TOMORROWLAND: A WORLD BEYOND feels like a far more personal film for Brad Bird than his MISSION IMPOSSIBLE sequel, but this also feels like a shrewd strategy: for all its ambitious scale, the Tom Cruise spy-fest was a way for Bird to acclimatize himself to live-action film-making. We know from THE INCREDIBLES that he has a love of futuristic espionage, so it was easy to see how the world of the Impossible Missions Force would appeal, but TOMORROWLAND is unadulterated Bird. Like THE INCREDIBLES it uses entertainment to put over a very personal message. I find Bird’s didactic streak easy to take in part because the things he chooses to preach about are uniquely him: RATATOUILLE really is about food, in a way that no other Disney animated film has been. THE INCREDIBLES was a plea for exceptional people to be allowed to do exceptional things, and Bird doesn’t apologise if that makes him seem elitist — it can be read as a plea for Bird himself to be allowed to do exceptional things.
TOMORROWLAND really is a manifesto, a counter-myth to the doomy dystopias of modern sci-fi (particularly, as the film makes clear, in video games) — when I said in my MAD MAX: FURY ROAD review that modern post-apocalyptic films seem to take apocalypse as inevitable, I seem to have stumbled upon Bird’s theme — TOMORROWLAND puts itself squarely in opposition to everything MAD MAX represents. (That’s as far as you can read without spoilers, and the movie does play very nicely if you don’t know anything about it…)
The backstory of the film suggests that the technocrats of Tomorrowland have been blasting us with a telepathic signal that makes us realize that the world is in danger, but that instead of galvanizing us into action, it’s depressed us into inertia. The characters in the film decide to fight back with their own message of hope, and it’s quite clear from the film’s narrative structure that TOMORROWLAND is itself that message, the hope-signal from a sunny futureworld, a beacon for us to follow to get to Jetsons utopia.
Points in the film’s favour: it is co-written by Damon Lindelof and yet makes a certain kind of sense, is consistent with itself, and doesn’t vanish beneath an avalanche of unmotivated behaviour and dim-bulb dialogue. Actually, the secret science-cult behind it all are a lot like the one in Lost.
The acting is really excellent. George Clooney is fine as ever, but the kids are his equal: four REALLY great kids. Britt Robertson, technically an adult, actually (not even a teenager) should be an immediate star. She has to basically embody optimism here. I believed her, all the way.
The design is lovely, capturing that retro-future vibe elegantly and with original touches (the suspended swimming pools!) which nevertheless feel in keeping with the period (an early-sixties vision of tomorrow). There’s a stunning moment when Tomorrowland, seen previously in a vision (which turns out to have been a commercial), is revealed in its run-down, seedy present form.
Of course, the concept of a scientific elite, or any kind of elite, leaves open the question of what attitude the film should take to the muggles, the mundanes, its own audience. And here the movie encounters one slight difficulty, since, despite locating the cause of mankind’s woes in the old technocrats, it also regards their successors as our saviours. There’s one rather shocking scene where the little android girl (yes: there’s a little android girl) gets smacked by a pick-up truck and knocked flying. The owner of the truck rushes to her fallen form, and his truck is then stolen. He takes off after it, forgetting his victim, who then gets to her feet and starts running after the truck at Jamie Sommers bionic speed. What’s missing is the reaction shot from the old guy who just ran her down — he ought to be comically astonished. Such a reaction would let us off the hook from our discomfort at the thought of some guy thinking he’s killed a kid, and the fact that the movie showed us what LOOKS like a horrible child fatality. It seems like a mistake for the movie not to be interested enough in this background character to use him to defuse that anxiety.
The odd effect of this android kid doesn’t stop there. She’s beautifully played by Raffey Cassidy, but the fact that she’s playing an ageless android who is decades older than her appearance means that we get to see George Clooney playing, essentially, love scenes with a child. Because he’s George Clooney and the scenes are beautifully conceived and written, this isn’t actually icky. But there is perhaps a trace of discomfort again.
And that’s it for negative comments. Oh, when the heroine is led to a swamp, there should’ve been something IN the swamp of significance, probably, or why would android girl have led her there? Seems like android girl left her this clue and then expected her to stay put. Well, what the hell, the last time a Damon Lindelof script made this much sense was never, so we should be content with the charm and the classically beautiful storytelling and the really appealing characters.
The end credits feature some beautiful animation. Of course the drones in the audience stampeded for the exits, missing all this additional entertainment they had paid for, because it’s the end credits and the movie’s over, innit? Only one teenager, in the seat next to us, stayed. I felt like saying to him, “You’ve passed the test: here’s your pin,” but I didn’t have a Tomorrowland badge on me, just one of Jean Marais as the Beast in LA BELLE ET LA BETE, and I’m not sure how he would have reacted to that. But he deserves a prize. The movie’s point, Bird’s over-arching career-long theme, that some people are special, has some validity. Of course, everybody’s special or unique in their own way. But we should only celebrate them when they manifest it in positive ways, which is all too rare.
Here’s a film which resoundingly passes the sidewalk test and makes you glad of it. When you exit a movie, does the world look different? I came out and was struck by the view from the top of the Vue Ocean Terminal — Edinburgh — ancient, sooty Edinburgh — seemed like a dream city of the Twenty-First Century. Which, in a way, it is.