A young genius discovers a pin that promises a brand new world of possibilities. A world of the future; already here and just a thrill ride away.
A Whole New Worlds
Before I wrote this review I made the mistake of seeing what others were saying about it. It wasn’t my original intent to do so, but I ran across a tweet declaring the controversial nature of the film’s themes and I was puzzled by what they were talking about. Apparently the film is overtly political and has polerized audiences who take certain sides of the equation. Total news to me as I’d literally just left the theater; having seen the film for myself, but ok. Apparently it’s controversial. My further readings revealed that the director had been quizzed on said controversies and has flat out denied any political message exists. He maintains that he doesn’t take either side of the political spectrum in his personal life or in any of his films. There you go then. Problem solved. While I don’t shy away from controversial statements or subject matter (listen to our podcast discussions) I’ll keep politics out of this review; probably.
What I will say along those lines is that I did not come away from seeing the film with any thoughts of elephants and donkeys (those are mascots in US politics representing the Right and Left wing parties respectively). I did come away with the feeling that the film had two distinct points of view. That of the characters in the film and the filmmakers themselves. The result is a film with a bit of a split personality. This may be where the critics get some of their fodder from. For me, the film was simply posing the question where is that bright future that was promised by our predecessors?
The characters in the film, the ones with a 3 dimensional opinion, are the Kid (Britt Robertson), the Aging Inventor (George Clooney), and the Politician (Hugh Laurie). The Kid represents the hope of youth (i.e. Idealism). The Inventor represents the defeat of hope (i.e. Realism). The Politician represents whatever politicians represent. They’d call it pragmatism, but I think we can agree they live in a world not entirely driven by logic…told you I couldn’t guarantee staying away from political talk. So, anyway … the film takes these archetypes and tries to weave together a story about this constant human struggle between the idealism of what we want things to be and what things can actually be, given our finite situation. It’s a heady subject matter, but someones gotta do it. Who better than the men who brought us Stupid Dog and LOST. I’m only half joking there.
If you’ve ever done creative writing you’ll discover that oftentimes when you’re writing characters you’ll find that in a manner of speaking, the characters take on a life of their own and begin taking you in directions you may not originally have intended to go. Watching this film, I get the sense that either the director and writer did not communicate well enough with each other or the characters were forced into doing or saying things that weren’t true to their nature. In essence the creators were forcing the characters to say or do things that were out of character for them. As an example of this; early on in the film we’re introduced to Britt Robertson’s young genius character as she uses her tech to wreak havoc on a government facility. We get two different reasons for why she’s doing this. Reason one is science and discovery and reason two is she’s trying to save her father’s job. The second reason rings true to the character, but the first reason is the bigger theme of her quest in the film. The result is this split personality I was talking about that confuses the audience’s feelings about the film as a whole and the characters themselves. The film is an exciting ride so, you don’t really recognize these problems until you’re looking back on things, but you still leave the theater with a slightly stale taste in your mouth. It’s not the happy feeling you expect from the hopeful premise of the film. The controversy I read from people online and some of the criticisms of the film being too darkly toned I attribute to these missteps in character behavior. People didn’t have someone to latch on to and the result is they were lost somewhere along the road. Writing that’s untrue to the characters will affect the audience’s empathy for them. They won’t care when you need them to.
All that said, there are still moments that work at pulling the heart strings; the relationship between Clooney’s inventor and the little girl from the future is largely successful. It’s an awkward relationship to be sure, seeing as Clooney is in his 50s and the little girl is well, a little girl, but it works because those character moments are true to themselves. Clooney is a little boy when he’s around her, not the 50 year old that biology has made him. The little is frozen in time visually, but with an evolved operating system she’s more human than he remembers her. This allows for some slight progression in the way they interact with each other, but because she’s still just a robot there are things she can’t do or understand. At least not as well as a human. This creates a unique and beautiful relationship that runs us through the emotions and it’s clear from its success that the filmmakers were most interested in this aspect of the narrative.
But World’s Fair and Jet Packs
Tomorrowland isn’t as somber or dark as the critics would suggest. There’s more than enough high octane action stuffed in, as well.
The film is very much a live action Tex Avery production; if you can imagine that. The closest thing I can compare the humor and action to is probably the first Men In Black movie. The action is broad and larger than life. Rayguns, jet packs, flying cars, and eternally positive killer robots add to this classic era style, but really it has more to do with the way the action is shot. There’s a scene I talked about in our last podcast where Britt’s kid goes to town with a baseball bat on a menacing robot killer and it’s shot in what appears to be varying frame rates to exaggerate and emphasize the hits. The result is glee and laughter instead of wincing at the obvious violence of it. It’s cartoon violence, literally. Another sequence takes place shortly after Britt’s kid is saved by the robot girl and Britt has realized that the girl is in fact a robot like the ones that just tried to kill her. She ditches the girl and the robot pursues her on foot. Again, it’s a living cartoon. The running is so awkward looking that you can’t mistake it for reality. It’s something that wouldn’t be questioned were this is animated film, but in live action it’s unexpected. It’s very effective. The whole film is full of little touches like this that just help to bring a pleasant vision and twist to an already original film.
Tomorrowland is a wild and exciting ride; even if it’s containing narrative leads to slightly forgettable ends. The sequences keep the story moving along and each set piece (large and small) brings something memorable to the table.
The parallel world of tomorrow is well realized and hearkens back to the North American World’s Fairs of the early 20th century; one of which we get a passing glimpse of in the film’s opener. Though I’m too young to have been around during the original fair’s peak, I did attend similar expos and so, I share in many of the memories (and subsequent disappointments) that Brad Bird was trying to recall with his film. I occasionally wonder why those days we were promised went? The flying cars, the space age kitchen appliances. Bird and Lindelof speculate that those great men and women merely transported their ideas to a place where they could properly realize them or at least they tried to. The film fails to really answer its own musings and instead rests somewhere in-between…
Maybe Tomorrowland isn’t really possible at all or maybe the journey there was never going to be as fast as our hopes for it. Is it really as simple as inextinguishable perseverance and and unbridled hope or does the reality of bureaucracies and budget lines stop us from achieving that world of tomorrow? Possibly it’s all up to each one of us to answer the question for ourselves and Tomorrowland was merely a catalyst to get us going.