Sunday, May 31, 2015

TOMORROWLAND: A WORLD BEYOND

It's quite compelling to try and define a genealogy for acclaimed Pixar animator Brad Bird's genre-defying fantasy. On one hand, Tomorrowland overflows with the geek-friendly nostalgia for the bright clear future as imagined in the post-WWII affluence of the American Dream, all streamlined chrome and aerodynamic industrial design, the idea of science as a striving towards progress for the greater good. On the other hand, it does so in a twice-removed manner, through the filter of Steven Spielberg's wide-eyed-wonder fantasies of the 1970s and 1980s (both directed and produced by him) and of the refracted effect they had on an entire generation of storytellers that have since become Hollywood's go-to geeks - some of which are actually involved in the production.

     Hence Tomorrowland combines the forces of the two most important and resourceful creative forces of post-Spielberg Hollywood: the Pixar/Apple axis, Mr. Bird being the biggest outside hire of the studio, responsible for developing and directing The Incredibles and taking over Ratatouille after a creative crisis; and the J. J. Abrams/Bad Robot stable, where co-writer and script-doctor du jour Damon Lindelof earned his chops. But, for all the hope you might have Tomorrowland might inject some wholesome family freshness into the four-quadrant assembly-line major-studio blockbuster, the truth is that this sincere and eye-catching but lumbering adventure is a lot less than the sum of its parts would suggest.

     Starting strongly out of the gate with a narrative playfulness and a sense of mischief that resumes rather neatly its approach, Tomorrowland slowly succumbs under the weight of a tantalizing mythology, visually dazzlingly realized but never finding a plot that would sustain it artfully. This is all the more frustrating and infuriating since if there's one thing Pixar has always made a point of is to have a strong narrative, and the film is clearly designed as a throwback to an earlier, more structured idea of what a family blockbuster should be. Instead, we get a busload of product placement (it's a film inspired by Disneyland's futuristic area and tailor-made for theme park rides), some of which egregious, some of which tongue-in-cheek (look for the references to the now Disney-owned Star Wars franchise, being run by Mr. Abrams).

     This is offset by an earnest wish to offer food for thought alongside the fizzy soda sugar-rush of the mystery being laid out by Messrs. Bird and Lindelof: the tale of teenage science fan Casey (Britt Robertson) and former kid inventor Frank (George Clooney), brought together by the mysterious Athena (Raffey Cassidy) to restore the mythical Tomorrowland to a semblance of hope and, with it, the very world we live in. Hope is, again, the key concept: Tomorrowland is a wide-eyed paean to the opportunity and possibility hiding in the mundane, just waiting for the right trigger to be awakened.

     This is charmingly crystallized in the precociously and preternaturally aware know-it-all Casey, the daughter of a NASA engineer about to be made redundant by the scrapping of the space programme, whose unwillingness to give up when the going gets tough marks her as a resourceful heroine straight out of the Spielberg playbook, and an incarnation of the can-do pioneer spirit often identified with the American Dream. She and Frank could be the two sides of the same coin - the older man, a former inhabitant of Tomorrowland banished for life, suggesting the bitterness and cynicism of a dreamer crushed by the greyness of reality - and she is going to need that can-do spirit. Her glimpses of the futuristic city, a technological utopia constructed by an elite of artists and scientists working together for the common good in a parallel dimension, put her on the "hot seat", as only a dreamer can find a solution to what's ailing both the utopia gone sour and our very world that is going to hell in a handbasket.

     On paper, this is one mystery that seems to tie itself in knots as you try to explain it, but in truth Mr. Bird's command of storytelling is such that it all makes perfect sense and you "get" in no time at all everything happening in this rather busy film - the initial "exposition" goes by in a flash and the film's bouncy, cheerful enthusiasm (much underlined by Michael Giacchino's orchestral score) keeps it zipping along nicely. In between all that ingenuity, though, Tomorrowland becomes bogged down in a surprising series of plot holes the script (by Messrs. Lindelof and Bird) fails to properly solve. What happened to Tomorrowland for it to fall into autarky? Why was Frank banished? Who are the mysterious "men in black" chasing Casey?

     You get the feeling that the filmmakers kind of hoped that the visual sleight of hand and the constant shift between worlds would distract the viewer or maybe even hide the fact that this is one mystery that is meant to be left unsolved. In the process, Tomorrowland becomes so unbalanced and flimsy that what could have been a smart take on the need to believe in imagination turns into a fumbled, if intriguing, Spielberg rip-off that comes to an end with a whimper rather than a bang.

TOMORROWLAND: A WORLD BEYOND
USA, 2015
130 minutes
Cast George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key
Director Brad Bird; screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Mr. Bird; based on a story by Mr. Lindelof, Mr. Bird and Jeff Jensen; cinematographer Claudio Miranda (colour, widescreen); composer Michael Giacchino; designer Scott Chambliss; costumes Jeffrey Kurland; editors Walter Murch and Craig Wood; effects supervisors Craig Hammack, Eddie Pasquarello and John Knoll; producers Mr. Lindelof, Mr. Bird and Jeffrey Chernov; production companies Walt Disney Pictures and A113 Productions
screened May 22nd 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


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