Western cinema has become fixated on its own destruction. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian futures rule the box office, television screens and novels of America, from The Hunger Games to The Walking Dead, San Andreas to Mad Max: Fury Road. Leave it to director Brad Bird and Walt Disney to fire a shot across the bow of this particular cultural trend, with a massive injection of cinematic hope that is the science fiction/fantasy thriller Tomorrowland. Bird’s creation is a flawed film, but one that possesses a certain charm and ambition that still makes it worth a viewing for the refreshing creativity of the effort.
The script by Bird (Best known for his superb work on The Iron Giant and The Incredibles) and Damon Lindelof (Yes, the Lost and Prometheus writer Damon Lindelof) is a muddled and complicated affair that revolves around invitational pins to a futuristic and wondrous city in another dimension known as “Tomorrowland” given by the young android Athena (marvelously played by Raffey Cassidy). The primary plot concerns the invitation of Casey Newton (the plucky Britt Robertson) to this utopian land where the greatest minds of science, medicine and academia are able to collaborate in peace. Casey is a spunky young girl with a knack for solving mechanical problems who spends her free time sabotaging the government’s efforts to dismantle NASA’s Cape Canaveral launch site, at which her father is employed. To make sense of Casey’s invitational pin, which give her tantalizing, beautiful glimpses of this better world, Casey and Athena must unite with Tomorrowland-exile Frank Walker (George Clooney cast nearly perfectly as the grizzled, disenchanted inventor) to discover where Casey fits into the grander scheme of mysterious happenings surrounding Tomorrowland.
To go further in depth proves nearly impossible in a concise review, and Tomorrowland certainly struggles to juggle the multiple layers of intrigue within its own wildly imaginative tale. The first half of the film, as a result, is wildly uneven. Flashbacks to the 1964 World’s Fair and Walker’s childhood are Disney nostalgia at its finest, and the introductions to Tomorrowland for both Walker and Casey are wildly energetic and gorgeously realized. But the film struggles against itself when anchored in the real world. Tonally, this first act of Tomorrowland is clumsy, often jarring. For example, a scene in which the android Athena is hit by a car seems intended for laughs, but the effect is instead rather disturbing (watching a young girl’s body go flying rag-doll style, even with the knowledge that she isn’t actually a child, is enough to rattle even the most hardened of viewers). Another brief sequence at a nerd store run by two shop-owners, played by Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn, is decidedly unfunny and serves seemingly little purpose other than as an opportunity for Disney to show off its newly-obtained Star Wars licensing rights (the product placement here is sickeningly obnoxious). The character interactions between Casey and Athena also feel awkward and jilted, leaving a bad taste in the mouth.
Once Walker enters the scene, however, Tomorrowland mostly rights the ship. Clooney’s presence proves to be the missing ingredient, and the trio of main characters engage in frequent, lively, and engaging banter for the rest of the film. It is at this point that Tomorrowland figures out what its purpose is, and the ride to reach this fabled utopia becomes an enjoyable, focused, family-friendly romp that delves into some intriguing questions regarding cultural narratives. There’s a grand sense of fun to be had here, with one marvelously imaginative sequence revealing that the Eiffel Tower is in fact a launch-pad for spaceships. The plot also critiques society’s fascination with bleak, hopeless futures in intriguing ways. Many reviewers have protested that the villainous twist at the end was a bit of a letdown, and while yes, the actual engagement may leave something lacking (particularly post-Fury Road), the danger posed to and by Tomorrowland is a surprisingly thoughtful and insightful twist on the “save the world” trope so prevalent in blockbusters. One character even makes the claim that apocalyptic stories are the easiest and laziest ones to tell and embrace because they demand nothing of us. Blunt and heavy-handed? Possibly. But timely and thought-provoking? Most certainly.
Some may find the bizarre and awkward bits of Tomorrowland a bit too unwieldy, and understandably so. The pseudo-romantic history between Clooney’s character and the android Athena, created to remain young, may weird out those not used to the more unsettling implications of the science fiction genre’s explorations of human/robot relationships. On top of that, the jarring shifts in quality in the opening act may prove a bit too off-putting as well. But for those willing to bear out the awkward first half, a wildly imaginative thrill-ride awaits once the film hits its stride. Tomorrowland is flawed, but in daring to take on the Goliath franchises of the summer months, it’s hard not to admire the pluck of this imaginative story. While it may not topple the giants of apocalyptic storytelling, its bold and often charming assertion that such stories only serve a good and noble purpose when inspiring viewers and readers to actually seek to change the world for the better should give thoughtful film-goers a chance not only to enjoy themselves, but also to reflect on the formative influence of the cultural narratives they consume.