‘Tomorrowland’ a bumpy ride into the future

22 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Tomorrowland’ Puts a Disney Spin on the Future.

There’s one great moment in Tomorrowland where all the world-building clicks and anything seems possible. An optimist with a wild imagination and talent for invention, young Frank Walker’s (Thomas Robinson) life changes when he attends the 1964 New York World’s Fair for inventors.

We then cut to another young genius, teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), who uses her tech know-how to keep the nearby NASA launchpad at Cape Canaveral from being demolished — which would mean a layoff for her father (Tim McGraw), a NASA engineer.The city that gives the new film its name is a secret, otherworldly utopia where the best and brightest can unleash their intellects and imaginations, but it didn’t just spring into existence. Casey gets caught and arrested, and when she is bailed out, there’s something unexpected in her personal effects: a lapel pin, which, when she touches it, gives her a fully realistic mental image of Tomorrowland.

So cue the super shiny child actors looking hopeful while delivering sappy saccharine speeches about “Life.” But if you can get past those (and there are a lot of them, the most embarrassing of which comes from Hugh Laurie, in a nylon futuristic trouser suit) and feast your eyes on the spectacular special effects and real-life locations, it’s a movie worth seeing. It’s the kind of thing that the Imagineer in all of us dreams of: a glimpse of an unknown magical world, hiding just below the surface of our pedestrian one.

So, it had to look that way. “The vision of what utopia is continually changes,” says director and co-writer Brad Bird. “The art deco streamlined utopia is not incompatible with the French futurism at the end of the 1800s. This is a future with sleek skyscrapers, gravity-defying water bodies, aerial pathways and inhabitants who look like they have walked straight off the Tokyo catwalk. Frank is in awe and becomes a part of this world, until he falls out of favour with the high command headed by Nix (Hugh Laurie) and is banished from Tomorrowland.

You can make things from different generations that play well with each other.” So, long before George Clooney’s Frank Walker was a disgruntled, middle-aged inventor-in-exile from this fabulous land, he was the boy genius you see above – piloting a homemade rocket pack (built on the bones of an old vacuum cleaner) through a Tomorrowland that is still under construction after many decades. “To know what that would look like, we need to lock down who the influencers were,” says screenwriter Damon Lindelof, who wrote the story with Bird and EW’s own Jeff Jensen. “If we’re trying to figure out what Tomorrowland looks like, we have to figure out who its architects were.” The science-fiction adventure takes place in the present day and centers on Britt Robertson’s teenage Casey, who seeks out Clooney’s hermit-like inventor to help her find safe passage to this futuristic world she has glimpsed. At the press conference in L.A. earlier this month, director Brad Bird said Tomorrowland has a more hopeful view of the future than many other films. “Any time that there is an empty canvas, there are two ways to look at it; one is emptiness and the other one is wide open to possibility,” he said. “And that’s how I like to look at the future—wide open to possibility.

It’s told with the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old: “And then this happened, and then this happened, and then there was a rocketship!” That kind of enthusiasm is infectious, but there’s a reason 12-year-olds don’t make movies—they’re great with premises, but not conclusions. We learn about his banishment only after we have endured the laborious backstory of Casey (Britt Robertson), involving her Nasa engineer father and kid brother and her obsession with science.

We meet Frank Walker (George Clooney), a bitter inventor who has squirreled himself away in a remote farm. “When I was a kid, the future was… different,” he says with a misty eye, as we catapult back to the 1964 World’s Fair, when young Frank was bursting with ideas and wide-eyed hope. But that world’s origins begin long ago: the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, where Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Gustav Eiffel formed a secret society dedicated to creating a better future – whether on Earth, or another place in space-time. It is a view that has fallen out of favor.” For those who lived through the Space Race in the 1950s, the dream was that humans would be bouncing around on the lunar surface in reflective clothing by now. Old enough to leave home alone making an excuse of camping, but young enough to think she can prevent a NASA facility nearby from being torn down by small acts of vandalism?

This is the information they downloaded into the head of production designer Scott Chambliss (TV’s Alias, the Star Trek reboots, Salt) as he set about building the place they were dreaming. Now a cynical and over-cautious man living in a self-styled fortress, Frank (George Clooney) finds an ally in Casey, also handpicked by Athena as a recipient of the mysterious pin. Bird and Lindelof (who share story credit with comic-book writer Jeff Jensen) clearly have fun creating their version of Tomorrowland, with friendly robots and levitating trains and rocket hops to distant planets. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were the first conversations like with Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, and Jeff Jensen about what they thought this city should look like?

This conundrum is at the heart of the film— how the future isn’t always what you expected. “It wouldn’t surprise me that his time spent there would have rubbed off on his fantastical visions of future space travel, the futuristic yet retro architecture and the general gee whiz eye-popping cultural nods to both the 60’s past and our future as explorers,” Bert Ulrich, NASA’s liaison for Film and TV Collaborations, told PCMag. It presents you with a scintillating idea—Nikola Tesla hiding scientific wonders in the Eiffel Tower, say, or a secret place in another dimension where people are trying to save humanity from its own self-destruction—only to discard it like some half-melted Dippin’ Dots in a theme-park trashcan. (It’s the ice cream of the future!) The point of Tomorrowland, much like its namesake attraction, is about better living through imagination, about optimism’s triumph over cynicism. I have such a hankering for these dystopian films, mainly because the future always looks so overblown and fun, and in this respect, Brad Bird does not disappoint.

It’s clear that the crew got to unleash their inner geek on the sets, props, and VFX, particularly during a sequence with Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn, who play the Gernsbacks, owners of a sci-fi novely shop called Blast From the Past. The buzzwords in this futuristic Disney movie, helmed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles), are “optimism”, “wonder”, “imagination” and “inspiration”. They had nothing but a blank space where any of Tomorrowland’s sequences were going to be, and basically the description in those couple of spots was: “And now they’re in Tomorrowland.

It’s a really nice idea, one nearly impossible to dislike, but it’s a concept that we already feel at a cellular level—just watch some footage of the Moon landing and see what the hairs on your arm do. It’s no coincidence that parts of the film are shot in Magic Kingdom, a theme park in the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, US, and that young Frank finds himself on the “It’s A Small World” ride. Where Interstellar is about man’s quest for answers and the price it takes, Tomorrowland is a more run-of-the-mill affair about two worlds that is least interersted in the in-betweens. Disney opened the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland, California in 1955 and was deep into plans for E.P.C.O.T, his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, before his death.

The image of a united world thriving on diversity is reinforced in the final frames, unsubtly double-underlining the idea that only children can set right the mistakes of generations past. All that remains is the theme park version in Florida and various editions of Tomorrowland in five Disneyland parks around the world, including Paris, Tokyo, and Shanghai. Mankind’s on a course for mutually assured destruction, Athena knows, and showing Casey Tomorrowland (via that pin we saw in the trailers) might just inspire her to help save the world. From the tiresome opening scene of a middle-aged man arguing with a teen about whose story will be more compelling, you realize there is no need to tighten your seatbelt, for this is not any kind of roller-coaster ride.

Bird, usually a master of pacing (exhibit A: “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”), here creates a laborious build-up to the action, and the exposition scenes stretch out with dull clichés. (Bird, the director of “The Incredibles,” should know better than to let the villain get away with monologuing.) The movie doesn’t have anything concrete to do with the park—although teaser trailers hinted that it does—but it’s all from the same imaginative source. To do that, though, Casey will need some help from Frank, who first got chosen to go to Tomorrowland in 1964 after inventing a jetpack. (Like a few things left unresolved in this film, it’s unclear exactly what dimension/time Tomorrowland exists in—and whose invisible hands created it.

I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that Tomorrowland, in our movie, was constructed over a period of a few decades—three, four decades, something like that. Nearing the end, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond runs clean out of steam (no mean feat for a film running at full locomotive pelt) when Hugh Laurie’s power-hungry Nix delivers an unending message-laden monologue. Frank with a gift for invention had landed up in Tomorrowland, ushered by Athena (Cassidy), and promptly fallen for her even though she is revealed to be an “audio-animatronic (robot)”. As the years and the decades progressed, they kept inviting other creative thinkers and engineers and scientists with brilliant minds to join their secret fraternity.

There are great bit performances from Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key. (Keep your eyes peeled for Star Wars sight gags when these two are around.) The visuals and production design are stunning. And while it is interesting to begin with, it gets tiresome after a while to watch Casey do her incessant chatter and Frank his weary, grey-haired, wise-eyed Clooney thing. We say that they started building in the ‘20s, ‘30s, continued through the ‘60s when we would see young Frank flying over in that phase of construction that you see in the picture that you’ve got. Cassidy does a better …continued » Youngsters get thrown into the rough quite a bit in Tomorrowland, and at least one of them even shows smeared blood after an injury. The things that make it wonderful—solid female characters, a sense of hope in a genre (speculative fiction) that so often favors cynicism—just don’t add up to enough.

And that’s even before Laurie’s ‘Governor Nix (Tomorrowland’s governor)’ gives his big, all-encompassing, all-admonishing lecture on Earth — a disappointment from a director who has given us delightfully entertaining and intelligent films such as Ratatouille and The Incredibles before. That was a creative choice we made along the way, and part of that was from experiencing firsthand what planned communities that are planned by a single vision or a single person look like.

One of the skyscrapers looks a little like the Gherkin in London: tapered top, wide middle, some others towers look a little like sleeker versions of the World Trade Center. While I wasn’t conscious trying to knock off one specific building to the last detail, there’s certainly areas in the city that have a ‘50s, ‘60s vibe.

Let’s just open up our imaginations to something unique, with upside-down park spaces, etc …’ We flash forward to technologies that allow deep, super-crazy computer-generated shapes, and beyond that, just taking that philosophy and pushing it to an imagined place where we can blend nature and architecture together to create yet another foreign language. In some of the buildings that you’ll wind up seeing in the movie, there are structures—one of them looks like a gigantic corkscrew on its side—that clearly has an organic component to the whole thing.

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