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Film Review | Tomorrowland

Disney's nostalgic foray into utopian science-fiction is a brisk, adventurous breath of fresh air in a box office landscape choked by now-compulsory layers of grit.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
9 June 2015, 8:30am
Casey in the Rye: Britt Robertson in Brad Bird's Tomorrowland
Casey in the Rye: Britt Robertson in Brad Bird's Tomorrowland
We’ve always dreamed of living in a better place. Be it a slightly more upmarket flat or pining for the pearly gates promised to believers, the thought that the grass is greener on the other side is firmly inculcated in the popular unconscious, no matter which ‘side’ we may be talking about.

As it is wont to do, pop culture also latched onto this historically persistent obsession. Literature, cartoons and movies have often driven us to depict utopian vision of the kind of culture and society we would wish to live in. From the oft-distilled legends of Atlantis to Jules Verne’s journeys to the centre of the earth and 20,000 leagues under the sea, we’ve delighted in creating and consuming far-flung and exotic worlds for a long, long time.

Whatever the reason for this – I’ll leave it to the anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists to figure that one out – it’s a genre that has not, actually, had terribly good pop culture traction of late. Post-Dark Knight and the HBO TV revolution, we seem to favour grit and tragedy over sprightly derring-do.

Leaving Avatar to one side, it’s telling that the adaptation of John Carter – based on a series of sci-fi pulp novels by Verne’s erstwhile American counterpart and successor, Edgar Rice Burroughs – was a huge failure for Pixar that left critics befuddled. The film may not have been perfect, but it also felt like a victim of the times.

But now, another Pixar alumnus has taken the plunge into similar territory. Fresh off the appropriately plucky Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird (The Incredibles) returns to the Mouse House with a project that is much closer to home (the mouse home, that is).

Sadly, Tomorrowland has failed to buck the trend against hopeful tales of exploration and adventure. While it didn’t do terribly at the box office, it failed to meet financial expectations (of course, the richly layered CGI world it inhabits for most of its running time isn’t exactly cheap, either).

But then again, utopian visions and financial compromises don’t exactly make for great bedfellows, do they?

Optimistic and intelligent young teenager Casey (Britt Robertson) will not cease to believe in a better world and in mankind’s ability to conjure up technological wonders. Evidence to the contrary comes hard and fast though – both from her doom-mongering teachers in school, and by the fact that her NASA engineer dad may be out of a job soon, given how the authorities have decided to dismantle a nearby base due to lack of research interest in space exploration.

During one of her routine trips to the site – where she engages in petty acts of terrorism in a feeble attempt to stall the base’s relocation – Casey is spotted by an enigmatic and preternaturally resourceful young girl, Athena (Raffery Cassidy), who sneaks a mysterious pin among Casey’s belonging.

 

When touched, the pin transports Casey into a parallel world. Surrounded by pristine fields of wheat, the place appears to house a hyper-advanced research society built solely for the purposes of the betterment of the planet, unblemished by malice or greed.

But after she learns that this world may be coming under threat, Casey becomes determined to seek out Frank Walker (George Clooney) – a founding member of ‘Tomorrowland’ who has grown into a bitter outcast from the world he’s helped create.

An early sequence – seen through the eyes of a young Frank – establishes the powerful, and always nostalgic, draw of a place like Tomorrowland. For the modern viewer, this is a beguiling paradox: a vision of the future first etched in the 1950s, which remains appealing to this day. Bird is fully aware of this – ensuring that this Flash Gordon/Jetsons world is framed within a larger ‘mundane’ equivalent of subsequent pop culture products and technologies like mobile phones.

(Being a Disney feature, it’s unsettling to be reminded to what extent copyright is never, ever an issue: remember that, apart from having ransom over our childhood silver screen memories, Disney now own Marvel too, and a particularly thrilling sequence exploits the right to gleeful geek-referencing to full effect.)

Bird and his team have clearly delighted in concocting a universe propped up by chords of the most intimate childhood familiarity. Despite it being an all-ages tentpole blockbuster that would by its very nature resist anything even resembling a personal touch, Bird and his co-screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) clearly happen to be personally invested in the profitable literary and filmic artifacts at play here, which ensures there’s a heart beating behind the layers of artifice.

And even at its most indulgent, it is infectious, channeling something of the honeyed glow that Martin Scorcese’s Hugo had – particularly in the steampunky sequence in Paris.

The urgency of the plot is quite contrived, however, with cookie-cutter robotic henchmen appearing out of the blue at random – and only half-heartedly explained-away – intervals to speed things along and inject some threat into the goggle-eyed awe that the entire project uses as fuel. Even Hugh Laurie’s arch-villain feels like a last-minute addition, which is a shame as he comes with an intriguing and timely philosophy that clearly deserved more screen time (this kind of narrative lop-sidedness is typical of Lindelof).

But what it lacks in its whole it makes up for in the sum of its parts, and there’s not one individual sequence that is not lovingly crafted, and that doesn’t supply the thrills.

If the world were indeed a better place, this would have been a box office smash.  

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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