s a very odd structure to it, with George Clooney’s Frank Walker narrating the events of his childhood while being interrupted by Casey (the two don’t meet until about 45 minutes in to the movie) but it allows his flashbacks to add context to both his character, and the world he was once a part of it. As a child, he attends the 1964 New York World’s Fair where his homemade jetpack isn’t deemed good enough, and where a young girl/robot named Athena lures him through a secret passage way beneath the famous It’s A Small World After All ride, where he finds himself in Tomorrowland, a parallel dimension where the world’s creative geniuses are invited to create free from war and politics. It’s a place of supposed intellectual purity (but with kind of a fun streak), a living, breathing version of the retro-future we see at Disney parks, and it’s impeccably rendered. Athena gives Casey a sort of preview of this world, in the form of a badge that allows her into Tomorrowland for a few minutes, or at least into what Tomorrowland used to be. It was here that I had my fingers crossed more tightly than ever, because I’ve seen too many sci-fi films falter and make excuses, but my fears were put to rest when this alternate world filled with geniuses was revealed to be multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. A futuristic blend of personas and perspectives from all across the globe, and at the center of Casey’s peek inside is a young Indian girl whose parents are seeing her off before her journey into space. Wow! I mean, yeah, the story still focuses on a group of white people who all happen to be the most extraordinary yet again, but at this point I’ll take what I can get.
Brad Bird has always been adept at directing action, and his abilities shine through when he adds excitement to action scenes where the stakes don’t matter, or at least stakes we’re not fully aware of. The plot is shrouded in mystery, and it’s a mystery that Casey is trying to solve by asking people about it, something that has little to no payoff because she doesn’t really get answers. She’s just along for the ride, and we are too in a way. It’s the lesser option as far as storytelling is concerned, but Bird’s eye (heh) manages to rise to the occasion, imbibing every camera movement with a sense of purpose. His unbroken takes are less to do with style and are more concerned with the economy of visual storytelling. Action and reaction, object and subject, each in the same frame or in a frame that moves to accommodate them. There’s no time wasted, and not a single conventional camera set-up that drags the plot down and draws attention away from the larger moving machine…. Except for this one thing that almost fees like it renders the rest of his efforts moot.
See, rather than having young Athena be the kind of robot that can age (hey, it’s a fantasy world), or rather than have her already be an adult, or rather than have their relationship be platonic, like best friends who fell apart, the film opts to make George Clooney’s Frank Walker go on this adventure alongside his former 12-year-old love, only he’s still hurting over her, and there’s scenes where they share what can only be describes as a rekindling, or at best a reconciliation, where this robot learns to feel (or to accept her feelings?) and…. Look, it’s easy to say I’m reading into this, and I truly wish that were the case, but when the film’s only tight and dirty close ups (over-the-shoulder shots where they’re both in the frame, if you will) involve Frank and Athena at moments of strong connection as they talk about one having loved the other, there’s not much else you can really get out if it. It’s the only time the film’s language implies proximity, both emotional and physical, and while it’s something that doesn’t come about more than a handful of times, it’s uncomfortable enough to retract from the experience quite significantly, especially when the film’s climax shifts focus from Casey to the two of them. And don’t get me wrong, Athena’s a really kick-ass character, a little girl whose mission is to find inspired people and who can do back-flips off one bad-guy in order to kick another in the face. That’s a delight to watch! The stuff involving her and Frank, however? Not so much.
The film’s third act takes place in a now dilapidated Tomorrowland where it feels like ideas have died. Frank’s doomsday clock that saw a bump in Casey’s presence is revealed to be the result of Tachyons that help predict humanity’s disastrous future, and these images are being beamed into people’s heads as a way for them to act towards bettering the world (inadvertently making them cause their demise, like a self-fulfilling prophecy), which is all well and good for this film’s diet version of Alan Moore’s Ozymandias, only he doesn’t quite want to accept the alternative of positive thought even though it serves the exact same purpose. Still, a fight ensues, and while it feels ultimately pointless, it does have Casey’s positivity at its center, something both very on the nose, and very fitting for the kind of movie it is. Her ‘chosen one’ narrative exists because she chose to be a chosen one through her simple desire to better the world.
The film’s final call to action involves children inspiring adults from all around the world and all walks of life, and it’s quite a beautiful sentiment. Their own little pins wake them on the fields just outside Tomorrowland, as they rise from the soil as if growing from the seeds of their own ideas, and it’s a wonderful, rousing feeling in the moment, as Frank and co. set out on a journey to build a better world through creativity, imagination and, quite simply, positive thinking. It works within the logical framework of the film where our actions and their results are manifestations of the kind of thoughts we put into them, but sadly, there’s still no getting around that one major slip-up with Athena and Frank. Well, several major slip-ups, and they leave a creepy feeling that lingers once the credits roll and even once the cinema doors have been left behind.
It’s a shame, really, that a film about being better and doing it together should fall victim to the dumbest of character decisions. There’s a lot of positivity to be extrapolated, and the film’s final moments feel like It’s A Small World After All brought to life, but Tomorrowland’s own Tachyons are marred with the stupidity of whoever decided the film’s explosive finale should focus on a 50-something year old man holding his 12-year-old love interest in his arms. That’s not a good idea in any dimension.