Monday, May 25, 2015

TOMORROWLAND Espouses Optimism, Causes Cynicism


- There's a strong underlying message to TOMORROWLAND, and there's a lot, on the surface, that makes this a likable, easy-to-root-for film. This is a movie 100% designed to appeal to our sense of nostalgia for the future that never was, and for me - and I suspect many of you - that is a pretty easy button to push. It's funny - I think my generation may have a unique perspective on the all-too-quick evaporation of the utopian-future dream. Growing up on the east coast, trips to Disneyworld were a once-every-four-years, super-special occasion for me and my family. And with that sort of gap between visits, it was easy to spot - even as a kid - the way in which Disney's original vision of the future was changing in relation to how we saw it in our popular consciousness. Sure, the original vision of Disney and its utopian Tomorrowland was born of a post-war society - with visions of jetpacks and robot maids ingrained in the hopes and dreams of young Baby Boomers. But growing up in the 80's - raised on re-runs of The Jetsons and countless other new and recycled utopian visions - that World's Fair dream still felt very much alive. As a kid, even a passing familiarity with the darker, apocalyptic futures becoming popular in more adult sci-fi fare didn't faze me. That seemed like pure fantasy, with the utopian, robot-maid vision of the future seeming to be where we were actually headed. That was reaffirmed when visiting Disneyworld: Tomorrowland was still named as such in a very literal sense. That is, until it wasn't. A few years later, and Tomorrowland was re-branded as "the future that never was." Suddenly, as if almost overnight, the once-wondrous visions in Tomorrowland and Epcot Center seemed outdated and quaint. Flying cars, friendly robots, and colonies on the moon? In the emerging world of the internet, such flights of fancy seemed, sadly, obsolete. 

But man, the pull of that once-promised world is strong. And TOMORROWLAND, the movie, zeros in on that same feeling that many of us dreamers have had for a long time: where did it all go wrong? How did we go from a world where technology promised us an incredible, utopian tomorrow to a world where, at best, each new tech innovation seems only to amplify the worst aspects of our society? TOMORROWLAND argues that the original vision of Disneyland, Disneyworld, Epcot - and the whole post-war utopian dream - is not quaint or silly, but still valid, and possibly more vital than ever. And in a world that seems to yearn for hope and change, the timing seems apropos. It's a powerful, timely message, and on the surface a movie that beams that sort of positivity out into the world is one that I want to get behind. 

The problem is that TOMORROWLAND is 100% surface-level. It hammers home what's on its mind in excruciating detail, in the most unsubtle, on-the-nose way possible. There's almost zero subtext here - the film is heavy-handed and, I'm sorry to say, pretentious. It too often feels like watching a college freshman's essay on everything I said in my opening paragraph play out in movie-form, unedited and unfiltered. And I hate to say it, but this sort of thing has, by now, become a recognizable trademark of screenwriter Damon Lindelof. We saw it with the final season of Lost, we saw it with his follow-up series The Leftovers, we saw it with his scripts for Prometheus and Star Trek: Into Darkness. By now, a sci-fi script from Lindelof follows a clear structural pattern: 

a.) The premise of the film is introduced in a vague, mysterious (some might use the term "mystery box") manner. Even though there's nothing inherent to the plot that demands it be presented as a mystery. Everyman characters are introduced who are thrust into a situation they don't understand.

b.) The main characters ask a bunch of questions trying to solve the mystery, probably because they've met an all-knowing character (of mysterious origins) who soundly refuses to answer any of their questions. Repeat ad nauseum.

c.) The mystery is built up over such a prolonged period that whatever the "answer" is, it can't possibly live up to our expectations. Suffice it to say, the "answers" are revealed far too late in the story, and ultimately prove vague and unsatisfying. 

d.) This leads to both the creators and some ardent fans claiming that the story was never *about* the mystery, even though the vast majority of the movie/TV show was spent setting up said mystery. Since so much time was spent on mysteries, unanswerable questions, sketchily-defined mythology, etc. - this means that the endgame will undoubtedly contain either huge info-dumps or very hasty character reveals. 

TOMORROWLAND is incredibly Lindelof-y in just about every way possible. It's frustrating, because I think Lindelof does have a knack for stories that do a fantastic job of setting up their own premise and that create an intriguing sandbox. But seeing this movie only a week after the bar-setting Mad Max: Fury Road, it was hard to stomach TOMORROWLAND's contrivances. Fury Road so elegantly set up a rich fantasy world, told a powerful story, and layered its action and characters with thematic depth. But TOMORROWLAND is both a structural mess and thematically confused. Let me try to explain.

Okay, so here's the first thing about TOMORROWLAND. It's ostensibly about a bright, utopian vision of the future. Its premise involves an enlightened society created by scientists, visionaries, and dreamers - a real-life Tomorrowland - hidden away in another dimension, full of wondrous inventions and general awesomeness. But TOMORROWLAND, the movie, is actually pretty dark. We barely glimpse the movie's fictional Tomorrowland, at all, throughout the movie's entire run-time. Our main character, Casey (a really great Britt Robertson), is a teen girl who lives in a bleak, perpetually grey world - our world, America, 2015. She spends her time finding ways to foil the shutdown of various NASA locations - because in our dark and gloomy world, there's no place for a space program. Most of the movie takes place right here, in our world. So imagine The Wizard of Oz, except you actually see Oz for about ten minutes, and the rest takes place in black-and-white Kansas. We don't meet any of the dreamers who founded Tomorrowland or who eventually populated Tomorrowland. The only real remnant of Tomorrowland that we do spend time with is George Clooney's Frank Walker, who for 95% of the film is an insufferable grump. I meant it when I said this movie has structural problems. It spends so long on the "mystery" of the movie that it pretty much never gives us the good stuff - namely, the thing that's in the movie's title. It's why, despite the movie's final message of hope and optimism, I found it to be, in actuality, a pretty cynical-seeming film. By spending so much time showing us how much *our* world sucks, TOMORROWLAND actually undercuts its own intended message, and is dominated by a bleak tone that's contrary to what the movie actually seems to *want* to convey.

A lot of the issues here come back to the structure of the film having major problems. The movie starts and ends with an expository wraparound that feels completely extraneous - not a great sign. Then, the movie opens - for reals this time - with a very over-long prologue showing a young Frank first discovering the secret of Tomorrowland, after a detour at the 1964 World's Fair. Then we meet Casey, and a mysterious girl named Athena who's recruited Casey for a special mission. Early on, we get glimpses of Tomorrowland, when Casey finds a pin that, when touched, shows visions of the otherdimensional utopia in its space-age prime. But mostly, we get a road trip movie - following the mismatched trio of Casey, middle-aged Frank, and Athena - trying to get back to Tomorrowland while on the run from mysterious pursuers. Why are they being pursued? Why do they have to go back to Tomorrowland? Why did Frank leave in the first place after discovering it as a boy? What's up with Athena? All of these questions are dealt with (or not dealt with, to be precise), in an endless string of non-conversations that see Casey asking a bunch of questions, Frank doing the grumpy, I-just-want-to-be-left-alone, but oh-wait-I'm-actually-a-good-dude schtick, and Athena playing the Obi Wan role. This all leads to an eye-rolling third-act scene in which Hugh Laurie, as the ominously-named uber-villain Nix, monologues the entire plot, premise, and themes of the film after about two hours of "mystery box" storytelling. It's the info-dump to end all info-dumps. But what's worse, it's not just an info-dump, but as I said (to borrow a phrase I've seen in some other reviews), it's a theme-bomb. Hugh Laurie spells out, in no uncertain terms, exactly what the movie is about. 

It's a shame that Tomorrowland itself isn't more prevalent in the film. When we do see it in full - in the prologue and later via Casey's pin - it's pretty spectacular. And this brings me to director Brad Bird. Like many, I'm a big fan of Bird and think he's a pretty incredible (no pun intended) visual stylist. So it's no surprise that TOMORROWLAND is at its strongest when Bird has the opportunity to really let loose and go big. In particular, Casey's first full-on foray into Tomorrowland sticks out to me as a highlight, and as a demonstration of the promise of the film's premise. Brad's vision of Tomorrowland is a sugar-high realization of that utopian world that Disney promised us way back when: gleaming spires, jet-pack stations, hovering monorails, cascading fountains, space-age design, colorfully-clad citizens. It's a place buzzing with visual marvel and eye-popping innovation. Brad gives us a hyper-speed tour of Tomorrowland in a dazzling sequence, and it's worth the price of admission just to see this on the big-screen.

The film's other most dazzling effect is actually the fantastic performance of young Raffey Cassidy as Athena. I don't want to spoil too much about her character, but Cassidy is 100% believable as a girl who is older and wiser than she looks, and who is uber-competent and capable yet also supremely charming. Cassidy quite frankly steals the show as Athena. As mentioned, Britt Robertson is also a standout. Bird and Lindelof (and co-writer Jeff Jensen, of Entertainment Weekly) clearly wanted to make her a young-adult heroine in the Spielbergian mold. Single-parent household, precocious younger sibling (ironically played by Pierce Gagnon - who played a robotic boy on the TV show Extant), NASA hat that she has at all times, handy with technology? Check, check, check, and check. But hey, I'm a sucker for Spielberg kid-protagonists, and Robertson is great in the role - carrying a lot of the weight of the movie on her shoulders. 

But here's the other thing - and again, it's a question of weird structural issues: Robertson's Casey very quickly becomes a largely passive hero. And by the film's end, she's completely sidelined. It's indicative of how broken the movie's entire third act really is. But it's also a shame, because Casey is really who we're set up to root for the entire film. Not only that, but over and over, we're told (flat-out told) that she is special. She is "the one" who will save Tomorrowland from Nix. But other than just being generally plucky and idealistic, Casey is never given the chance to really do much of anything to live up to that claim. Meanwhile, Clooney's Frank hogs a lot of her spotlight, but his character's arc feels entirely forced. Because Frank's backstory is kept a mystery for so much of the film, his late-game about-face from grumpy cynic to world-saving hero is pretty unsatisfying, and feels unearned. Chalk up some of it to Clooney being miscast. The guy gives great intensity, but whimsey isn't really his strong suit. I kept thinking what a Tom Hanks or the late Robin Williams could have done with this role. Clooney doesn't seem well-suited to portray a guy who rediscovers his inner-dreamer. But the script also doesn't do him any favors. 

Clooney's oddly-intense performance also speaks to the general tonal weirdness of the movie. Like I said, much of the film feels oddly bleak for a story that espouses the virtues of utopianism. It really could have used some fun characters to make this feel like more of the swashbuckling, Spielbergian sci-fi adventure movie that it at times wants to be. It almost seems like Brad Bird is grasping at straws to mine whatever Spielberg-esque moments of real fun and adventure that he can from the dour script. That gives us moments like Casey's action-filled encounter with two over-the-top badguys (played by Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn) who run a sci-fi nostalgia shop, Blast From the Past. Or her and Frank's daring escape from Frank's tricked-out house, as they face off with creepily-fun robotic adversaries. Both of these set-piece action sequences are fun as hell, and Brad Bird totally nails 'em. But the fun and humor of those scenes feel like they belong in some other, better movie. And both happen early on in the film. Ultimately, that sense of fun and adventure becomes drowned out by the script's dourness and pop-psychology preachiness. At its highest points, TOMORROWLAND is a rip-roaring, nostalgia-tinged adventure that feels like a mash-up of the best live-action Disney and Amblin films of the 80's. Which makes it all the more frustrating that so much of the film is a heavy-handed slog.

I've seen some people who enjoyed TOMORROWLAND lash out at those who didn't - the haters, it would seem, are in fact the same sorts of doom n' gloom naysayers that the movie lambasts. But that generalization is unfair. I love the *idea* of TOMORROWLAND, and I wholeheartedly dig the message espoused at the film's end - a sort of call to action for we as a a society to dream big and work together for a better future. I can get behind that. And certainly, I've long been inspired by the Disney version of the future, even once it resigned itself to merely being the future that never was. I mean, there's a vintage Tomorrowland travel poster hanging above my desk as I write this. But a nice message doesn't automatically make for a good movie. And this is a movie that repeatedly undercuts its inherent possibilities, by dwelling too much on all the things that it *didn't* actually need in the text. All the mystery-box stuff. All the heavy-handed thematic reinforcement. They ultimately seem to just get in the way of telling a good story that fully delivers on the movie's premise. The result is a film that actually feels cynically-made, in contrast to its purported message. 

So for now, at least, the best way to feel the magic inherent in the idea of Tomorrowland is still, I think, to go to the theme parks. There, the nostalgia-tinged, retro-cool vision of the future that Walt Disney and others envisioned can still be experienced firsthand, without all the other baggage that the movie brings to the table. And if it upsets you that the film's vision of a future run by idealists and dreamers is somehow being marred by critical reviews, I say take comfort in the fact that us dreamers and idealists will still be here dreamin'. One movie's quality isn't going to change that.

My Grade: C+

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