Friday, May 22, 2015

Tomorrowland: An unsatisfying ride

Tomorrowland (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG, and a bit generously, for violence, dramatic intensity and sci-fi action

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.22.15

Nobody likes a lecture.

Disney’s Tomorrowland displays enough gee-whiz creativity and high-tech gloss for the next half-dozen films — and that’s a problem all by itself — but all the razzle-dazzle eventually boils down to A Message. A heartfelt and deeply necessary message, to be sure, but a disappointing anticlimax nonetheless.

Having penetrated the inner sanctum carefully guarded by the reclusive Frank Walker
(George Clooney), Casey (Britt Robertson) can't help wondering why he spends so much
time watching so many monitors.
I was reminded of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, with its mind-blowing dreams within dreams, all eventually leading to the inconsequential equivalent of Orson Welles’ Rosebud.

But whereas Citizen Kane built to that moment with well-established irony, Inception and Tomorrowland merely leave us with a vague sense of having been cheated. As in, Seriously? That’s what we’ve been building to?

With respect to the environmental undercurrent running throughout this new Disney release, 1971’s Silent Running made the same point far more profoundly — and effectively — without being so insufferably didactic.

But while the concluding let-down is indeed unsatisfying, Tomorrowland has a more glaring problem: a ludicrously overcooked script by too many chefs. Scripters Damon Lindelof, Jeff Jensen and Brad Bird (the latter also directing) can’t decide what type of movie they’re making — action epic, sci-fi comedy or cautionary tale — and subsequently fail at all three.

To be sure, the result is awesome to look at, with marvels a-plenty on the screen. But it’s almost as if Bird hopes to overwhelm us with the eye-popping imagery, as a means of concealing the story’s deficiencies and glaring plot holes. This is one of those scripts that doesn’t hold together during post-mortem scrutiny; you’ll exit the theater exchanging comments that begin with “Wait a minute...” and “But what about...” and, mostly, “Why did that happen?”

Why, indeed. Rarely has a surprise villain’s motive seemed so impenetrable, muddled and pointless.

All of which represents a heartbreaking result from the talented Bird, who until now could do no wrong. Few directors could boast of a consecutive record as strong as The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. But not even he could stitch all these disparate fabric squares into a pleasing quilt.

Such a shame.

We’re in trouble right away, when the film opens with star George Clooney delivering a professorial “explanation” intended to set the stage: the clumsy equivalent of a voice-over prologue meant to bridge details inadequately conveyed by what is to follow. This awkward introduction merely gets in the way of a promising first act, which opens when young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) arrives, all bliss and excitement, at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

This setting serves as the film’s obligatory nod to the Disneyland realm that grants its name, and even longtime theme park fans may have forgotten that the Carousel of Progress and Small World attractions debuted here, in New York, before later moving to their Southern California home. The former’s catchy tune (“There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow...”) reflects Frank’s obvious enthusiasm, as he makes his way to the fair’s Hall of Invention.

He joins the queue of amateur tinkerers, all hoping to impress an imposing panel of scientists with a patent-worthy gadget of some sort. Frank has brought along his garage-built jet pack (!), but under withering scrutiny from the stuffy academic (Hugh Laurie) behind the table, the boy has to confess that it doesn’t quite work right. Yet. But he can fix it. Probably.

Not good enough for the Hall of Invention, alas, but definitely of interest to the mysterious little girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who follows Frank out of the building, presses an unusual souvenir pin into his hand, and tells him to follow her. Quietly. One droll bit of shadowing later — and I’ll never again ride Small World with quite the same tranquility — and Frank is ... somewhere else.

But just as we’ve settled into young Frank’s quite absorbing adventure, we’re yanked back to Clooney’s “explanation,” at which point the focus shifts to the present day, and teenage Casey Newton (Britt Robertson). During an efficient montage, Casey is introduced as an optimist and skilled tinkerer: an impassioned dreamer dismayed by the doom ’n’ gloom attitude of her various high school teachers.

She’s also a well-intentioned late-night saboteur, desperately trying to delay the decommissioning of a nearby NASA facility that will throw her engineer father (country music superstar Tim McGraw, in a brief but warm part) out of work.

Alas, one lone girl, no matter how dedicated, can’t fight the government. But she does wind up with a familiar-looking (to us) souvenir pin, which does something quite unusual every time she touches it. She also gains a chaperone — Athena, looking just as she did half a century earlier — but not until after a rather odd encounter with the two weird owners of a sci-fi and fantasy novelty shop.

Not to mention the subsequent arrival of an even stranger posse of grinning “Men in Black,” who prove to be quite deadly to surrounding bystanders.

Several skirmishes later, Casey winds up outside the deceptively dilapidated home of a crusty eccentric who wants nothing to do with her. This grumpy fellow turns out to be Frank Walker’s older self, now played by Clooney (which, at least, answers one question). Casey, with her savant-like ability to “understand how stuff works,” realizes that Walker has built an impressive set-up specifically to monitor a rather strange count-down device.

But before she can learn anything about what, precisely, is being monitored, she and Walker are attacked by the aforementioned Men in Black, and things get really, really crazy.

At about this point, we also can’t help feeling that these Men in Black have wandered in from an entirely different film: most likely 2013’s The World’s End. And their tendency toward callous murder feels jarringly inappropriate, given Bird’s otherwise larkish, girl’s-own-adventure tone.

Robertson makes an engaging heroine, and it’s wonderful to see a film of this nature anchored by a young woman: equally nice to be reminded that boys don’t have a lock on saving the world. Unfortunately, Robertson gets little opportunity for the graceful charm she displayed a month ago, in The Longest Ride. Most of her scenes here fall into two categories: baffled or frightened attempts to get people to explain things, or protracted periods of stunned, appreciative silence over The Many Wonders To Be Seen.

Bird seriously overplays the latter: one of several ways we become acutely aware of this film’s overly generous 130-minute length.

Clooney essentially plays himself, which is always entertaining but no great acting stretch. Frank’s necessary character arc involves replacing discouraged impatience with tentative hope, and Clooney sells that reasonably well.

Laurie is insultingly officious: just right as a condescending dream-killer.

Athena, actually, is the film’s most intriguing character; the oddly solemn Cassidy is quite fascinating. PBS viewers will recognize her from the Masterpiece Theater run of Mr. Selfridge, and there’s no doubt that she has embarked on a highly promising career.

Robinson is appropriately resourceful and plucky as Frank’s younger self, and little Pierce Gagnon — so spooky in television’s Extant — goes in the opposite direction, and is adorable as Casey’s younger brother.

The production values and special effects are superb; as already mentioned, there’s no shortage of nifty stuff to appreciate. Michael Giacchino’s lively orchestral score propels and action nicely.

On the other hand, editors Walter Murch and Craig Wood could have worked harder ... or, perhaps, should have been allowed to work harder.

Despite all its far-reaching ideas, “Tomorrowland” lacks focus. Ironically, given its underlying moral, it also lacks heart. While by no means the worst movie adapted from a Disneyland attraction — Eddie Murphy’s Haunted Mansion has that (dis)honor locked solid, forever and always — Tomorrowland reminds us, yet again, that good stories emerge organically, rather than being stitched, Frankenstein-style, from something that never was intended as a narrative template.

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