Friday, May 29, 2015

Tomorrowland Review

I was psyched after seeing the original teaser trailer for Tomorrowland (2015); instantly teleporting to a different world with the touch of a pin was intriguing. I became even more excited when I heard it was directed and co-written by Brad Bird, the genius behind titles such as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and even Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Tomorrowland is the latest Disney film inspired by a Disney theme park attraction. As was the case with its predecessors it won't inspire you to run off to ride the rides, but this one just might inspire you to try and change the world.
Whenever Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) touches a lapel pin with the letter T on it, she finds herself transported to another place somewhere in time and space called Tomorrowland, a city filled with huge robots, advanced technologies, and sleek buildings governed by David Nix (Hugh Laurie). The optimistic young woman recruits the help of former boy-genius scientist Frank Walker (George Clooney), who previously visited Tomorrowland, and years ago made a startling discovery about the future. Together with a Tomorrowland recruiter named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), the two adventurers set out to find the futuristic metropolis to uncover its mysterious secrets, as the fate of mankind hangs in the balance.
Good science fiction makes commentary on contemporary issues in a unique, metaphorical way.  One could argue that looking at how our science fiction stories have changed over the years is just as telling of our history and social issues than history books are. Awhile back, I read an article on that suggested that Star Trek: The Next Generation Was the Last Sci-Fi Show Hopeful About the Future. It took me awhile, but eventually I had to agree. Over the past several decades science fiction has become more and more bleak and pessimistic about the future, reflecting our attitudes about climate change, overpopulation, scarcity of recourses, international wars, and pollution. All of that is present in Tomorrowland, but as a warning of sorts. The prevailing theme is not one of doom and gloom, but is meant to wake the viewers from apathy, regain the sense of optimism for the future that we had in days past, and to make that bright future a reality. Since Tomorrowland is inspired by a Disney theme park, it was heavily influenced by Walt Disney's optimistic philosophy of innovation and utopia, such as his conceptual vision for the planned community known as EPCOT. By no means does Tomorrowland suggest that pollution, climate change, and other world issues are unimportant; it tells us these are very real problems and encourages us to act and improve the course of the future. This is probably the first science fiction story I've seen in a long time that is not only an optimistic vision of the future, but earnestly tries to instill a sense of optimism and responsibility within its audience. That alone makes Tomorrowland a breath of fresh air.
Brad Bird seems to like an artistic aesthetic that I can't think of a word for other than "retrofuturism", a blend of old-fashioned retro styles with futuristic technology: basically science fiction as it was fifty years or more in the past. Both The Iron Giant and The Incredibles featured a visual style that drew heavily from antique science fiction robots, classic James Bond movies, and vintage comic book super heroes. The Tomorrowland world that Casey sees is heavily influenced by this retrofuturism aesthetic and was a sheer delight to see. It shows us just enough to spark our imaginations and want to see more, but not enough to fully satisfy us with what we do get to see of Tomorrowland.
The theme and structure of Tomorrowland is a rejection of dark dystopia style sci-fi movies. The whole movie is kind of a big race to reach and save utopia. Yet for all of its insistence of diverging from the norm, it continually falls back into the pessimistic tropes of contemporary science fiction. Our heroes are regularly fleeing from mechanical men in suits who have a more than a passing resemblance to Agents in The Matrix movies. In fact, the big expositional dialogue just before the big fight at the end of Tomorrowland is remarkably similar to Agent Smith's exposition with Morpheus about how "humans are the virus." The exposition does get convoluted, but not to the point that viewers would likely fall too far behind. That's just one example, but there are several others. I respect the movie for what it was trying to do, that is be a unique and optimistic take on science fiction. They just didn't quite manage to do it without defaulting back to bleak futuristic sci-fi.
The cast here is really good. Naturally, George Clooney got the headline credits, but he's absent for most of the movie. The young Frank is played by Thomas Robinson in flashbacks, who looks remarkably like a young Clooney. If you're going to grow up to be a celebrity, Clooney is definitely a good choice. Britt Robertson has been raved about as the next up and coming actress, but I think most of the credit should go to Raffey Cassidy. She embodies a wonderfully complex character, has amazing chemistry with her co-stars, does most of her own stunts, has impeccable comedic timing, embodies the optimistic spirit of the film, and even steals scenes from Gorge daggum Clooney! She's only 12 and is amazing to say the least. Tomorrowland's cast is fantastic, but Cassidy is the most impressive in my opinion.
Lastly, I think I should comment on our main protagonist. It's fairly obvious that during development that the character of Casey was meant to be gender neutral; even the name can be male or female. The character was developed to be optimistic, enthusiastic about science and learning, and to be very intelligent. Holding to movie tropes, this has all the stereotypes of a boy character, yet Casey is a girl. She's clever, resourceful, and hopeful. She's not a warrior princess nor a fighter. She's not obsessed with boys and shopping. She's just trying to be a good person and make the world a better place where dreams can be achieved and science accessible to everyone. I think she's a great character that challenges Hollywood's concept of female characters, and she's a character whose values and opinions are worth instilling in our daughters. The only real slip up in this character is that for being so intelligent she doesn't always put the pieces together and often needs things explained to her. I would have liked it if she figured things out on her own a bit more, but I think this is a minor slip up and I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that she's a girl.
Tomorrowland tried very hard to buck the system of science fiction tropes, but doesn't quite manage to fully reject contemporary bleakness. By its nature, dystopian settings lend themselves to conflict, and conflict is what makes a good story. Utopias don't have conflicts with which to tell dynamic stories. But I very much appreciated the optimistic vision of the future that Tomorrowland was aiming for; that was quite refreshing. The cast is fantastic, the theme is interesting if inconclusive, the setting is fascinating, and visual effects are a splendor to behold. I feel like the movie could have had more story and less manic chase scenes, but it was decent for what it was. While I adore Brad Bird's work, this is probably my least favorite of the his films that I've seen. It gets preachy at times and displays a low opinion of the human race despite its forced hopefulness about how dreamers of the world are the ones who can save the future. I enjoyed Tomorrowland overall, but it's not something I'd go out of my way to see again. It's not a bad movie to take the family to see in the theaters, but it's worth the wait to rent.

Can you think of another movie in the last thirty years or so that has an optimistic vision of the future? Would you like to see science fiction like that? Comment below and let me know!

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