2015, PG, 129 min. Directed by Brad Bird. Starring George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 22, 2015
There’s much to applaud and much to knock in this Disney action adventure. Tomorrowland breaks the mold and becomes something quite original, while at the same time it ballyhoos its inspirational message to an extent that deadens the narrative. What the film does well, it does very well; what it doesn’t adds to the sense of a jumbled story and unremitting manifesto of hope aimed at young and old alike.
Brad Bird earned his bona fides as the writer/director of the delightfully fresh animated films The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, and then established himself as a masterful director of live action with his last film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Bird wrote the Tomorrowland screenplay with Damon Lindelof (best known as the Lost showrunner) after the two developed the story with Jeff Jensen. The film is not, as some feared it might be, a feature-length commercial for Disney amusement parks (wait for the next Pirates of the Caribbean adventure, already shooting, if that’s what you’re looking for). Tomorrowland is something more complex, a film that actually spends relatively little time in the place called Tomorrowland; most of the action takes place on Earth. Tomorrowland is almost more a concept than an actual place, and that’s one of the film’s radical moves. (Detractors, however, might see this as a bait-and-switch.) Tellingly, those who go there are first transported to an empty field where the spires of Tomorrowland loom in the distance, recalling the image of Oz seen through the poppy field or the remote house seen by the girl in the meadow in Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, Christina’s World.
Having two teenage girls appear as the story’s primary protagonists is another of the film’s unusual moves. Both Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy are terrific: Robertson as Casey Newton, a girl in her late teens, who lives with her brother (Gagnon) and father (McGraw) by a NASA launching pad at Cape Canaveral that’s being decommissioned, much to her dismay; and Cassidy as Athena, a young adolescent robot who’s a mysterious emissary from Tomorrowland. That these two manage to steal the limelight from grizzled George Clooney, who’s dialed down his charisma, and Hugh Laurie, an effective baddie who’s not so much evil as misguided, is no small accomplishment.
Tomorrowland begins awkwardly with Clooney’s Frank Walker standing in front of a countdown clock and speaking directly to the camera. A female voice keeps interrupting him to chastise his pessimistic worldview and encourage optimism. The dichotomy is the film’s essential motif. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and we can either accept our inevitable doom or become agents of change. And in case the point was missed by anyone, the film’s conclusion is a heavy-handed call for young “dreamers,” who are sent off into the world to find Earth’s new saviors (or perhaps form a cult). Yet, even though imagination is given more lip service in Tomorrowland than actual indulgence, there are many points at which the film soars visually. Our few glimpses of Tomorrowland are stunning, like some retro-futuristic vision of what lies ahead. On Earth, Frank’s booby-trapped house and the secret inner sanctum of the Eiffel Tower are dazzling.
The strands of the story take too long to coalesce and are likely to confuse younger viewers, and oldsters should know that it takes an hour for Clooney to reappear after his initial introduction. In their best work, Bird and Lindelof have encouraged viewers to dream and imagine without making these suggestions explicit. Tomorrowland leaves nothing to chance and, as a result, seems more like a calculation than a flight of fancy. Still, many of its calculations add up.