Tomorrowland A World Beyond

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Brad Bird

Starring

Brit Robertson George Clooney

Anticipation.

Brad Bird Disney blockbuster has been shrouded in secrecy.

Enjoyment.

A rare blockbuster which runs off of ideas rather than pure adrenaline.

In Retrospect.

Britt Robertson is marvellous, and makes a delightful match for a cantankerous Clooney.

Brad Bird’s sparkling sci-fi blockbuster is powered by big ideas and wide-eyed inquiry.

Films which feign anguish for the precarious future of the planet often sap from festering liberal guilt in order to deliver a message of saccharine-slathered hope. It’s a cinematic no-brainer: softly remind audiences of their impending mortality, and then fire balmy solace at the screen to assure that humanity will find a way, cue American eagle soaring, triumphant brass fanfare, single tear, and scene.

Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland A World Beyond is a movie which cares/dares to ponder whether images of the apocalypse have become ingrained in the collective psyche to such an extent that they now offer a kind of normalised spectacle. Worse, that exotic visions of the ultimate destruction of the planet – modern event cinema’s most sturdy crutch – have become careworn and clichéd. When the end does arrive, it probably won’t be in the way we expect it. A floundering whimper rather than a stupendous bang.

In line with its radical remit, Tomorrowland doesn’t really have an antagonist, nor does it deal in any conventional sense of peril. It employs the iconic imagery of the classic disaster movie, such as countdown clocks and the grizzled old lag harried out of retirement for One Last Job, but it’s more interested in blockbuster self-analysis – looking back to the point where the trusty family blockbuster up and skipped the tracks.

Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof have made a movie about movies, questioning their function, perusing their politics, attempting to contextualise their value – if any – within wider society. The black pearl of its tenacious enquiry, though, is discovering what inspires and catalyses people to do things that might possibly alter the course of the world. Furthermore, it ponders whether that illusive motivational spark burned brighter in, say, the ’60s than it does now. With its retro-futurist design, can-do, Brylcreem-glazed spirit and let’s-go-on-an-adventure streak of lost innocence, Bird has made a movie which ends up being the very expression of its own ingrained themes.

An early sequence takes place at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Pre-teen science bod Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) arrives with a rocket pack built from busted vacuum cleaner parts. He hopes to impress surly judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie) enough that he would consider parting with the $50 prize pot. Nix asks Walker to explain the function of his rocket pack, to which he responds that if someone sees another person flying with a rocket pack, they too may be emboldened to think outside the strictures of the mundane. The contraption doesn’t quite function fully (a little like Tomorrowland, if we’re being honest), yet with a quick tinker and a dash of courage, it (and the movie) end up working like a dream.

The star of the show – and likely star of many other shows in the not-to-distant future – is the actor Britt Robertson, plucked from relative TV obscurity and saddled with the weigh of a blockbuster on her spindly shoulders. She owns this movie, pure comic charisma with the face and wide-eyed wonder of an ’80s Spielberg heroine. And in yet another example of art imitating life, the story itself sees Robertson’s latchkey brainiac Casey Newton selected by secretive future pioneers to come and join them to build a world which will protect humanity against their own destructive impulses. It’s a cynical view for sure, but the film constantly undercuts anything which might be read as politically or sociologically volatile.

The concept of Tomorrowland itself, populated solely with the best and brightest who have been harvested by trained automaton children, appears to be torn from the pages of Ayn Rand’s controversial Objectivist blueprint, Atlas Shrugged, in which the America’s top industrialists down their tools and abandon their devastated country which is being ruined by an overly interventionist government. Its more likely source of inspiration, though, derives from Disney’s own Epcot Centre, a(nother) futuristic venture aimed at crank-starting the creative minds of private equity into building an enlightened enclave for the societies of tomorrow.

The film treads carefully enough that it never comes across as espousing ideas in which it doesn’t really believe. And that’s not to say it’s politically spineless – on the contrary. It’s rejection of characters who fit the archetype of good and evil means that what its saying translates as richer and more objective that a simple right-wing screed which gives an implicit thumbs up to a Darwinist skimming of elite forces.

In short, there’s a lot of stuff going on in Tomorrowland, though the one thought that really does hit home unequivocally relates to Casey’s night-time dirtbike raids on Cape Canaveral, attempting to prevent its dismantling in the hope that our lust for intergalactic travel will continue. She, and by extension, Bird and Lindelof, lament the death of the mad scientist who’s bestowed with vast resources to follow any and all creative whims. The film asks, “what if a modern blockbuster was made in the way that we thought event movies should look and feel like in the ’60s?” How will we get anything done if people don’t have the resources to dream?

It’s a beautifully directed and designed romp which possibly over-reaches in its final stages. Within the Bird back catalogue, it fits in neatly alongside the nostalgia-hued The Incredibles and The Iron Giant. Indeed, as with his Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Bird makes live action films which possess the zip and restless momentum of digital animation. In its latter stages, an attempt is made to push this broader notion of second-guessing what and how people think about the world to its natural conclusion, though this is admittedly at the expense of a certain fluency to the action. Bird’s sensitivity for place and his spacial awareness remains so keen that this rock-em, sock-em finale doesn’t quite deliver a breathless cherry atop what is a nourishing, decorative and gravity-defying gateaux.

But this is bold, thoughtful and fearless mainstream filmmaking which accepts that there can be more to a popcorn movie than flashing lights, blurting sub-sonic noises and characters whose job is to merely string one crummy action scene to the next. Considering what it’s about, it would become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy if audiences don’t go and see it. We sincerely hope they do.

Published 19 May 2015

Anticipation.

Brad Bird Disney blockbuster has been shrouded in secrecy.

Enjoyment.

A rare blockbuster which runs off of ideas rather than pure adrenaline.

In Retrospect.

Britt Robertson is marvellous, and makes a delightful match for a cantankerous Clooney.

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