Starring: Britt Robertson (The Longest Ride), George Clooney (The Descendants), Raffey Cassidy (Snow White and the Hunstman), Hugh Laurie (House)
Director: Brad Bird (The Incredibles)
Writers: Damon Lindelof (Prometheus) and Brad Bird
Runtime: 2 hours 10 minutes
Release Date: 22 May (US, UK)
It may be the popular thing to say, but it’s true: Brad Bird is kind of a genius. All of his movies so far have been nothing less than excellent, combining imagination, wit and heart in equal measure to make classic films that stand the test of time and will do for generations to come. After years of working in animation, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol served as a great testing ground for Bird in the world of live action, and now he’s ready to take on something a little more daring. Tomorrowland (slapped with the subtitle A World Beyond here in the UK for nonsense copyright reasons) has had a lot of build-up through Bird’s name value and an effectively conservative marketing campaign, so expectations are high; after all, Bird turned down Star Wars for this. Whilst I am glad to report that Tomorrowland does hold up Bird’s impeccable track record and you should most certainly go see it, it’s nigh impossible to live up to such lofty ambitions.
The story of Tomorrowland is a simple but imaginative story, one that evokes that magical sense of wonder found in the early works of Steven Spielberg. The plot does follow a lot of conventions (protagonist picked from obscurity and told they are the super-special saviour of the world, anyone?), but this familiarity plays into the retro feel of the movie and ultimately uses these devices to say something different and relevant. It’s a fun ride for sure full of interesting characters and creative set pieces, but Tomorrowland is mostly a film about ideas, and those ideas are definitely worth considering. Though it is a film inspired by the past and about the possibilities of the future, it is ultimately a film about our present, what’s wrong with it, and what we need to do to fix it. The film touches on the subjects of optimism vs. pessimism, the degradation of our world, and society’s growing disinterest in the possibilities of progress; having the dissolution of the NASA space program play into the plot is certainly no coincidence. It’s this honest but hopeful and determined look at our world that really makes Tomorrowland click, but I’d be lying if I said the film didn’t have problems. The main culprit is the film’s first ten minutes which, whilst helping set up the world and some key characters, does feel tacked on and sets a bad first impression; you could cut it out and work some of the more important details into the story later, and the film would be far better for it. Once the ball does get rolling on the main plot, the movie improves immensely but other issues do occasionally rear their heads. The dialogue can become very exposition-heavy during the quieter scenes, the pacing and structure feels a little off-balance at certain points, and though the withholding of certain information makes sense from the perspective of the audience in regards to creating mystery and suspense, in context you sometimes question why they’re holding back this important information other than “because the plot says so.”
Though the marketing would have you believe George Clooney is the star of this movie, Tomorrowland ultimately belongs to Britt Robertson’s Casey Newton. Acerbic and stubborn but full of positivity and with a passion for creativity, the character of Casey is a wonderfully charming and relatable protagonist and Robertson carries the character and the movie effortlessly; her performance is a joy from start to finish. The character of Frank Walker is essentially Clooney playing a broken version of himself: charming and witty, but with a tired, defeatist edge. Contrasted against Robertson’s unflinching optimism, this already makes for a fun on-screen combo. But throw Raffey Cassidy’s Athena into the mix also, and the fun only increases; I can’t say much without spoiling, but Cassidy’s performance is perfectly attuned and heartfelt, and her character is the source of some of the film’s best action and comedy. Hugh Laurie feels disappointingly underutilised as Nix (not counting the prologue, he’s not introduced until the third act), but he makes the most of his limited screen time, especially in a speech near the end that essentially sums up why the world is screwed. The rest of the cast is mostly inconsequential, but there are some worth mentioning; Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key have a lot of fun with their brief roles, whilst it’s also nice to see Looper’s Pierce Gangon is still getting some work.
In both The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, Brad Bird proved he had a penchant for retro and that rings as true as ever in Tomorrowland. Everything about the sets, props and costumes feels ripped straight from the pages of a 1950s sci-fi comic strip, but all of it is done in a way without feeling cheesy or childish. There are a lot of fun ideas on display in regards to the sci-fi technology, creating for some inventive action beats that play around with these toys. A brief skirmish in a geek store is a particular highlight not just for action, but it’s also a visual and auditory delight thanks to all the Easter eggs thrown into the scene; be sure to keep a close eye on those store shelves. The cinematography is crisp and vivid with strong colours, bright lighting and clean camera operation, and Michael Giacchino’s score is uplifting and well attuned to the film’s buoyant disposition.
Tomorrowland is a really, really good movie, and for most movies that would be enough. But Tomorrowland is so close to perfection it can practically taste it, but it falls just short of becoming an instant masterpiece, and that’s enough to make it feel a little disappointing. The intriguing premise, the strong performances, the ingenious visuals and, most of all, the fascinating ideas about society and progress are all excellent, but it doesn’t quite hit it home the way a lot of Brad Bird’s other films have done so effortlessly. Whether it was studio interference or the script being taken out of the oven too early, Tomorrowland’s issues certainly seem fixable and I wish these kinks in the narrative had been ironed out before cameras started rolling. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a film most certainly worth seeing and it does nothing to dissuade my feelings about Bird’s reputation as a filmmaker, but it really is that damn close to being something extraordinary and doesn’t quite make it.
FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10