Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nostalgia For The Future: Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland

I wore a NASA t-shirt to a screening of Tomorrowland with no idea of how prescient that choice of clothing would turn out to be. Sure, the film stars Brittany Robertson as the precocious teen-genius daughter of a NASA engineer, and she chases after her dad’s battered NASA ballcap like Indiana Jones by way of Nancy Drew whenever an action sequence snatches it from her head. But unbeknownst to me, our shared affinity for American space agency branding marked me, like Robertson’s character Casey Newton, as a dreamer – and a perfect subsection of Tomorrowland’s target demographic.

The majority of that particular pie chart is colour-coded for children, who will doubtless be challenged by the film’s lengthy runtime and relative scarcity of incomprehensible action sequences. I pity the parent who, in the foolhardy attempt to find something that they might enjoy watching alongside their child, tries to convince their kid that Tomorrowland might be a better choice than Avengers: Age of Ultron. One has big ideas and a lot of talking. The other has The Hulk smashing things. No-brainer, mom.

But perhaps Tomorrowland will find its niche several months from now in the glow of the on-demand living room, where the whole family can slow down, relax, and enjoy something less overwhelming and more like what might be reasonably expected of a Disney film (and by this I mean a Disney film of the old guard, concerned less with box office returns and more with passionate storytelling. Good thing, too – Tomorrowland isn’t exactly turning out to be a heavyweight in terms of revenue). Director Brad Bird was probably the perfect fit for this Damon Lindelof screenplay, which ranks among his sizeable accomplishments at Pixar in its earnest delivery of starry-eyed idealism. It combines the retro-futurism of his early work like The Iron Giant and The Incredibles with the surprising narrative energy of his first live-action venture, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, in a too-rare example of fine storytelling with sparse action that works in service of the plot, and big, blue-sky concepts that are anchored by well-drawn characters. Somehow, Tomorrowland engages with ethereal concepts like optimism and hope without resorting to saccharine sentimentality. On paper, at least, it’s nearly a perfect summer movie – it’s just too bad nobody will see it.

The film opens on Frank Walker (George Clooney), who relates his life-changing attendance at the 1964 World’s Fair as a wide-eyed boy toting his homemade jetpack to an inventor’s contest. His can-do attitude catches the attention of a sharp young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who gives him a distinctive pin embossed with a “T” and implores him to follow her onto the fair’s “It’s A Small World” ride, which transports them both to Tomorrowland: a utopic society of free-thinking intellectuals and artists who hide their mid-century marvels of technology in an alternate dimension, far away from the rest of humanity and their troublesome instinctive savagery. The older Frank isn’t narrating alone, however, and we’re then treated to the backstory of the aforementioned Casey Newton, who spends her evenings in present-day Florida tampering with NASA property in an attempt to forestall the closure of a launchpad near her home at Cape Canaveral. Her urban rebellion gets her arrested, and she finds the same mysterious lapel pin among her belongings once she makes bail. Touching this pin brings her into the world of Tomorrowland, if only briefly, and she struggles to make sense of it all until Athena shows up, still a child, and spirits her away to join Frank and find a way back there.

Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy in Tomorrowland.

I must commend everyone involved in the making of this film (except perhaps the editing team, who must have been too loopy on Tomorrowland’s sentiment to realize their movie flirts with a three-hour running time). With the screenplay, Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, Lost, Star Trek Into Darkness) – no doubt guided by Bird’s much more finely-tuned hand – resists all of his established bad habits: no revenge plot, no double-cross twist, no logical contradictions brushed aside by derring-do, no “mysterious” questions that are never sufficiently answered. Bird’s work behind the camera is not only a display of his natural talent for rhythmic action with almost comic timing, but also a show of control, in which he manages to balance challenging thematic material, audience expectations, and studio concessions – this is a film that jumps from a cameo by sketch comedian Keegan-Micheal Key as a Star Wars-obsessed hobby shop owner to a surprisingly powerful romantic subplot between a man and a robot, one of whom is a child and one of whom is grizzled, aging George Clooney. Bird’s triumph is that these pieces fit together in a way that makes total emotional and logical sense (believe it or not).

And this is to say nothing of the cast, who deliver outstanding performances, from Robertson’s “too smart for her own good” sass-mouth Casey to Cassidy’s extraordinary portrayal of Athena – whose character is too delightful and well-represented to spoil here. Clooney is a fine fit for his role as well, turning Frank from a bitter, emotionally-bruised defeatist into a man who allows himself to give way to the better parts of his personality. Hugh Laurie plays what I hesitate to call the film's "villain", David Nix, a man possessed of a reasonable shortage of empathy and a very well-supported argument for his actions, one that I found difficult to counter. He hasn't concocted so much a plan for world domination as a well-intentioned (if not outright noble) idea that doesn't work out, which – combined with Laurie's restraint in his depiction – makes his ultimately traditional "time to dispatch the bad guy" fate a disappointment. Perhaps Lindelof and Co. are correct in that his defeatist mindset has no place in humanity's bright future, but I'd hoped that they would treat the character's end with as much thoughtfulness as his beginning. But these characters – these interesting, complicated, likeable people – simply have the rotten luck of living in an overlong, weakly-advertised film.

For that reason, and for several others, I feel kind of lucky to have seen Tomorrowland. Given that I had no expectations for it, I was not prepared for a film with genuine, old-school Disney heart, and a clever story that even has time to take weird, meta self-jabs at popular media's obsession with apocalyptic fiction. In 2007 there was another superb retro-futuristic film that nobody saw, about young inventors and dreamers that change the world: an animated Disney flick called Meet the Robinsons. Tomorrowland feels like the realization of that film’s potential; a sort of Pixar-flavoured reminder of what Disney is actually good at. (And, make no mistake, one of things they’re also good at is cross-promotion, which makes the film a giant whirring Rubik’s cube of theme park advertisement, brand recognition, and nostalgic consumer loyalty.) No matter how big their britches get, they’re still the company that made the “It’s A Small World” ride, and the bright mid-century optimism that powers it also beats strongly in Tomorrowland’s chest. I think that’s a much better sales pitch than the movie’s trailers.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.   

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