“Whatever you think this movie is about, you’re wrong.” So began Brad Bird’s introduction to his latest film Tomorrowland. He immediately clarified by saying that it’s more accurate to declare that you’re only partially right. Mr. Bird has been adamant on social media and in interviews about not wanting to ‘spoil’ too much and requesting that the public to exercise self-control in trailer-watching & analyzation. In that vein I will announce that mild spoilers are included but you won’t find much detail that affects the story.
I had the privilege of attending a special screening of the film at a fundraiser for the Walt Disney Family Museum held at the ILM/Lucasfilm theater in the Presidio. Bird was there and had a great deal to say about the legacy and influence of Walt Disney on the film but also on his idea of the future in general. Disney and his companies, partnerships & employees developed many technologies that are old news to us but were really quite revolutionary. His original ideas for EPCOT inspired what Tomorrowland in the movie is designed to be.
Bird believes that we as a society have become disenchanted with the idea of the future (every YA novel must be set in a dystopia) whereas not that long ago the future was full of endless possibilities, solutions, peace & harmony. This is stated quite obviously in the “second” opening of the film where teenager Casey Newton (played endearingly by 25-year-old Britt Robertson) is frustrated with the fact that everyone is describing the plight of the world but no one wants to fix it. Her father works for NASA, and she thinks of him as a genius, but his position is set to end when the site that he is working at is scheduled to be torn down. Casey tries to find a way to sabotage the equipment meant for dismantling and this is why we find her at the police station with the Tomorrowland pin as seen in the teaser-trailer and those that followed. That pin leads her from Florida to Houston to New York (& beyond) to find the man who knows what it all means.
I earlier said “second” opening of the film because the first is told by Frank Walker (George Clooney) about what happened to him at the 1964 World’s Fair (again a huge Disney connection). A young John Francis Walker (played with equal amounts determination and wonder by Thomas Robinson) has invented something that he believes could inspire people, but it doesn’t quite work. It does, however, catch the attention of a young girl, Athena (a very impressive Raffey Cassidy who I can’t talk more about without fear of spoiling too much), and she invites him to be a part of something much larger than even the World’s Fair: Tomorrowland. The relationship between Frank & Athena is shown only for a few minutes in the opening and later in some flashback snippets, but I wish we could have seen more of that development. You later find out that their interactions are pretty much the emotional undercurrent of the film and I kind of felt shortchanged by what we weren’t shown.
One of the main complaints I had about Lost was that it featured excellent build-up with very little or wholly unsatisfying payoff. And so it is with Tomorrowland, so I believe co-writer Damon Lindelof brought that feeling over to the big screen. The first hour-plus moves briskly in a race to find out what is going on. We are moored to Casey and find out the surprises just as she does. There is much more going on that we just assume will be explained later, but much of that explanation never comes. When the “villain” (Governor Nix) shows up in the last-third it kind of seems like he was forced to be there because someone said they needed a villain. When this villain explains his evil plot in a monologue I couldn’t help but think back to The Incredibles where Bird, through various characters, made fun of such things, but he uses it here to an almost boredom-inducing length.
The resolution to the “problem” doesn’t feel like enough and the ending montage is far too on-the-nose to be effective. There is an environmentalist undercurrent (maybe overcurrent…the real John Francis was a ‘planetwalker’ after all) that is obvious as well. While much of the buildup never quite paid off, many of the references were too transparent to remain fresh. Scientists/engineers named Newton, a person concerned about the destruction of the earth named after a person concerned about the destruction of the earth, a young girl full of wisdom, courage & inspiration named after the goddess of…well, you see where I’m going. At the end of it all I felt that there was so much potential, a great ‘muchness’ welling up inside of the film, that they ended up focusing on the wrong thing and wrapped it up with the standard ‘large thing falls on villain and everyone is saved’ kind of thing.
Hopefully, though, it will inspire the youth to dream and really solve problems. I don’t feel that I’m too old and have given up on the future but Tomorrowland feels like a missed opportunity. The cast was wonderful (with the unfortunate exception of Hugh Laurie who was saddled with frowny dialogue and unclear motivations) and I was pleasantly surprised by Raffey Cassidy’s Athena who was wisely kept out of most of the trailers. There is a wonderful scene with Keegan-Michael Key & Kathryn Hahn as sci-fi collectible shop owners that is equal parts hilarious and terrifying. Sci-fi, comic & movie geeks & nerds will have a field day looking at everything contained in the store. Key gets one of the best entrances I’ve seen in a few years.
But I’d really love to see a movie about young Frank & Athena that follows them for 20 years.
My Grade: B (an A+ for the promise & a C- for that promise unrequited)
Tomorrowland opens in theaters nationwide on May 22nd.