Friday, June 5, 2015
When the end credits for "Tomorrowland" started to roll, a kid sitting in the row in front of me was cheering enthusiastically. As I walked from the theater to my car, I was thinking about all the little problems I had with the film: the forced didactic speech given by Hugh Laurie in the final act, the shameless Disney self-promotion, the weird/creepy relationship between George Clooney and a robot that has the body of a pre-teen girl. But, before these thoughts started to take control over my brain, I remembered that kid that sat in front of me and I realized that he was more correct than I was. "Tomorrowland," in the purest sense, is top-notch entertainment. For a large portion of its runtime, I was totally along for the ride. I was hooked. And while it definitely had all those aforementioned problems I listed, none of those issues could completely get in the way of the fact that "Tomorrowland" is kind of a blast.
An incredibly bright, yet mischievous teenage girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) gets caught messing with wires at a NASA launch pad that's on the verge of being shut down. After her release from the police, she gets all of her stuff back. But there is one tiny item included, which appears to be a pin, that she thinks does not belong to her. Before she can get an officer's attention, she touches the pin and gets transported into another dimension. A dimension where Tomorrowland exists.
This sets off a series of events that eventually leads her to Frank Walker (George Clooney), who was also very bright and precocious when he was younger. But now he's bitter, grizzled, and has way too much knowledge about the world we live in to have any sense of optimism in his heart. Very reluctant to help Casey at first, he soon realizes that she may be the key to stopping the planet's inevitable doom. But stopping that doom means visiting Tomorrowland and getting through Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie) who controls this otherworldly city.
Those are the basic facts about the film that you need. In lesser hands and with lesser actors, this movie could wind up either being too cheesy or it could take itself way too seriously. Luckily, with Brad Bird at the helm along with strong performances from George Clooney and a talented up-and-comer in Britt Robertson, "Tomorrowland" manages to find a sweet spot that kind of gave me a "Back to the Future" vibe though with a story that's a little bit messier and less focused than the 1985 classic.
"Tomorrowland" is far from entering classic status, which can be explained by its decidedly mixed critical reviews. And sure, it's easy to get hung up on the film's problems. Despite how fun it can be, the movie often fails to give its audience the benefit of the doubt. Too often, there are shots and lines of dialogue that give away information that we can easily infer by ourselves. The beginning of the film, we see George Clooney's character as a kid as he first encounters Tomorrowland at the 1964 World's Fair (with an older Clooney, who you see in the movie's opening minutes, narrating). Later on, we meet up with a much older Frank Walker. And despite the fact that we have already seen present-day Frank in the beginning of the film, we still see a shot of young Frank Walker that's meant to clue us in that it's the same character. That is just one example, of many, where the movie feels it needs to hold our hand as it tells its "complicated" story (which really isn't complicated at all, of course).
The movie also threatens to go completely off rails during its final act when we catch up with Governor Nix. Hugh Laurie, who most adults know as Dr. House, unfortunately isn't given much to work with playing this mildly villainous character, who really appears to be more misguided than legitimately evil. It's Nix's idea to plant negative thoughts into everyone's heads on Earth so that they can destroy themselves. He feels that people have become less and less enthused and more afraid of the future and so he's decided to feed into their fear instead of finding a way to implant hope into their heads, which promises to lead to Earth's extinction.
The whole crux of the movie, the plot point which is meant to solve all the problems, is simply to get people to think in a more optimistic light. It takes the whole course of the movie for the main character to realize, to use a metaphor, that if they just unplug the cord and plug it back in, they can save the world. That's pretty much what their bright idea consists of and yet it takes them way too long to figure this out.
Really, the movie's plot is really goofy and is based on a false notion that, one day, we all thought the future was filled with promise. This is patently untrue and can be proven in several different ways. George Orwell wasn't just having a laugh when he wrote 1984, after all. This all stems from the fact that "Tomorrowland" is based off a section of Disneyland/Magic Kingdom theme park. I'm not one to judge where writers get their inspiration from, but like Disney often does, the movie amounts to a very weird sugar-coating of the past and its incredibly simplistic solution to fix the future just feels... well, simplistic. "Tomorrowland" is basically a 130-minute version of the Carousel of Progress ride that can be found at Magic Kingdom. It's a very Disney-fied version of our past, present, and future. Take that as you will.
The preceding couple of paragraphs, however, is my present 27-year-old self letting all the problems of "Tomorrowland" creep into my brain. If I was 12, I probably would've loved this film because its energy is infectious, it's not afraid of getting silly, and there is genuine wonder and awe to some of its ideas, set-pieces, and effects. I knew I couldn't hate on this film once Keegan Michael-Key appeared and got himself stuck while walking through a door. And then when he turned into a robot? Hell yeah, I can get with that.
There are many genuinely humorous moments in the film as Brad Bird allowed (most of) these actors to have fun with their characters. Despite George Clooney anchoring this film, a good portion of this film centers around Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy's characters. Raffey Cassidy plays the droid, Athena, I mentioned her character early in this review when I was referring to her relationship with Frank Walker. Yes, the droid is built inside an adolescent girl's frame and has an English accent. Cassidy, who was only 12 when this was shot, does a terrific job balancing those two different aspects to her character. It's a very tricky part to pull off as, in many respects, she comes off as this cute pre-teen girl, but she also manages to look like a badass when necessary. And she plays her badassness with such nonchalance, I was definitely charmed.
Britt Robertson, who's been around for awhile (in fact, I said her character was a teenager, but that's never made 100% clear, she could be a little older than that), but this is really her breakout role. Robertson has a very expressive face which really adds a lot of texture to her performance. She was given the thankless task of acting opposite George Clooney and yet she is with him word for word.
Clooney, meanwhile, well... he's George Clooney. And we simply do not see Clooney take on big mainstream roles like this anymore, even though he instantly adds credibility to almost every movie he's in. He'd actually be a vital addition to pretty much any blockbuster film, as evidenced by his brief, but memorable supporting role in "Gravity." And lest we forget his recurring role as Danny Ocean in Soderbergh's "Ocean's" trilogy. He's never high or low. He's just solid and reliable. He's got an abundance of charisma, which makes him so easy to watch no matter what he does. This is true even when he's in a bad movie (like "Monuments Men"). The combination of supremely talented young actresses and George Clooney is just a winning formula and that's the main reason why I came away from "Tomorrowland" with a very positive feeling.
So, yes, the plot doesn't exactly live up to the promising premise. The movie is a little too heavy on unnecessary exposition. The third act, or really the scenes featuring Hugh Laurie, are pretty much a bust. The relationship explored between Athena and Frank Walker, despite having some surprisingly touching moments, is not explored enough to be emotionally satisfactory. But when you got a master craftsman like Brad Bird at the helm with three incredibly charismatic actors who are equally fun to watch, it's very easy to forgive its shortcomings. Again, I know I would've loved this movie as a kid, and if you can find the kid inside you, I bet you'll find much to enjoy about this film as well.