When you think about the future what do you see? Spandex suited explorers yomping in an optimistic pursuit of progress, armed with personal jetpacks and disintegrator wands, mobilising human civilisation in an encroaching effort to colonise distant and exotic worlds? Or do you see an apocalyptic litany of extinction level threats, veering from pandemic wars and famine to environmental catastrophe, a biblical spawning of the fire & brimstone Revelations chapter of the great book? The tension between these arcs of the speculative spectrum are what drives the obsequious storyline of Tomorrowland, animation guru Brad Bird’s second live action film after the mostly agreeable Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol campaign, his previous form in Pixar triumphs such as The Incredibles and Ratatouille cementing his name in the history books of digitized entertainment. These days it’s a rather curious experience going into a film knowing absolutely zilch about it other than a single, spurious watch of the trailer which didn’t exactly linger in the mind, I knew nothing about this in terms of origin, plot, or even who the main cast was other than the involvement of the husband of one of the worlds leading human rights lawyers, and of course Brad Bird’s alliterative directing duties. Unlike the film any optimistic ovum was slowly crushed by what I can charitably cite as a malfunctioning mis-fire, a box-office bomb and another nail in the coffin for non-franchise sequelised big budget summer celebrations. Is that even a word, ‘sequelised’? It is now….
Starting as we unfortunately go on I don’t think I’ve seen a blockbuster with such a disconnected and discordant opening as Tomorrowland for quite a while, with a direct fourth-wall breaking speech to camera from Clooney, his contextual explanation being interrupted and mocked by a spirited off-camera female interloper – thus we divine that the film begins at the end, immediately obliterating any purposeful sense of suspense or surprise. From here the film takes its first saccharine sojourn back to better and simpler times, specifically the futurist fulcrum of the World’s Fair of 1964. Wunderkid inventor Frank Walker takes his jet-pack prototype to the inquiring boffins of the scientific intelligentsia, arousing the interest of a mysterious benefactor David Nix (Hugh Laurie) and the his young precocious charge Athena (Raffey Cassidy). In the present day inquisitive teen Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is the daughter of a mothballed NASA engineer, given to launch bizarrely under-explained missions to infiltrate a nearby dilapidated space flight center, this symbol of progress and technological achievement now destined for demolition. We swiftly learn that Casey is a bit of a tom-boy, a rebel, blessed with an unburdened excitement for the future, before the increasingly tiresome ‘chosen one’ halo begins to burnish and she is forced down a path to her destiny. When Casey finds a magical pin secretly placed in her belongings by an oddly ageless Athena she is drawn to the home of the now middle-aged Frank (Clooney coasting on a thin parchment of charisma), after the artifact magically gives her incredible visions of a parallel dimension, a futuristic utopia which seems to co-exist in unnatural alignment with our terrestrial world.
We’ll leave the plot there so you can also scry for the films rapidly diminishing ‘wonder’, although one applauds Bird’s utopian ambitions his reach has clearly exceeded his script and structural grasp. I found the film meandering and clustered around a tangle of character inter-relationships which warp and wane as the plot limps along, sorely lacking in the spectacle and theatrics that the modern blockbuster demands. As the attention faltered my inquisitive mind begin to devolve into scholarly status, as I started picking up on a few of the more interesting techniques in the movie, a mental shift from content to constitution if you will. The film has a smattering of striking match cuts to marry scenes and form, and quite honestly I really wouldn’t have detected these from an initial screening but the narrative was so flat and formless I was searching for some measure of intellectual purchase, as Frank and Casey failed to amalgamate as her optimistic yin to his cynical, world weary yang.
It was only when the final credits spooled that the penny dropped, when Walter Murch’s name cropped as the editing guru during the future framed typography. The second penny dropped when Damon Lindelof’s name staggered up on screenwriting duties, I’m not going to re-tread the well sodden ground of his work over the past decade or so (Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, World War Z, Star Trek 2 and now this is quite a roll-call), suffice to say he hasn’t exactly broken his losing streak. Some of the youngster’s performances are amateur at best, particularly the Head-Girl dictation of the aggravating Athena, and her and Frank’s relationship plunges toward some troublesome rocky shores in the films final act. In the interests of balance it’s not a complete loss, some of the effects work on the cybernetic Shangri-La is aesthetically engaging, there are a few nice shots and moments which imbue an acceptable threshold of sub-par Spielbergian rapture and wonder, and in particular the home invasion sequence of a phalanx of kill-bots infiltrating Frank’s booby trapped home is a tour-de-force of inventive and amusing action pyrotechnics. But the relationships and interrelations of characters sink among shifting sands of emphasis and engagement, as one minute this is Casey’s story and then it’s Frank’s and then Athena’s, a dissolution of intent which leaves the audience adrift among the antics. On a wider aesthetic note there is something wistfully romantic about those swaying, golden wheat fields harking back to Dorothy’s cyclone swept mission to Oz or indeed the terrestrial trails of last years Interstellar, the iconography of vast, fertile American prairies seeming to harbour a stalwart optimism and pragmatic purpose for the future.
Yup, it’s even got a bloody countdown – well I guess if it worked for you on Lost there’s no harm in trotting it out again is there Damon? It’s also rather tiresome to digest another ‘prodigal child must met her birthright / destiny arc which remains the default mode of contemporary blockbusters, cant we just have an average person thrust into extraordinary circumstances just like the old days? Maybe its a sign of one’s cycnism and disregard for the protagonists plight when you find yourself actively agreeing with a monologuing villain who argues that ‘human beings are idiots and deseve to die in the abstract for their crimes of stupidity against the environment, against progress – how can an equitable and functioning civilisation be simultaneously suffering from a hunger epidemic and obesity problem?’, well, maybe, he has a point y’know. Also maybe it’s a problem of my generation as I just can’t accept Hugh Laurie as a serious actor having been weened on the likes of A Bit Of Fry & Laurie, but that’s a failure of imagination on my part rather than Laurie’s perfectly serviceable performance. Like The Incredibles the film has remnants of an Ayn Rand collectivist credo, of the elite dictating the ideology and influence of human society from their positions of self-supposed cognitive and intellectual superiority, ideals which are dismissed with soppy eyed humanist, plea for intervention – bleergh. A final scene has all the pathos of a corporate mission statement crossed with a particularly syrupy Coca Cola ‘we are the world’ marketing blipvert, hoping to establish a potential sequel which doesn’t appear to be on the cards. Again it seems that even when trying to craft something new – well, as much as a movie inspired by a Disneyland attraction can be considered ‘new’ – the Hollywood physicists have percolated a slurried gruel of themes poisoned with a central, structural sloppiness. To close then with an appropriately American metaphor Tomorrowland is a film which strives for a home run but barely scrambles into second base;