Entertainment » Movies

Tomorrowland

by Kilian Melloy
Friday May 22, 2015
Britt Robertson stars in 'Tomorrowland'
Britt Robertson stars in 'Tomorrowland'  (Source:Walt Disney)

Ugh.

Okay, let me qualify that. "Tomorrowland" starts out decently enough -- more than decently, to be honest, which is a surprise given that the film is "based" on (or, probably more accurate, inspired by) a Disney amusement park ride. Like the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie (also based on a Disney attraction), "Tomorrowland" offers some decent writing and interesting characters -- and, with a mix of urgency and humor, the movie tackles some of our most pressing issues, and tackles them head-on: Climate change. Depleted resources. Political instability. Famine and civil unrest. The persistence of all those world-killing weapons left over from the exercise in national arrogance from both sides of the Cold War. A diminution in collective effort, vision, and hope for the future -- and a corresponding loss of spark. The question of what happened to us runs, in this movie, neck-and-neck with the question of what we can do about it.

Those are the questions that teen genius Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) would like to ask, but the adults in her life seem too shell-shocked, or too resigned, to engage with her in this line of thinking. That includes her father, a NASA engineer played by Country and Western music star Tim McGraw, and the teachers at her school. (This is, of course, the first the film's departures from reality: In what school district are teachers actually allowed to talk about things like climate change and the social cost of fatalism, instead of being hamstrung and gagged by edicts to teach creationism and abstinence-only sex ed? Wherever it is, I'm not sure it's in Florida, where Casey lives, or anywhere else in the South.)

Casey's story dovetails with that of another young genius, Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson plays the eleven-year-old Frank; George Clooney stars as a sixtyish older version.) In a flashback to 1964, we meet Frank as he makes his way, via a shiny bus driven by a cheerful driver in a pressed uniform, to the 1964 World's Fair. The future seems at Frank's fingertips, and being a bright young fellow with a penchant for inventing cool gadgets, Frank has brought along his prototype jet pack to show off to... well, to Hugh Laurie, for some reason.

Laurie plays Nix, who turns out to be the governor of a fantastical, Utopian society called Tomorrowland. This is a city located on a pristine planet in another dimension. It's the place all the really smart, creative, scientifically enthusiastic people went while Ayn Rand's literary creations were buggering off in a fit of entitled pique. Tomorrowland is a place where all humanity's most dazzling dreams have actually come true, thanks to innovation and scientific inquiry. It's the Manhattan Project, only on a societal scale and for peaceful, constructive purposes.

The thing that links Casey -- a contemporary teen from the present moment -- and the now-adult Frank, who lives in embittered exile, having been kicked out to Tomorrowland -- is Athena (Raffey Cassidy), an ageless "recruiter" who, fifty years after arranging for Frank's visit to Tomorrowland, identifies Casey as a worthy addition to the ranks of the creative elite. Since Tomorrowland has shut its doors in the intervening decades, Athena is on her own in her efforts to bring Casey and Frank together and get them to work on solving the somewhat worrying -- and dangerously imminent -- problem of life on Earth coming to an abrupt end, thanks to a disaster that cannot quite be pinpointed but which can be seen in all its devastation thanks to a machine Frank built during his stay in the other dimension. (The invention of that machine is what got him kicked out of Tomorrowland.)

The movie works well this far, and Clooney and Robertson both bring something to the project -- Clooney, his everyman star power, and Robertson a kind of youthful persistence and positivity that gives you hope that the Millennials and subsequent generations will kick their elders in the ass for their complacency and their reckless consumerism.

But then the film veers off into boilerplate action-adventure. That's where the "Ugh!" comes in. The trouble starts with a cadre of robot assassins that are introduced almost gratuitously, and cartoonishly played. By the time a steampunk-style rocket ship makes its ludicrous appearance, the film has plummeted from inventive, zippy fun with a smart, bright edge into an irredeemable morass of tired tropes and predictable story beats. Tomorrowland is in physical and psychological disrepair; we don't know why, but it's hinted that this has something to do with the impending disaster on Earth. Casey -- being the ingenious and irrepressible teen wonder that she is -- is going to solve the problem. Of course she is. She's Disney Princess with a baseball hat instead of a tiara and a facility for mechanics instead of a fairy godmother. It doesn't take long before the Disney cliches become a climate catastrophe of their own and drown this film.

Coming from director Brad Bird, who co-wrote the screenplay with Damon Lindelhof and helmed animated masterpieces like "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles," this movie's stumble seems even more a shame. On the other hand, Bird hasn't had the best luck with live action films; his previous non-animated effort, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," was an unfunny, ill-conceived comedy, and a misfire. Perhaps, one can't help thinking, Bird needs to go back to the (literal) drawing board.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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