For a film that champions idealism and positivity, the future for Disney’s Tomorrowland appears quite bleak. According to early box office figures, it seems set to be a Lone Ranger-level hit for the company (read: not a hit) in the United States, and the marketing for the film showcases, above all else, that no one really had any idea how to sell the film.1 That’s not really a knock against them though, because even in the watching of Tomorrowland it doesn’t give itself to easy categorisation, despite the fact that it boils down to a fairly simplistic message. Brad Bird’s return to Disney after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a made-for-kids thriller that’s something of an unusual merger of ’50s futurism and sleek (if a touch clinical), modern design, a film less concerned with hitting plot points than emotional beats and a rebuke to a film like Interstellar; here Bird and co-screenwriter Damon Lindelof aren’t trying to solve the equation of love, instead they’re trying to replicate the idea of childlike wonder, less through science than the vague notion of human progress.
Though the posters might have you believe this is Clooney’s film, it’s actually one of parallel storylines, as conveyed to us in the stilted fourth-wall breaking opening scene. Clooney plays Frank Walker, a grizzly shut-in whose dour attitude to the evolution of the world is suddenly undercut by an absolutely gorgeous flashback sequence, in which young Frank enters a science competition at the 1964 New York Fair. We learn he was something of a prodigy with machines and technology, and his homemade jetpack (in a throwback to Disney’s fantastic The Rocketeer) catches the eye of a young girl (Raffey Cassidy) who leads him to Tomorrowland, a futuristic city where innovation is everything. At the climax of this miniature narrative, we’re suddenly thrown back into the present, as his co-narrator gets her turn at an introduction. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is an ever-optimistic high school student who has been fixated on the idea of space exploration since childhood; her father is a NASA engineer, and she proves herself pretty adept at fixing machines in an early scene too. Mysteriously she comes into the possession of a small blue and orange pin which, when touched, suddenly transports her into Tomorrowland as well. Once the pin suddenly stops working, she dives headfirst into the mystery of how to get back to Tomorrowland, a journey which leads her to, yep, Frank Walker.
As much as it is an era and location-spanning actioner, Tomorrowland is also one big pastiche of easily accessible reference points. There’s a Close Encounters of the Third Kind aping shot, a narrative element that calls to mind Bird’s own The Iron Giant and, unfortunately, a villainous plot that features a line of dialogue analogous to the oft-parroted ‘violent video games make violent people’. Whilst it is garnering comparisons to J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, primarily because of its perceived debt to Steven Spielberg, it in fact seems more immediately akin to the films of Joe Johnston; the way The Rocketeer would suddenly raise narrative stakes on a dime and pull it off with a wink, Jumanji‘s collapsing of worlds on one another, even Captain America: The First Avenger‘s tongue-in-cheek commitment to the camp aesthetic of ’40s superhero serials. As a film rewritten to namecheck a Disneyland attraction,2 you were always going to have some indulgent navel-gazing, though here it mostly comes in the form of reminding us they now hold the rights to the Star Wars universe, particularly during a fight sequence in a pop culture antiques store.
In this sense, there’s something wholly familiar about Tomorrowland, a comforting throwback big-budget kids films from decades gone by. This sense of familiarity is bolstered by regular Bird and Lindelof collaborator Michael Giacchino, who delivers yet another rousing James Horner-esque score, though perhaps not as striking as his work on Jupiter Ascending earlier this year. Unlike Mila Kunis in Jupiter, though, Britt Robertson knows exactly what film she’s in, making Casey a charming and endearing character whose intelligence and unwavering curiosity sees the film champion the idea of science and engineering being ungendered professions. She even manages to upstage Clooney here, whose work is mostly serviceable, though his handling of romantic regret is immediately affecting. Raffey Cassidy’s performance as Athena, young Frank’s object of affection, is likewise impressive, a gradually hilarious and moving variation on a well-worn character trope.
Damon Lindelof has made a habit of getting thrown under the bus for apparently dodgy screenplay work – he did rewrites for the disastrous Cowboys & Aliens, was part of the team that penned the insufferable Star Trek Into Darkness and, wrote the oft-crucified (but actually great) Alien prequel Prometheus. Outside of that, though, he conjured up the impressively subdued ending for World War Z, led a wonderful testament to narratively ‘winging it’ in Lost3 and recently adapted Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers for HBO, a far cry from his genre-based roots. So much of his more successful writing, in the vein of J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box”, is about setting up mysteries and having that build-up be of significantly greater value than the reveal. So too with Tomorrowland, which is at its best almost untethered to its broader narrative – scenes of Casey trying to work out just how the pin’s teleportation works on a spatial level, a thrilling fight with cartoonish ‘secret service’ agents in Frank’s house that sees them use a battery of imaginative weapons never seen again.
As the film hits its climax, there’s very little that actually makes sense in terms of overarching narrative logic, and the audience is asked to make a pretty big leap of faith regarding the power of relentless optimism as tool for influence. In the grand scheme of Tomorrowland, though, the plot is almost irrelevant. The whole film is a bizarre leap of faith, actually; for a kids’ film the central romance is entirely viewed through the lens painful regret and miscommunication, which somehow manages to see the writers land one of the riskiest and strangest depictions of love Disney has probably ever released. Tomorrowland isn’t exactly a cohesive film, but as a string of entertaining set pieces and surprisingly affecting emotional beats (well, not too surprising, it is Disney after all), it is consistently endearing and oft-captivating. Revel in its goofy splendour.
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