Has the director of The Incredibles and Ghost Protocol scored again? Oscar jetpacks to the future to find out.
Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland is a film that almost defies criticism, because its a movie that harkens back to those golden days of yesteryear whilst standing up to the bleakness of the future with defiance and shouting “NO! It cannot be like this!” It’s a big film with a pretty big message, but it does make a few big missteps along the way. Is it enough to weaken my appreciation? Let’s find out.
Events open with the crabby Frank Walker (George Clooney) talking to a screen, occasionally flashing back to a countdown until an unspecified date, warning his audience of the future with footage of global disasters. We then cut to a flashback of the young Frank (Thomas Robinson) attempting to enter a science fair, judged by renowned inventor David Nix (Hugh Laurie). Frank shows Nix his jetpack that he built himself, but is rejected by Nix. A girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) presents Frank with a pin embroidered with a “T” symbol, and instructs him to board the fair’s “It’s a Small World” ride. The pin is scanned and Frank is transported to a strange place obscured by clouds. The security robots fix the faults with his jetpack and he manages to fly off into the futuristic city, catching up with Athena and Nix. The flashback is interrupted by the perky Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) who picks up the story from where the elderly Frank left off.
We see Casey attempting to sabotage the machines used to take down the Cape Canaveral NASA launch site, so that her father (Tim McGraw) can keep his job as an engineer. Casey’s next attempt gets her arrested, and at the police station, she discovers a “T” pin among her belongings. Upon contact, the pin transports her to a wheat field with a futuristic cityscape looming in the distance. She manages to explore and interact with the inhabitants, but the timer on the pin expires, returning Casey back to reality. Casey finds the address for a sci-fi memorabilia shop in Houston that allegedly sells the same pin. Casey travels there and meets the two owners, Hugo (Keegan-Michael Key) and Ursula (Kathryn Hahn). Discovering she has the pin, they interrogate her about how she found it and if she saw a girl. Athena then bursts in to the rescue, revealing Hugo and Ursula both to be robots. The pair flees the self-destructing machines and steals a car, where Casey learns that Athena is an “Audio-Animatronic” robot, and the one who gave her the pin. They travel to the New York home of the older Frank Walker, who angrily rebuffs her and tells her that he was banished from Tomorrowland. At night, Casey sneaks into his house and finds a countdown clock linked to an unknown cataclysm set to go off in fifty-eight days’ time. When Frank tells Casey that he’s given up on saving the world, she tells him that she hasn’t, which results in a probability meter on one of his screens going down by a few points. Suddenly, robots disguised as Secret Service Agents storm Frank’s house, forcing him to concede and take Casey and Athena to Tomorrowland.
The acting is excellent all-around. Despite word that Clooney was miscast as Walker, I honestly found him to be an ideal fit; bringing out both the optimism and cantankerous edge of a man who was once a kid of the 60s living out his days in the cynical present. Robertson plays Casey with just the right amount of spunk, attitude and positivity to come across as a believable modern-day optimist, acting very much as the observer for the audience to see the world through. They both successfully carry the movie. Laurie channels a bit of Jeremy Irons in a subtle, snarky but appropriately villainous turn as Nix, despite his limited screen-time. Thanks to Bird’s Spielbergian direction, all of the child actors do a really good job. Robinson is believable as the young Frank, as is Pierce Gagnon as Nate, Casey’s brother. But Cassidy manages to hold her own against Clooney and Laurie thanks to a one-of-a-kind breakout performance. Key, Hahn and McGraw also provide grounded and solid performances all around, despite limited appearances.
The action was all choreographed and shot with panache and flair, especially the early scenes with young Frank and his jetpack, which felt like a loving homage to Disney’s The Rocketeer. The production values are all solid, with CGI robots and cities all having that nice futuristic sheen to them. The visual effects are well-polished and ultimately blend into a singular vision that never feels broken down by weak effects. Michael Giacchino provides yet another rousing score – it accentuates the action and emotional beats well, and provides Tomorrowland with its own distinct motif. It was also a great homage to the science fiction sensibilities of the 50s, 60s and 70s, and throws in memorabilia commemorating those productive periods, and even a few Easter Eggs for some of Bird’s other work, such as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles – both got a good chuckle out of me. We get to see the attitude towards the future in the past contrasted with the feeling towards the future in the present, and how much has changed in the intervening decades.
The impression I get from this movie is that of an elaborate Amblin science fiction adventure film, with the budget and power of the Walt Disney Company behind it, giving it more of a technological edge. These parallels such as the young protagonist being paired up with an older, more paternal individual is traditional and carried out just as well here, as well as allowing the audience to take in the sense of wonder and adventure around them. It has all the build-up and expositional bread-crumb delivery you’d associate with these films, giving the audience little pieces of information to keep them stoked for what happens next. You feel part of the adventure for most of the film, and it is a genuinely fun ride for the most part. The humour is integrated well into the story and the characters have their own little quirks that add some levity when the narrative gets too heavy. The film has a rather confusing relationship between the robotic Athena and Frank; both characters were on friendly terms when Frank was just a boy, but because of her being an ageless robot, he could not get her to love him. The payoff at the end treads uncertain ground whilst never falling into creepy romantic territory.
But as expected, there are problems. Right off the bat, the beginning put me in a state of confusion and uncertainty; the notion of Frank talking directly at the audience felt like it was forcing its message, and the attempts to lighten the mood with him and Casey bickering reminded me of the awkward museum framing device from The Lone Ranger. Thankfully, this only lasts fifteen-minutes before focusing on its more linear story. Unfortunately, thanks to this beginning, you get the sense that the film is talking directly at you and can come across as preachy. The marketing was a major misstep. All the trailers emphasised the bright, spiralling utopia that young Frank saw in the 60s, but what we find instead is a very different kind of city; a far cry from what we saw from our protagonists’ initial viewpoints. Granted, that kind of place is hard to market well, but I suspect there’s a degree of let-down from some audiences, which is fairly understandable.
The third act bears a striking resemblance to the third act of Interstellar – after the excellent build-up, the hero encounters a despairing antagonist who sabotages the original mission to preserve only a handful of humanity. Nix has given up on humankind and wants to keep the few inhabitants of the city isolated from the world. This doesn’t make a lot of sense because the script can’t settle on whether he’s a social-Darwinist prepared to kill the heroes, or simply a broken man who has fallen prey to despair and his own cynicism. We don’t understand his motivations and how he gave up on saving the world. Courtesy of Damon Lindelof, the script is laden with little character moments and dialogue exchanges that are clearly double-entendres meant as much for the audience as they are for the other characters. It becomes all too on-the-nose. I don’t object to a film that encourages optimism and creative thinking, but the message is too broad to work by itself for a wide audience, whilst leaning too heavily on individual idealism as the key to solving our problems.
When it comes to people’s reactions to the film, I might have a theory as to why they are so split. The film almost feels like a subliminal test for the audience – determining whether you’re a dreaming optimist whose inner child is stoked by the adventure and characters, or a pessimist who insists on something more tangible than the film’s attitude of simply dreaming of a better future. Now, I’m not saying those people who dislike it are wrong, but I suspect some of them might feel like they’re being judged in some way, because the film does seem to run more on nostalgia, emotion and optimism without a strong logical foundation to support it.
Ultimately, the journey was a much more rewarding experience than the destination itself. I choose to focus on the journey, partly because of tempered expectations and partly because our three leads successfully carry the story, as well as the film’s upbeat, Spielberg-esque spirit and sense of adventure. As a figure of hope and optimism, Tomorrowland remains a somewhat distant dream dogged by iffy storytelling, open to interpretation. I recommend you see it if you’re curious and patient, and your enjoyment will ultimately depend on where your sensibilities as a person lie.