Deep Focus: Tomorrowland
Steampunk and retrofuturism—genres that look forward by looking backward (and vice-versa), or what The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction defines as science fiction that captures “the older but still modern eras in which technological change seemed to anticipate a better world”—have fared best on screen in light-fingered cartoons that bypass heavy exposition or Big Thoughts. My favorite steampunk movie is still Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky (86), a piece of undiluted euphoria about a girl who drops from the sky into a mining town and the spunky boy who catches her. The girl carries a potent crystal that leads them—along with pirates and government agents—to the floating island of Laputa, an Atlantis of the air, both a warning of rampant technology and an example of machines and woodlands evolving into peaceful coexistence. Suffused with humor and suspense and a belief in youth as a time for taking risks, the movie soars with adventure and leaves room for rib-tickling pranks, like a miner and a pirate competing to see who can burst his shirt-buttons quicker by flexing his pectorals.
Like every moviemaker who has worked with John Lasseter at Pixar, Brad Bird must know his Miyazaki. In his own slangy, rugged-individualist way, Bird matches Miyazaki repeatedly for imagination and virtuosity in animated films like The Iron Giant (99), The Incredibles (04) and Ratatouille (07), and in his live-action Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (11), which lightly mocks the central concepts of Mission: Impossible movies (hairbreadth escapes, unlikely disguises) while also spectacularly fulfilling them. In the eclectic and ambitious Tomorrowland, Bird aims for a Miyazaki-like blend of action, humor, and poignancy. The result, I’m shocked to say, is a spluttering misfire.
Like Miyazaki in Laputa, Bird pivots his story on a charismatic girl connected to a would-be utopia. The girl is Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a lifelike robot with a distinct cerebral charm, and the place is Tomorrowland, established by Earth’s genius dreamers as a haven for human creativity in another dimension. But Bird’s movie lacks clarity and authentic exuberance, and adopts peculiar, self-defeating strategies. For example, it offers only teasing visions of Tomorrowland as a gargantuan science-fair wonder-world, part Epcot Center and part Oz. (The most spectacular sights were shot at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, including an enormous, curving piece of architecture that resembles a brontosaurus skeleton.) Then Bird withholds the origin story for Tomorrowland and treats it as a big “reveal.” Why the delay? It’s as if Bird thought he could add some much-needed suspense by twisting Tomorrowland’s roots into a whodunit. It’s a mystery without clues or a pulse-quickening payoff, and it’s pointless to hold off on the answers. Even the film’s promotional comic book, The Secret History of the World of Tomorrowland, lays it out right away: In the late 19th century, Gustave Eiffel, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Jules Verne built a scientific and artistic sanctuary, designed to be free from greed, corruption and conquest.
Athena is a recruiter for Tomorrowland, and her latest hot prospect is tomboy teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a soon-to-be-unemployed NASA engineer (Tim McGraw). Casey has snagged Athena’s attention because of her feistiness and brains, as displayed in her gutsy, illegal effort to slow down the demolition of NASA’s Cape Canaveral launch platforms. Robertson is a sinewy, go-for-broke actor, reminiscent of Jennifer Lawrence in her Winter’s Bone (10) period. But Cassidy is such an uncanny performer that Athena steals every scene they share. Her quickness and honesty register as air-clearing wit, a welcome respite from the film’s repetitive rhetorical flourishes about faith and hope. In one of the movie’s many contrived catchphrases, Casey’s sabotage proves to Athena that she “hasn’t given up.” Athena has big plans for her. The robot knows that Casey won’t make it to Tomorrowland alone, and that she’ll need the help of Frank Walker (George Clooney), an inventor Athena enlisted when he was a pudgy little boy (Thomas Robinson).
Frank never forgave Athena for confessing that she was a robot only after he was in thrall to her. Even when he grew into adulthood and she remained a robot child (Cassidy was 11 when cast), he never made his peace with her—and, extremely creepily, never stopped obsessing about her, either. He left Tomorrowland in 1984 and became a recluse back on Earth, thoroughly disillusioned and blaming Athena for his loss of hope because she gave it to him in the first place. At the climax, Bird prolongs their tearful rapprochement and directs Clooney and Cassidy to play it straight. It’s bizarrely—and upsettingly—romantic. All that’s missing is the classic kiss and clinch.
Bird fills the movie with jetpacks, ray guns, and sci-fi totems of all kinds, like a man-size model of the original Gort in Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (51). The script, by Bird and Damien Lindelof (based on a story by these two and Jeff Jensen), ties the action to the recruiter’s Tomorrowland pin, which positions a T that resembles a jetpack against the universal sign for the atom. When programmed with the user’s DNA, the pin allows him or her to enter an engulfing vision of the dream kingdom at its peak. It’s fun to think of Bird, who was born in 1957, stuffing this work with childhood memories of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, James Bond’s jetpack in Thunderball (65), and other milestones of pop fantasy. (He includes references to later favorites, like 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1983’s The Right Stuff.) A sequence set at the Eiffel Tower is everything the entire movie wants to be—surprising, wondrous, and exciting. Bird blasts the rust off a landmark and, with delirious invention, restores its fascination and majesty.
Generally, the film is best when it’s lighthearted. Casey first uses the pin in a jailhouse waiting room, to the amusement of a punk in a porkpie hat; his bemused reactions to her obvious dislocation produce a satisfying belly laugh. Later, she visits a sci-fi memorabilia store called “Blast from the Past,” run by suspiciously intense neo-hippies played by Keegan-Michael Key (of Key and Peele) and Kathryn Hahn. It gives Key a chance to exploit his surefire manic/hyper shtick and his ability to go from 0 to 80 in a second.
Too much of the film is message-ridden for an imaginative romp. What Bird keeps front and center, from beginning to end, is an awkward plea for upholding optimism despite environmental disasters and political upheaval and all the other setbacks of the 21st century. The movie often refers to a metaphor that Casey’s dad once taught her: “There are two wolves inside all of us and they’re always fighting. One is darkness and despair. The other is brightness and hope. Which one wins? The one you feed.” The poetry may be hollow—don’t all wolves hunt prey? But Bird, like Casey, genuinely wants to feed “brightness and hope.” Tomorrowland might have fulfilled that goal if it were really about a band of happy warriors taking this wisdom as their battle plan. Too bad Frank and Casey spend so long as a grump and a bewildered naïf.
In all his other films (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol included), Bird has been a first-rate director-comedian, grounding even serious storylines in matter-of-fact humor. In Tomorrowland, you can count the comic coups on one hand: high school teachers peddling rote gloom and doom to an increasingly fed-up Casey; Athena’s confession that she doesn’t have any ideas (she is, after all, a robot); and, later, her admission that she never laughed at Frank because he simply isn’t funny, a sentiment unfortunately shared by the audience. It’s amusing that the leader of five dark-suited bad-guy robots sports a fatuous grin and calls himself “Dave Clark.” (They’re like Men In Black, evil audio-animatronics division). But you dread their presence in the wrong way—Bird may have been pursuing Buster Keaton-like slapstick, but when they appear, he often settles for head-slamming mayhem.
In Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Bird toyed with an established format and made nary an off move. In Tomorrowland, he commits several neophyte errors. Pierce Gagnon, as Casey’s kid brother, looks confusingly similar to Robinson as young Frank Walker, so you expect Athena to scoop him up right away. The scene of Athena planting a Tomorrowland pin in Casey’s belongings at night is shadowy enough to make you wonder whether Casey has a doppelgänger. The ultra-cold opening of the adult Frank telling his childhood story straight to the camera is so inept and boring that it feels like a stroke of editing-room desperation. Casey’s family life is just as badly stitched and sketchy. (Judy Greer, as Casey’s mother, appears only in a home-movie flashback of Casey as a star-struck little girl reciting names of constellations as she dreams of soaring into space.) Bird loudly telegraphs the flash of insight that enables Casey to diagnose why Earth seems bent on self-destruction. Frank asks her whether she’d want to know the exact date of her death. She responds, “what if me accepting it is what causes it?”
When a comic artist loses his finesse, it’s often because his ambitions have prodded him to try too hard. In pursuit of Tomorrowland’s idealistic goals, Bird forces his effects. For a movie that celebrates dreams, Tomorrowland is too mechanically plotted and replete with robot-on-robot and human-on-robot violence. For a movie that strives to inspire fresh ideas, it’s too full of clichés, like casting Hugh Laurie as the cryptically menacing governor of Tomorrowland, his haughty British accent and attitude immediately signaling his untrustworthiness. And for a movie that’s supposed to hinge on the human heroine’s brilliance, it focuses mostly on her ability to take a beating. The story is laden with talk about “tachyons”—particles that move faster than the speed of light—but the ultimate gimmick at the heart of Tomorrowland is as easy to operate as a trackball.
The best live-action films with a retrofuturist feeling have been period adventures like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, or adaptations of classic science fiction from distant eras, like George Pal’s 1960 version of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Those movies give off a seductive nostalgic glow that Bird fails to achieve even when he depicts Frank at the Hall of Invention at the ’64 World’s Fair, lugging around a jetpack that he made with an Electrolux vacuum. It may be that laboring through this overly complicated movie drained Bird’s passion for looking ahead by looking back. In Tomorrowland, even nostalgia for “the future” seems more like retro déjà vu.