D: Brad Bird / 130m
Cast: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Matthew MacCaull
At the 1964 World’s Fair, a boy named Frank Walker (Robinson) takes his latest invention, a jet pack, to the science tent in the hopes of winning a $50 prize. But as his jet pack doesn’t actually work properly, the presiding judge, David Nix (Laurie), tells him to come back when it does. As he leaves he’s approached by a young girl called Athena (Cassidy), who gives him a pin with a bright blue T on it, and tells him to follow her when she gets on one of the rides. When he does he finds himself transported to a strange futuristic world where there are tall, shining buildings, trains and vehicles that travel on air, and a launch site for spaceships. There, his jet pack is adjusted to work properly and he’s accepted as a member of Tomorrowland, a world where the brightest and the best – the geniuses of Earth – have gone to create a utopian world devoid of war, social inequality, famine, natural disasters and greed.
Fifty years later, teenager Casey Newton (Robertson) lives near Cape Canaveral with her dad, Eddie (McGraw), and younger brother Nate (Gagnon). Eddie is an engineer working for NASA, and helping to dismantle the nearby Apollo launch site. Casey “knows how things work”, but is using her skills to delay the site’s demolition. When she’s caught and arrested, she finds a pin with a bright blue T on it in amongst her belongings when she’s released. She touches it and is immediately transported to a wheat field where, in the distance, is a city of tall gleaming spires. She drops the pin and is back in her own world. Unable to convince her father that the pin is special, she looks for information about it online, and learns that there is a store in Texas that will buy them.
She travels there but the store owners, Ursula (Hahn) and Hugo (Key), try to take the pin from her by force. Casey is rescued by Athena, who doesn’t look a day older than when she met Frank. Athena explains a little about Tomorrowland but not enough to fully satisfy Casey’s questions. They travel to a remote farmhouse where Casey is left to meet the owner, a now older Frank Walker (Clooney). When agents from Tomorrowland arrive and try to abduct Casey, Frank and Casey manage to escape, and both are reunited with Athena. From there they head for Paris and the Eiffel Tower, which, aside from being a national monument, is also the launch site for a hidden rocket ship. The ship takes them to Tomorrowland, but when they arrive, the trio find it in ruins, and Nix in charge of everything. And it becomes very clear that our world is on the brink of complete destruction, unless Casey can “fix” it, something that Nix doesn’t want her to do…
The movie that Bird passed on directing Star Wars Episode VII for, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond arrives with no small amount of hype attached to it, and an appropriately high level of anticipation. And up until we meet Casey it’s exactly the movie we’ve been expecting: a richly detailed, nostalgic look back at a time when the future seemed brighter than ever, and technological miracles were being produced that were poised to make our lives all the better. There’s a wistfulness about these early scenes, and a joy in the discovery of Tomorrowland that is infectious and intoxicating, and Bird and his co-writer Damon Lindelof give us an unforgettable introduction to the unforgettable world they’ve created.
And then it all goes horribly wrong. In placing our world in peril, but with the solution located in Tomorrowland, Bird and Lindelof have managed to come up with one of the murkiest, most unconvincing – or clearly explained – storylines in recent years. So much happens that doesn’t make sense, and so much happens that isn’t followed through, that the movie becomes unwieldy and bogged down by too many scenes that fail to advance the plot or deepen the characters. It’s like being given a box of assorted chocolates, only to find that they all have the same centre. For a movie that touches on so many different aspects and themes – nostalgia, individualism, collectivism, fate, unfulfilled love, the benefits of technology, looking to the future, nihilism, hope, manifest destiny – it develops not into a thrilling adventure that matches the joie de vivre of its opening section, but a tired, downbeat, dystopian odyssey that squeezes the life out of its characters and its plot.
What this leads to is an impending worldwide catastrophe that you just can’t care about, and if filmmakers of the calibre of Bird and Clooney can’t make an audience care about the end of the world then there’s definitely something wrong (although, ironically, the idea fits neatly with Nix’s disparaging remarks about everyone else on Earth). It’s as if the initial idea was settled on, but fleshing it out proved too difficult, so any way the story could be continued was seized upon and no further development took place. There’s no tension, an abstract sense of impending doom, and too much reliance on Athena to bail out Frank and Casey when they get in trouble.
The cast struggle gamely with characters who lack shading and depth, though Cassidy is a minor revelation as Athena, her poise and command of her dialogue helping her performance immeasurably (and showing the others how it should be done). Hahn and Key provide some much needed respite (though too early on) from the drudgery, and Robinson is so cute he shouldn’t be allowed. But it’s still not enough to offset the awkward miscalculations made by Messrs. Bird and Lindelof, and the strangely disaffected tone the movie adopts when it returns to Tomorrowland. However, the movie does have a wonderful sheen to it, Claudio Miranda’s cinematography proving an exquisite treat, his mix of light and colour at the World’s Fair being particularly gratifying. If only as much attention had gone into the script.
Rating: 5/10 – with just enough on display to keep it from being a complete disappointment, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond starts out fresh and engaging and ends like a lame athlete finally crossing the finishing line; Bird directs as if he were absent from the set, and it all has the air of a movie that “will just do for now”.