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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Disney's Tomorrowland



In director Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, the future's so bright, you gotta wear a jetpack. Or at least, it was, laments the movie. And it can be again. "What if there were a place where all the brightest scientists, artists, thinkers, came together to create the future without politics and governments interfering?" postulates George Clooney, one of those very scientists who, as a boy at the 1964 World's Fair, was recruited (against the wishes of  the stern governor of Tomorrowland Hugh Laurie) to be one of the visionaries of tomorrow. The future envisioned in Tomorrowland circa 1964 is of the quaint Walt Disney/Jetsons variety: art deco spires scraping the clouds, jetpack-propelled folks zipping across the horizon, and everything is sparkling and... white, especially the inhabitants, who are distinctly Caucasian. "It's a Small World After All," and boy, isn't it? Imagination was prized but inclusiveness seems to be another story in this land symbolizing tomorrow.

As for the real world, the one right outside our window, nothing's changed. Tomorrowland blatantly argues, and it's hard to disagree, things are getting worse. Wars, cultural unrest, climate change creating catastrophic weather, and a population too distracted and inert to care or dream of something more and - even more difficult and unappealing - to do something about it all, are the order of the day. And of tomorrow, unless something is done. This is where Britt Robertson unwittingly comes in. A bright, plucky, teen heroine who moonlights as a saboteur (she destroys the cranes NASA is using to dismantle the launch platforms for their defunct space shuttle program in a fruitless attempt to save her NASA engineer father's job), Robertson is given a mysterious "T" emblazoned pin by a mysterious British girl (Raffey Cassidy) that allows her to see a hologram of Tomorrowland. (The very same British girl gave young George Clooney his pin in 1964, right before young Clooney quickly fell for her.) The dazzling sequences where Robertson breathlessly explores the wondrous Tomorrowland are the best moments of the movie. Everyone in the audience wishes they had a pin.

In order to understand the meaning of the pin she received and what exactly Tomorrowland is, Robertson hits the road on a cross country journey, to Houston, Upstate New York, and, by teleportation (sponsored by Coca Cola), Paris! She is chased by a disturbingly upbeat and smiley army of Tomorrowland robots armed with destructo-ray guns, and she gains allies, mainly the older, disenfranchised George Clooney. Clooney was exiled from Tomorrowland 25 years ago and lives as a hermit in a high tech farmhouse rigged Home Alone-style to defend against an invasion by Tomorrowland robots. Little by little, miraculous escape after miraculous escape, we learn the secrets of Tomorrowland, which exists in an alternate dimension discovered by our greatest minds (Alexandre Gustav Eiffel, Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla) decades ago. The Eiffel Tower itself "was never meant as a monument," and houses a Flash Gordon-style rocket underneath it that is news to everyone who lives in the City of Lights.

Upon finally reaching the real Tomorrowland, Robertson, Clooney and the audience can't help but be let down by what they find: the fabled future city laid shabby by lack of maintenance and disinterest, curiously underpopulated, and worst of all: a third act sorely lacking in the imagination promised. An intriguing reveal that Laurie is in fact responsible for the world's current plight by filling people's minds with visions of an apocalyptic future broadcast from Tomorrowland that humanity chose to embrace is a direct counter to the ending of Watchmen, which argued that when faced with impending doom, Mankind would band together to fight for a better future. Who would have guessed Watchmen would be less cynical than a Disney film? It all degenerates into a disappointing climax where the screenplay by Bird and Damon Lindelof pitches aside its heady ideas for dunderheaded action. We're told throughout that Robertson is special and can "fix" what's wrong with Tomorrowland, but not through science or know-how. She can do it by blowing shit up! Everything hinges on George Clooney and Hugh Laurie brawling with fisticuffs on a beach while Robertson scrambles after a bomb resembling a thermal detonator from Return of the Jedi (Star Wars is blatantly referenced throughout. Gotta love Disney corporate synergy).

At its best, Tomorrowland is enchantingly retro filmmaking, recalling the feel of Back to the Future with its expertly staged chase sequences, impossible escapes, whiz-bang adventure, and dogged optimism. Robertson is an appealing lead, though the screenplay too often reduces her to asking an endless barrage of questions, with Clooney doing a lot of explaining. Robertson is touted for her optimism and for being someone who "understands how things work," but her expertise with explosives turns out to be her greatest skill. Upon gaining control of Tomorrowland, Clooney and Robertson together take the brave steps into creating a better tomorrow for all Mankind, recruiting the best and brightest from all nations and creeds (but only the best and the brightest - there goes that exclusivity again) and giving them a stake in Tomorrowland. The timing of this is ironic: the hopeful, multi-ethnic future Tomorrowland embraces echoes the recent series finale of Mad Men, where Don Draper invents the most famous ad of all time: teaching people from all over the world to sing with Coca Cola in the 1970s. Tomorrowland hopes for a better tomorrow, but no matter the past or future, it seems the corporations will always win.