Friday, May 22, 2015

Retro-Future City: TOMORROWLAND

Tomorrowland tells a science fiction story we don’t usually hear these days. It’s a story of hope, saying the future doesn’t have to be as bleak as we fear. After a couple decades worth of cultural output drumming the dystopian beat, not to mention the generally terrifying disasters worldwide, how wonderful it is to find a movie taking on the mission of encouragement. Director Brad Bird, who also co-wrote with Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, looks towards an imagined world in which science and progress really can change the world for the better, if only we allow it to be shared. The filmmakers give us a shiny city on a hill, chrome and glowing with Art Deco spires and Space Age retro-futurism. Jet packs and flying cars, robots, teleportation and Jules Verne-inspired rockets fill the frame, as a great big beautiful tomorrow comes to life, beckoning us to shake off cynicism and join in the fun.

This is a vision of the future straight out of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where, coincidentally enough, our story begins. A young boy (Thomas Robinson), visiting the fair with an optimistic invention in tow, follows a mysterious girl (Raffey Cassidy) through a secret doorway contraption to Tomorrowland, the futuristic city full of scientific wonder. Skipping forward to our time, we meet an irrepressibly sunny teenager (Britt Robertson) who remains excited by a potential for good in the world despite the her NASA engineer father (Tim McGraw) losing his job. After a great many (too many, perhaps) complications, she discovers a vintage pin. When touched, it shows her and only her a glimpse of Tomorrowland off in the distance, untouchable and irresistible. So begins the mystery powering the plot engine, as she tries to figure out what this city is and how to get there, a quest that leads her eventually a middle-aged man (George Clooney), who once was the boy who went there, and is now cagily reluctant to return.

The film trusts the very fact of mystery to pull us along, keeping characterization thin and the obfuscation thick. Late in the game, the truth about the city is revealed and the full extent of the stakes is known. The way there is a series of thick tangles of exposition punctuated with whiz-bang special effects sequences as the teen learns of secret societies, killer robots, laser guns, quantum particles, and ultimately the answers she and we desire about Tomorrowland. Bird and crew take great pleasure in concocting complicated backstory and appealing design, then hiding it, parceling it out in frustrating and tantalizing doses between cliffhangers and info dumps. There’s a cheery sincerity to this clunking structure, recalling early sci-fi stories in which an ordinary person discovers extraordinary secrets in episodic dreamlike fashion with great wonderment. It plays like an updated serial, with bigger effects, but the same potentially hokey spirit.

Although the cluttered exposition bogs things down, Bird comes to life when staging his exciting flights of sci-fi with an animator’s flair for visual timing. Would you expect any less from the director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol? Tomorrowland isn’t as fluid an experience. Though the actors mostly sell the sloppy connective tissue, it could've used more showing, less telling, and telling, and telling. But then a toy store is suddenly the stage for a martial arts battle, or a farmhouse bursts forth with high-tech booby traps. And I won’t even begin to spoil what happens to a famous European landmark, but it’s like something out of an eye-catching old pulp magazine cover. It’s a film full of images of wide-eyed speculative goofiness, and completely committed to meeting them on that level. The film’s design is charming, and photographed in cheerfully luminous ways. Who cares if the characters are vaguely defined and the world’s a jumble? Look at this thing go!

Bird approaches the concept with evident delight in conjuring, with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, these bright images and gleaming theme park (it is named for a section in Disney parks, after all) spectacle. But there’s also a sincerity of purpose and earnestness of tone as it moralizes about the power in the stories we tell ourselves about our future. It asks us not to accept dystopia as our only option, but to realize it’s never too late to change the world for the better. It may be given a cornball hard sell here, with a big speech at the end laying it on thick. But, boy, is it an honest sentiment, too. What we learn about Tomorrowland eventually sets a selfish figure intent on keeping progress to himself against those who’d rather open the possibilities to anyone willing to pitch in. Our heroes discover that even a perfect, gleaming city can’t survive without those willing to work at make things better for everyone.

It’s ultimately another film with world-ending stakes, but Robertson and Clooney, two utterly charming performers who work well together and steer the film lightly, embody a more humanist ideal. What good is a secret world for special smarties if you can’t invite people in? Why accept a bad outcome for humanity when you can work to change it? The message  and the worldbuilding – gets muddled in the telling, but Tomorrowland asks us to reach for the best of humanity instead of tolerating the worst. If our imagination dies, so do we. Accepting dystopia is easy and cynical. Making utopia requires talent, cooperation, creative thinking, and hope. We’re in this together, so we might as well imagine ourselves a nice, fun, shiny future where anything is possible. In its own imperfect, heartfelt way, Tomorrowland wants us leaving the theater thinking a little brighter.

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