MOVIE REVIEW: Tomorrowland
"TOMORROWLAND"-- 3 STARS
This website hangs its hat on the titular mantra that "every movie has a lesson." When you step back and grab a thesaurus, "lesson," in this case, can be a broad term to include several other teachable moments. "Lesson" could be exchanged for moral, reason, agenda, message, suggestion, recommendation, guidance, motive, portent, omen, admonition, exemplar, precedent, or representation. Make no mistake. This mantra that "every movie has a lesson" is completely true, but, at the same time, every movie also has one or more of those other ideals in mind as well, many of which are intentionally created.
For example, as has been stated before on this page, every war movie, and I mean all of them, are essentially an anti-war film in message and intention. Even the most political, grotesque, or gaudy glorification of war in a film is an antithesis in disguise. No matter the genre or example, the effect and acceptance within this realm we call cinema or entertainment all depends on the intention of the message or lesson and the tone by which it was delivered. Some films are poignant and affirming while others reek of preaching or borderline propaganda. From "The Birth of a Nation" a century ago to "American Sniper" just last year, thousands have movies have pushed buttons with their message and polarized audiences. In the end, the viewers get to decide how they feel and the range of results is incredibly divisive.
Thinly veiled beneath the powerhouse studio running the show, Disney's "Tomorrowland" is your new lightning rod between poignant and preachy. It is, with absolute certainty, an enormous message movie hiding behind a summer blockbuster. Brad Bird's film is a platform for big ideas that knows it's on a platform to also sell tickets and merchandise, putting it in that very divisive place between intention, tone, and how people are going to interpret it. If that surprises you, get in line. Everyone that was likely expecting a whimsical family-friendly film with gadgets and adventure are instead getting what stands to be the most polarizing film of the season, if not the year. That might not be a bad thing.
The advance marketing for "Tomorrowland" has done very little to tip its hand and this review will remain spoiler-free. We can now see why. They were hiding an elephant behind a curtain hoping to be the magician that made it disappear, but not before showing you how pretty and amazing the elephant was for good reason.
Academy Award winner George Clooney gets top billing as the weary and reclusive inventor Frank Walker, but the film's real central character is Britt Robertson's Casey Newton. She is the newcomer to where Frank has been before. Both have extensive origin stories as to how they have been privy to glimpses and experiences of a utopian alternate setting unofficially dubbed Tomorrowland. Both were recruited for their ingenuity and granted this opportunity by a mysterious little girl named Athena (played by Raffey Cassidy).
Frank's journey begins as a child (newcomer Thomas Robinson) when he attends the 1964 New York World's Fair armed with his own invention of a jet pack retrofitted from farm parts and vacuum cleaner motors. He seeks to win an invention competition prize from a scrutinizing judge (Hugh Laurie), but falls short. Athena takes a liking to him and she bequeaths to him a mysterious lapel pin that leads him to Tomorrowland, a futuristic setting where the best and brightest of innovators have created their own world of perfection and new ideas. There, Frank's fully-realized jet pack ends up impressing that same judge who turns out to be this world's leader David Nix.
Fast-forwarding to the present day, Casey is the ambitious and whip-smart daughter of a NASA engineer (actor/singer Tim McGraw). Like her father, she is beset by NASA's recent downsizing and has been sabotaging the demolition efforts of the space shuttle launch platform in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Her immeasurable optimism and trouble-making efforts catch Athena's recruiting eye and she too receives a pin that gives her glimpses of Tomorrowland. Dazzled and inspired, Casey's pin has a time limit. She soon learns that what she's seeing isn't the true reality of what is really happening in both worlds. Athena brings Casey to the older modern-day Frank (Clooney) and together they combat the challenges of what's ahead for both Earth and Tomorrowland.
If that thumbnail sounds head-scratching and vague, that's because the film's depth is extremely more substantial than the cute jet packs and otherworldly wonder of idyllic futuristic technology. Renowned visionary director Brad Bird, of "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles" fame, teamed up with the infamous "Lost" and "Prometheus" writer Damon Lindelof to pen this anecdote-heavy adventure. In true audience-splitting fashion, the film works and fails simultaneously in two fashions.
First, as a movie experience, the bells and whistles are all there. The unique and impressive artistic design of "Tomorrowland," from the sets to the costumes, props, and special effects are all off the charts. The film, shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda ("Life of Pi"), looks like a million bucks, well, 190 million of them actually, meaning Disney spared no expense to bring another theme park attraction to vibrant cinematic life, a la "Pirates of the Caribbean." Lindelof can write intrigue and action and the visuals lend to those moments quite well. However, when you place all of that packaging on the heavy-handed messages being articulated, the impact becomes questionable and messy. We're being asked to eschew things that are pretty and shiny by something that is exactly designed to be pretty and shiny by the best pretty and shiny makers in the business. That doesn't always work, in fact, it reeks of enormous misguided hubris, but that doesn't completely fail either.
That brings in the second fashion of simultaneous success and failure, namely the big picture of the cardinal agenda being spun by "Tomorowland" along the way. This where audiences will either tout its merits and ambition or roll its eyes in ambivalence or dissatisfaction. Remember when James Cameron's "Avatar" in 2009 was a thinly-veiled environmental message film that paralleled the likes of "Ferngully" and "Dances With Wolves" for its allegorical archetypes depicting environmental destruction, stolen natural resources, wasteful human greed, and the so-called advanced invaders' cruelty towards indigenous people? Yeah?
Well, take 2015's rap sheet of global warming, climate change, overpopulation, water shortages, and unfulfilled green energy promises and place them together with society's obsession with superficial technology, the lack of STEM education, and the controlling consumer and government power of the 1% and Big Business. That big mix comprises the witch's brew of either the empowering inspiration of "Tomorrowland" or its elevated soap box of begging and pleading. Looking at that list, the casting and involvement of the very openly political George Clooney makes an awful lot of sense now. It might even be as far as self-serving more than motivational thanks to him. Luckily, he's still the last best charasmatic movie star throwback in the business and can pull this off.
Each viewer and audience will decide which way they lean and it will be very interesting to see this film's reception. On one level, the imagination and visuals are spirited and well-appointed to fit a message movie that still impresses as entertainment. The purposeful inspiration of "Tomorrowland" to match its Walt-Disney-echoing-Jules-Verne roots is indeed a worthy message that needs to be said in this day and age, but this all circles back to intention and tone and whether those were dialed to the right level or spawned from the right place. Chances are, this is all more than what you were bargaining for in a dose of Disney-brand summer escapism fit for the whole family. Instead, you're getting a lecture that bookends and softens the sense of wonder it should be pushing. Instead, you're getting "The DaVinci Code" for kids that parents are going to have trouble explaining to a popcorn-and-Twizzler-fueled eight-year-old.
LESSON #1: INSPIRATION AND INGENUITY THAT COMES FROM FUN AND IMAGINATION-- You will see that the first two lessons come across much like the dichotomy of "The LEGO Movie" from last year which embraced the dual benefits of either open creativity or the merit of following the standard directions. Both had a place. "Tomorrowland" has a vein much like that with its thinking. On one hand, Frank and Casey, in their own ways and origins, represent the fun and imaginative side of ingenuity. When born from the joyful side of our minds, the inventions and creations of mankind are beautiful and stirring as well as functional. There's a strength to that theme that "Tomorrowland" slyly preaches is missing in today's innovators and youth.
LESSON #2: INSPIRATION AND INGENUITY THAT COMES FROM PURPOSE AND NECESSITY-- The converse to Lesson #1 is the necessary innovations that are needed to serve a purpose. Not everything we create can be for fun and coolness. That same creative energy of invention can and should be tasked to solve calamities, problems, needs, and hardship on global levels. There is a time and place for invention for purpose. The tricky part in today's society is having that inspiration for purpose or for imagination be free from politics and greed. That's where we see it breaking down. We may feel like our lives are made better by an Apple Watch, a wind turbine, or whatever, but someone is making a buck or gaining favor for it as well.
LESSON #3: CHANGING THE POTENTIAL FUTURE WITH EITHER OPTIMISM OR PESSIMISM-- In the final lesson, those two directions of inspiration and ingenuity end up deciding a piece of our fate and future. By the rationale of "Tomorrowland" and its heavy message, either optimism of ingenuity and personal responsibility can save and create a better future or pessimism and a resignation of accepting our self-destruction can ruin and destroy our way of life. The film puts these issues on that cataclysmic of a level. The direction of the drive of those valuable free thinkers from Lesson #1 or Lesson #2 are the people who can get that ball rolling in either direction. The goal is that more can be taught, motivated, and inspired to move that in the positive one instead of the negative one. Again, it's quite the soap box. You'll see.