‘Tomorrowland’ is a mess with its heart in the right place
“Tomorrowland” is a very easy movie to like ... just not at first. It opens with a frame story about a flashback that jumps to a prologue in another flashback. Confused? Exactly.
It’s easy enough to follow, but inside of five minutes, the film is attempting moments of grandeur it hasn’t earned. The music booms as the visuals loom and no one’s really communicated why exactly it should all matter yet. This undermines one of the film’s biggest reveals -- the city of Tomorrowland. Moreover, it undermines the central mystery at the film’s core. How does one get there?
Casey (Britt Robertson) is the daughter of a NASA scientist. With the manned space program decommissioned, the only job her dad can find is dismantling the shuttle launch platform. That proves difficult since Casey breaks onto government property and sabotages the cranes every few nights. She wants to go to space one day and hates what the program’s dismantling represents.
One day, a little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) slips a pin into her bag. When Casey touches the pin, she finds herself in a futuristic city of astounding technological innovation. The pin’s power only lasts so long, and she sets out to find anyone connected with it. She has to get there. Eventually, this will lead her to a discontented loner who’s been banished from Tomorrowland -- Frank (George Clooney).
“Tomorrowland” is extraordinarily uneven, but what makes it all work is the unparalleled star power of one of the film’s leads. No, not Clooney. He’s fine in the role of Frank, but this is Britt Robertson’s showcase and she is exceptional. As Casey, she is the quintessential Disney hero for this generation. She’s technologically savvy. She’s good-natured but she doubts the validity of the authority figures who got us into this mess. She’s driven to chase ideals and stand up for them before standing up for herself.
Raffey Cassidy also evokes a lot of empathy as Athena, the mysterious little girl leading Casey closer and closer to Frank. It’s a deceptively difficult supporting role to pull off for reasons I won’t spoil, but the 11 year-old all but steals the film, relegating Clooney to third wheel. She’s also the action hero of the trio, an unexpected decision that works very well. Director Brad Bird fails her a little by making the action a touch too cartoonish, drawing from the director’s “The Incredibles” more than his “Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol.”
In live action, the CG dips into uncanny valley territory -- the area where things look and act human, but don’t quite mesh with our expectations. “Tomorrowland” feels pressure to deliver on incredible sights, but it comes up short. It feels too self-conscious and its most interesting elements are distant CG backdrops instead of real sets. “Tomorrowland” had a budget of $190 million. I have no idea where that all went. It’s a testament to the actors and the film’s central concepts that it’s all pulled off cogently. I wonder at the far more brilliant movie that might’ve been made on a third of the budget, forcing Bird to be more inventive with his sets and storytelling and less extravagant on CG wallpaper.
“Tomorrowland” is a mess, but in the end it’s a mess with heart to spare. It’s most successful because what it has to say matters. It points the finger squarely at the audience. As the world falls apart around us, it says, rather than look to the stars and dream and invent, we embrace the end of the world as an inevitability. Why? Because this demands less of us. It means we don’t have to lift a finger to fix things today. Changing things and making the world better requires a great deal of work and effort. It’s easier to lose the dream and forget you ever had it than it is to chase after it until exhaustion, and then chase after it some more. “Tomorrowland” asks that if we aren’t willing to do that anymore, why are we even here? Luckily, our hero’s a dreamer. I only wonder if the audience will take after her.
This is a movie made for a specific generation at a specific moment in time, and that counts for something. If you can manage the messy prologue, you’ve got a fairly light but enjoyable (and important) movie in front of you. Not everyone’s looking for the same thing in a movie every weekend. “Tomorrowland” isn’t the best movie in theaters right now by a long shot, but it is the most inspiring.
Two-and-a-half stars out of four. “Tomorrowland” is rated PG for violence, themes, and language. I’m nitpicking, but it’s really more of a PG-13. Human-looking robots getting decapitated -- even if there are sparks and wires showing -- may frighten very young viewers.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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