7 out of 10
22 May 2015
Directed by Brad Bird
Britt Robertson as Casey Newton
George Clooney as Frank Walker
Kathryn Hahn as Ursula
Raffey Cassidy as Athena
Hugh Laurie as David Nix
Keegan-Michael Key as Hugo
Tim McGraw as Casey’s Dad
Pierce Gagnon as Nate
Lochlyn Munro as Uncle Anthony
Aliyah O’Brien as Functionary
Marcus Rosner as Handsome Harry
Judy Greer as Mom
When teenager Casey Nelson (Britt Robertson) discovers a colorful pin among her belongings that transports her to a fantastic futuristic world full of wondrous inventions when she touches it, the only way for her to return to “Tomorrowland” is to find inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney) who seems to hold all the secrets to the mysterious city.
The plot begins in the past. Boy genius Frank (Clooney played skillfully as a child by Thomas Robinson), fails at his experiment to fly with a jet pack into space, but instead flies into a corn field. An adult Frank meets up with Casey (Britt Robertson), a precocious teen filled with a scientific knowledge and together they take off on a journey to unlock the secrets of a mysterious place called Tomorrowland. A sophomoric thesis and a lecturing of ‘let’s save the planet’ routine are worthy of stuffing your ears with cotton during their preaching, but please ignore and enjoy the splendor of the special effects and fine acting.
Tomorrowland encapsulates a number of recurring themes in American mainstream science-fiction, In many respects, it harks to sixties utopianism. Tomorrowland positions itself as a spiritual companion piece to films like Star Trek or X-Men: First Class or Interstellar. Although most of the film is set in the present day, its retro futurism is firmly anchored fifty years in the past. Like an early flashback that takes place in the 1964 World’s Fair.
There are some other minor elements that don’t work as well as they might. Frank Walker’s emotional character arc is firmly tied to the android Athena. Frank met Athena when he was a young boy; she is an android built to resemble a young girl. Frank grew up; Athena never could. It is a powerfully tragic set-up about the baggage the people leave behind when they grow up. There is a reason that Neverland remains such a potent fairy tale metaphor; why the idea of the child who can never grow up has inspired so many stories.
The movie also benefits from some fantastic casting. Clooney is top notch. Britt Robertson a distant third and a robot named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) steals the acting kudos. Britt Robertson does great work as Casey Newton, a teenage lead who could easily seem awkward or flat. Robertson imbues Casey with just the right amount of snark and wonder to keep the film moving. Tomorrowland leans quite heavily on Robertson to carry a lot of the film. Outside of a framing device that bookends the film, Clooney is largely absent from the first hour of the film. That’s a considerable pressure to put on a young performer, and Robertson acquits herself admirably.
The problem is that this plot hinges on George Clooney reacting as a jilted lover to twelve-year-old Raffey Cassidy. At one point, Frank stops just short of admitting that he was in love with Athena, while he speaks to Casey about their relationship in terms that evoke a particularly traumatic break-up. It is a rather odd image, never quite conjuring tragic resonance to which the script clearly aspires. Instead, the relationship between Frank and Athena often feels a little creepy and uncomfortable. Especially that one scene where he was carrying her in his arms. No. Just.. no.
At the same time, there are serious problems with the film. It is interesting to see a film grapple so overtly with contemporary trends in science-fiction; it is fascinating to see a movie like this constructed largely as a criticism of the modern state of the genre. Tomorrowland sells its central themes quite well; perhaps too well. Towards the climax of the film, it does feel like the movie has made its point so clearly and effectively that some of the character exchanges feel superfluous or redundant.
More than that, the climax of Tomorrowland does not really work as well as it should. It is difficult to explain the problems with the climax without spoiling key plot details, but there are structural and thematic issues at work. Structurally, there is a very clear shift in emphasis from one character to another; it seems like the script temporarily forgets who the protagonist of this story is supposed to be. Thematically, the powerful emotional image of the climax seems to forget that Tomorrowland has set itself up as a utopian and optimistic science-fiction story.
Tomorrowland has its heart in the right place, but it occasionally gets a little lost. Nevertheless, this is a fun movie. Don’t look too closely, but sit back and enjoy. And you, too, will have a good time.