Review: Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland_posterMy daughter and I watch a lot of old movies. The previous era of cinema appeals to us is because of the underlying optimism and the comfort in knowing that the bad guy will get their comeuppance and the good guys will overcome, the proverbial happy ending. Life isn’t quite so graceful, unfortunately, but part of the draw is that older films offer a happier, more optimistic world.

By contrast, modern cinema seems to often lack a moral compass and while this ambiguity can sometimes lead to great movies like The Usual Suspects, other times it produces films that celebrate the bad guy. Case in point: Gone in 60 Seconds. The “heroes” of the film are car thieves. How is that honorable and worth celebrating? Because the other guys in the movie are meaner than they are.

Tomorrowland is an energetic, optimistic film about hope and imagination, core messages that are easy to forget in our modern if-it-bleeds-it-leads era. As lead character Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) explains, we can choose to feed the pessimist or the optimist in our head, a decision that determines which predominates and what kind of person we become.

Tomorrowland starts at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, with earnest young tinkerer Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) entering his homemade jet pack into an inventors contest, hoping to win the $50 prize. Haughty judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie) is unimpressed with an invention that doesn’t quite work, but it’s his companion Athena (a splendid Raffey Cassidy) who catches young Frank’s eye. She slips him a mysterious pin with a “T” emblazoned on it and encourages him to follows her onto the It’s a Small World ride. Turns out that the ride is a secret portal to a future world called Tomorrowland where the sky is full of flying cars, robots do all the tedious work, everyone’s happy and healthy and the only limits on what can be created are the imagination of the creators.

We jump forward fifty years as teen inventor Casey is sabotaging a NASA launchpad to prevent her father Eddie (Tim McGraw) from dismantling the pad: when he’s done, he’s out of a job. She’s dreamt of space since she was very young, and if she has to break the law to keep her father employed by NASA, that’s what she’ll do. She unexpectedly finds a Tomorrowland pin amongst her own things and when she touches it, she’s instantly transported to Tomorrowland, though her physical presence is still in the here and now. This juxtaposition is played to comic effect but she’s absolutely entranced by her glimpses of this future and immediately wants to go back.

That’s when Casey meets Athena — who hasn’t aged in the 50 years since the World’s Fair — and learns that those Tomorrowland pins are hugely valuable, particularly to the bad guys who seek them at all cost. First the unlikely pair Hugo (Keegan-Michael Key) and Ursula (Kathryn Hahn) try to take the pin from her when Casey visits their terrific memorabilia shop, then a grinning group of Men In Black-type secret agents go all-out to get the pin back.

Frank (George Clooney) and Athena (Raffey Cassidy), from "Tomorrowland"
Frank (George Clooney) and Athena (Raffey Cassidy), from “Tomorrowland”

To learn more about these mysterious pins, Casey and Athena meet with grizzled, curmudgeonly Frank Walker (played as an adult by George Clooney) and once they survive the assault of the secret agents, they travel to the top of the Eiffel Tower seeking a modern gateway to Tomorrowland.

Meanwhile, Nix (Laurie) has become the head of Tomorrowland and it’s not quite what everyone had hoped would be created. The primary tension is ultimately between Nix and Walker, with Athena diplomatically trying to make everything work out okay and Casey puzzling out how all the machines in Tomorrowland work.

The story is light and engaging, but it’s the visual effects and underlying sense of fun that’s so appealing about Tomorrowland. While some people might see it as a film about “the power of positive thinking” and get stuck on Nix’s tedious and thankfully short diatribe about how we treat the environment, I think that misses the point of the film. Tomorrowland is about hope. It’s about whether we can be optimistic and fix what’s wrong, or whether we’re all going to resign ourselves to the otherwise inevitable destruction of the environment.

Early in the film, Casey is in a high school classroom with her hand raised while a professor drones on about George Orwell’s 1984 and how we now live in the totalitarian times predicted in the book. He finally asks her what she wants and Casey burst out “Can we fix it?”. That’s the core question of Tomorrowland and after so many dark, depressing action films, it’s darn refreshing to come out of the cinema hopeful and enthused about how things might just look in the future. It might not be the apocalypse after all.

Having said all of that, there are definite weaknesses in the film, from incomprehensible moments in the narrative to trite dialog and an ending that drags on at least a few minutes longer than it should have, deflating the energy of, yes, the happy ending. That’s another Hollywood trend, one that shows up in a far, far more annoying manner in Mad Max: Fury Road, the desire of the director to share their oft-pompous message before the closing credits roll.

I saw Tomorrowland in IMAX and it was gorgeous. The 60’s era footage, the contemporary adventures and, of course the sweeping curves and techno architecture of the future were lush, vibrant and appealing, making this one of my favorite films of 2015 to date. My recommendation: go see it. Now. Take a deep breath and enjoy.

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