DREDGE OF TOMORROW
“Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” asks George Clooney’s Frank Walker at one pivotal moment in Tomorrowland (or to give it its legally obligated European title, Disney Tomorrowland: A World Beyond). This seems to be the question not only asked by writer/producer Damon Lindelof of this particular film’s audience, but of anyone who’s ever watched anything he’s ever worked on. The pitch is always exciting, enticing and promising. The cast, the crew, the composer: perfect. The finished product: an empty vessel with floating bubbles of philosophical insight, existential fluff and sub-romantic character interaction. It’s unfair to accuse ALL Lindelof’s work of being this way: Lost is one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and his recent HBO drama The Leftovers wrapped up quite nicely thanks to a last-minute, plot-dictated theological simplification. Tomorrowland, however, in which Lindelof joins forces with extraordinary director Brad Bird (possibly the only major director on Earth with a record of 100% brilliant films) and the Walt Disney corporation for a secretive and thematically diverse family mystery, is nothing more nor less than a complete mess of a film.
Considering the track records of both Bird and star Clooney, it was fairly safe to assume that the concept of Tomorrowland– a contemporary exploration of the futuristic ideals developed by Walt Disney in the 1960s- was in safe hands. Sadly, the central magic of Disney’s world- the magic captured in the majority of the studio’s films made during his lifetime- is lost within minutes of Bird’s film as the “contemporary” knocks the nostalgia into the sea and we are treated to 2 hours of brightly-coloured technology porn, nods to the purposefulness of military overspending and a child-friendly version of Atlas Shrugged‘s theories of “The Superior Few”- the thinkers, the artists, the dreamers- who could gather to change the world’s future for the better. This film’s answer to saving humanity? Spending lots of money on finding and encouraging scientific innovation for the sole reason of “inspiring the masses”. Hmmmm. Clooney, an actor who has campaigned for action on human rights and the eradication of poverty for years, doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who follows ideas of “peace through wonder”.
But, hey! We shouldn’t be questioning Lindelof and his basket of magic philosophy! Remember what Frank said: “Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” And, for a brief while, Bird and gang do amaze us. Most of the early money shots have sadly been shown in trailers, but they are quite magnificent. The highlight of the film comes as Britt Robertson’s young heroine Casey Newton first discovers a gateway to the titular Land, and we witness a continuous 6-minute shot of her wandering around this magnificent heaven of physics accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s wonder-envoking score (supervised in part by the great Richard M. Sherman). There’s some nice stuff between Casey and her brother (Pierce Gagnon) and father (Tim McGraw), and the opening account of Walker’s visit to the 1964 World’s Fair has an underwhelming but nonetheless present level of Disney magic. This is no Saving Mr. Banks though. Walt himself is never referenced verbally, and the extent to which the corporation’s name is used is hardly noticeable. Bird and Lindelof lied to us. Tomorrowland is not a film about Disney’s dreams; it’s about the dreams of Einstein and Hawking and lots of other scientists whose values and theories clash violently with those of the philosophers Lindelof so reveres. Hence, Lindelof’s legitimate philosophical side is absent wholly from this project, with reverence for questionable, over-patriotic military adoration given preference on screen. It’s at times amusing, at others horrifying. Tomorrowland is a trojan horse along the lines of Kingsman: The Secret Service but in the complete opposite, completely wrong way.
Among the film’s worst VISIBLE aspects are an over-reliance on close-up fighting in place of distant explosive spectacle. Bird clearly acknowledges audiences’ Marvel-induced chaos fatigue (a billboard is shown at one point promoting a fake apocalypse blockbuster), but nobody paid $10 to watch a 10-year old British girl kick a robot in the face while George Clooney clutches a briefcase and shouts “The future! The future! Save the future!” That girl is relative newcomer Raffey Cassidy, who gets possibly the most screentime of any of Tomorrowland‘s stars, and she is truly terrible. Her accent wavers, she mucks up lines with bad timing and her character’s relationship with Adult Frank Walker is both unbearably cheesy and uncomfortably unorthodox. The plot is completely back-loaded, with over 90 minutes of what is arguably set-up before the actual plot (or Tomorrowland) arrives. What is left of a “story” is bundled (perhaps by executives desperate for a short film) into 25 or so minutes, and it’s a real headache to endure. Amidst this awful portion is a pretentious and patronising Hugh Laurie speech about the media’s influence on the public (complete with “common vernacular”; Laurie sneaks in a “bollocks”) and some giant robots with no visible purpose. As we said, this film is a total mess.
Tomorrowland was pushed back from last December, and it’s hard not to think that this was, in part, a response to the dangerously close proximity to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar that release date would have given Bird’s film. Interstellar was a film with true magic, heart and understanding of love. Tomorrowland is, in its attempt to act as both an old-fashioned American adventure and a commentary on the current crisis of apocalypse porn in mainstream culture, a schizophrenic, confused project with no aim and no form. Ideas are thrown at the screen, and the undoubtedly talented filmmakers pray they stick, but as is highlighted by one of the film’s key preachy messages (in addition to one about the necessity of windfarms), “having ideas is hard. Giving up is easy.” Everyone gave up too easy on Tomorrowland, and it’s likely audiences will too.