By Matthew McKibben | May 22, 2015
Director: Brad Bird
Writer: Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeff Jensen
Starring: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson
Last Tuesday, I read a story about a mysterious ocean illness that was causing starfish to rip themselves apart before melting into a gooey substance. The cause and scope of the illness is baffling researchers, but many people are theorizing that part of the issue has something to do with our degradation of the oceans. I’m often amazed at the level of awful, earth-shattering news we receive on a daily basis, especially regarding environmental collapse; in my haste, I wrote a Facebook status in which I wondered how marine biologists show up to work without feeling like they want to jump off of a cliff.
I never posted that status. I’m someone who prefers to keep things light on Facebook and didn’t want to add one more brick of soul crushing news to people’s Facebook feeds. I’m the father of two young kids (daughter is 7, son is 4) and the state of our environment and natural habitat is something that I think about pretty often; but it’s also something that I kind of have to also make a point to not think about. The truth can be so heavy and scary, that it’s often easier to just not think about it at all. I apologize for the rambling, but this gives you some insight to the emotional and psychological state I was in while watching Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland.
Having seen Disney’s Cinderella earlier this year and fresh off George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, I can safely say that there have already been better movies in 2015; but make no mistake, there is no movie that is more needed in 2015 than Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. It’s a movie that attempts to answer some of the daunting and challenging questions facing humanity today; how do we face the challenges awaiting us with a sense of optimism and how does looking ahead to a brighter future get us to that point?
Tomorrowland begins at the 1964 World’s Fair, as a young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) presents his amazing new jet-pack invention to contest judge Nix (Hugh Laurie), who deems the jet-pack below standard due to its inability to actually fly through the air. A young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) sees promise in Frank and offers him a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit Tomorrowland, a place where optimism and idealism run untethered to budgets, physics, and modern day concerns.
The movie then cuts to present day where a young adult named Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) makes nightly pilgrimages to a dormant NASA launch pad to destroy the construction equipment being used to dismantle it. Her father (Tim McGraw) is a former NASA engineer, but is now out of a job due to budget cuts. It’s after being caught by the police one night that she finds a mysterious pin in her bag which, upon touch, automatically takes her to Tomorrowland, a place bursting at the seams with miraculous technological devices and friendly faces. As temporary as this trip may be, it’s enough to whet her appetite to find out more about this place.
Through her curiosity and with the help of her companion Athena, she tracks down Frank Walker (George Clooney), now a recluse in upstate New York, and asks that he help her get back to Tomorrowland. Many years prior, he was unceremoniously kicked out of Tomorrowland and prefers the company of knick knacks he took with him from Tomorrowland. He passes away the time by staring at a doomsday clock, slowly counting down to zero, knowing that his invention is partly responsible for the reason that clock is ticking down to zero.
The movie is kept relatively light, having kind of a 1985 Robert Zemeckis Back to the Future meets Brad Bird’s The Incredibles vibe. This isn’t a Spielberg produced movie, but it definitely has the feel of an 1980s movie that would have a “story by Steven Spielberg” in its credits. Being a big fan of Brad Bird and screenwriter Damon Lindelof, it’s easy to see Tomorrowland as a big ol’ love letter to the kinds of forward thinking, positive movies that inspired them to be filmmakers in the first place. There’s even a great set piece in the movie in which Lindelof and Bird pay homage to many of those movies as well known artifacts from Star Wars and The Forbidden Planet get destroyed in the process.
Tomorrowland’s central premise is that the optimistic future we once had during the 1960s space program is a thing of the distant past, and once we stopped looking to the future, we handicapped our ability to tackle the monumental issues facing us on a daily basis. If this movie has one major flaw, it’s that this movie has a ton of stuff to say and then it goes about saying it over and over and over again. I love the message and fully applaud the movie for having the guts to try and shake our collective imagination out of our depressed slumber, but the movie’s pace suffers because of it. Unlike Bird’s The Incredibles, which had some fun with characters being caught “monologuing,” these characters often break the flow of the movie to give more exposition or to monologue about why this message is important.
The movie also has a point of saying that part of the reason why we seem stuck in a kind of apocalyptic accepting rut is due to the amount of doom and gloom sci fi that seems to make up our pop cultural landscape. In an era when the popular media seems to fluctuate between zombie apocalypse and movies where super villains threaten earth’s existence on a semi-yearly basis, I found this message refreshing and unexpected. Again, it’s delivered via a monologue, but it’s one of the more interesting things this movie has to say.
As the protagonist Casey Newton, Britt Robertson is asked to do the heavy lifting of the movie and she’s pretty great as kind of a modern day Marty McFly. This isn’t a movie with a “chosen one,” so to speak, but the notion that she’s a true believer in positive energy sets her apart and makes her “special.” She has a natural rapport with George Clooney, who is kind of a mix of Doc Brown and Danny Ocean. The two kind of have a push-pull relationship, where she’s pulling Frank to come back to her optimistic side, and he’s trying to convince her that getting back to Tomorrowland is a lost cause. As he does in numerous other parts, Clooney deftly blends his gruff world weariness with his natural warmth and hidden optimism and I’m not sure many other actors could have done this part as well as Clooney naturally does.
The young robot Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who guides Casey and Frank on their quest to get to Tomorrowland is the real heart of the movie and Raffey Cassidy gives a solid performance in the part. She’s playing a robot, but she lets her natural warmth shine in little moments that help the character transcend her robotic restrictions. I found her relationship with Frank to be the most touching parts of the movie. Hugh Laurie’s Nix is not all that dissimilar to Jason Lee’s Syndrome in Bird’s The Incredibles. While Nix is certainly more sympathetic than Syndrome, you can definitely see the roadmap that got them to their villainous ways.
So yes, the movie is a bit uneven, suffering a bit from message overload. Although I’m very mixed on Tomorrowland on the movie’s merits, it is a movie I ultimately kind of love in spite of its flaws. The movie comes really close to answering why people like marine biologists go into work and do what they do. It’s a simple answer, actually. They haven’t given up. They’re fighting to make it better. I know that sounds corny, but sometimes we need to embrace the corniness of the fight. As the movie explicitly says, we need dreamers and people who haven’t give up. We need the scientists and the artists and the engineers and the storytellers to know that they’re important and that they’re needed. We need a little optimism in our world because the fight, and our future, are worth it.