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Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland is an immaculate, ambitious failure

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“ToxiCosmos 3 COMING SOON” reads a movie billboard in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. A playful joke that also lampoons our modern infatuation with dystopian wastelands and the apocalypse. Tracing the lines of modern concerns and modern moviemaking, the film, from Disney and their much beloved movie-imagineer, is a long, winding-rewinding mess, perhaps appropriate for a movie that in and of itself contextualises why we seem incapable of rescuing ourselves, the world, from impending actual doom.

Further imbuing real life Disney with fantastical elements – based as much in as on Walt Disney’s EPCOT community vision, the 1963 World’s Fair and the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland – the picture exudes a sense of theme park “forget me not” fun. Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a budding teenage science enthusiast and NASA lover teams up with a once boy-inventor to relocate a future world of tomorrow for the purposes of, to be so kitsch, saving today as much as the day. Bird weaves within the two storylines, entering into the world after coming upon commemorative pins, a series of sequences that feel like theme park rides and exhibitions. Rather than just showing you the ride as would Michael Bay, he focuses on the characters, trying to meld their experience and ours together – the trademark of his trademarked aesthetic.

Only with the pin in hand can characters enter the world, and their movements in the real world are mirrored in the future. This allows for some whirlwind cinematic moments: Casey treading invisible water only for the pin’s timer to run out as she finds herself in the middle of a lake, or falling down household stairs in the hope of moving forward to the glistening utopia. The pinnacle of Bird and cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s images, however, can be found the first 15 minutes, in which a boy and his jetpack fall from the sky, rear projection used as he tries to reach his toy saviour in a flash evolving into an immaculate CGI futurescape as he comes to and shoots upwards in discovery. This future is a place of ideas and innovation, a place “feeding the right wolf,” as Casey cheesily remarks. So how do we reach it?

Tomorrowland lags as it pads the story around its oft-astonishing visuals with convoluted hullabaloo, the ecstatic beauty of childhood messiness trying to be impressed upon surfaces at once sleek and suffocating. Casey goes to a comic shop seller of the pin MacGuffin, now broken, to try and fix it.  Iron Giant and Star Wars merchandise positioned smartly in the background, the meeting goes awry, good and bad robots converging in Terminator-esque fashion to rescue or capture Casey. A model R2D2 is picked up and thrown at Keegan Michael Key’s flabby store owner robot, the shop tellingly exploding as Casey and youth-less Athena (Raffey Cassidy as an A.I. recruiter from the future world) escape. The branding never felt right.

The problems are in the plotting. The mass accumulation of detail as Casey, Athena and Frank Walker (George Clooney, as the embodiment of contemporary cynicism) converge strains against the simple, formulaic strings of its final act: the need to defeat British character actor Hugh Laurie (as Nix) and his militia from doing nothing to find a future for those outside the eponymous Tomorrowland. Such continuous layering leaves it open to gaping plot holes and while Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof play the “you’re the special hero” card to Casey, we never really believe it. Clooney is too solid; Britt Robertson is left playing a rather robotic human hero while Cassidy as Athena excels with a humane rendering of A.I. (her thread finding the greatest pathos out of the movie’s many subplots). The film is at its best when the characters aren’t selling optimism but fashioning wonder from the world, and in the hands of Brad Bird the director that isn’t particularly hard.

Tomorrowland is an immaculate failure, preaching optimism it finds hard to practice in a true way. The movie satirises our branded culture while struggling to fully distinguish itself apart from a nifty piece of marketing (becoming a NASA PSA in the last five minutes) reflecting and refracting a tomorrow otherwise necessarily envisioned.

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