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Friday, May 22, 2015

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond

Pardon me if this feels slightly more like a book report than your typical review. It's just that kind of movie.

This review is also up, in slightly altered form, at Channel 24

What it's about

After being arrested for trying to sabotage the dismantling of a NASA base, Casey Newton, a passionately idealistic and fiercely intelligent young woman, finds a mysterious pin from the 1964 World Trade Fair in her belongings; a pin that alerts her to the existence of a far happier future than the one towards which our world is heading. As the mystery of the strange pin deepens, Casey soon finds herself teaming up with a former boy genius, Frank Walker, to save the world from an apocalyptic fate.

What we thought

Despite a few iffy reviews from the American press, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond has plenty going for it. Its terrifically retro-futuristic art design, its likeable characters, its very solid cast and the fact that it's a creative genre film that is nether a sequel, a remake nor a comic book adaptation, are already enough to set it apart from the pack, but what impresses most about Disney's latest live action feature is that it is a big budget, CGI-heavy summer blockbuster that happens to have a genuine, honest-to-goodness philosophy at its core. It's a philosophy that informs the entire film, never being overshadowed by even Tomorrowland's most spectacular of set pieces, and it's a philosophy that stands firmly against the tide of the current cultural climate.

Best of all, this all comes from a film with the most inauspicious of origins: a tourist attraction at Disneyland!

Combining the gee-wizz optimism of 1950s pulpy sci-fi with the 1970s cerebral science fiction that has been resurrected in recent years by people like Christopher Nolan and Duncan Jones, all viewed through the prism of a 1980s Spielbergian family adventure, it's hardly surprising that Tomorrowland feels so anachronistic on the one hand, and so timeless on the other. It's also a film that has a bright, family-friendly aesthetic and yet is primarily concerned with our world's currently trajectory of going to hell in a handcart thanks to everything from overpopulation to climate change.

It's not therefore, technically speaking, a particularly original film as it draws so heavily on pop culture from the past sixty-odd years but, by smashing together its diverse and often conflicting influences, it ends up feeling like something completely unique in today's pop-culture landscape. And, again, this all comes back to the film's central philosophy.

Acclaimed writer/ director, Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and his cowriter, the oft-controversial Damon Lindeloff (Lost, Prometheus), working off an original story that they created with Jeff Jensen, have fashioned a tale that is a 130-minute-long exploration and celebration of the power of the human mind.

More specifically, Tomorrowland questions whether our increasing fascination with the doom and gloom that informs so much of our pop culture is a reflection of what our future holds or whether our current mindset is the very thing that will inform and shape that future. In pop culture terms, is our fascination with something like the Hunger Games a reflection of our future or is our future a reflection of our fascination with the Hunger Games? Are we just dooming ourselves with a grand-scale self-fulfilling prophecy?    

Beautifully though, these themes are dealt with in anything but a dryly intellectual or hectoring manner. Instead, through its terrifically enjoyable and wonderfully peopled action-adventure narrative, the film calls for its young audience to be engaged by and in their world and for the rest of us to implement change by doing something as simple and as difficult as shifting our mindset and it does so in a way that is breathlessly entertaining and restlessly creative. It's not exactly subtle, as this message is stated very, very clearly by its main characters in the film's controversial third act but it's handled with a far defter touch than its critics suggest.

Sure, the film is not afraid to make the explicit, super, super explicit thanks to that bit of speechifying towards the end, but it's equally smart in the way it weaves its philosophy through allegory and visual metaphors, as well. The way the film constantly evokes the kind of future that people imagined in the 1950s, with all the rocket packs, flying cars and space exploration that comes with it, constantly brings to mind how far off course we've gone in so many ways but, at exactly the same time, by having our heroes effectively fight against such staid nostalgia, there's also a sense that clinging to the past is not really the answer either.

Tomorrowland may have its fairly minor flaws (occasionally scatter-shot storytelling, side-lining some of the cast, a slightly indulgent running-time) but they don't come anywhere close to really taking away from a film that is otherwise gleefully enjoyable, smart, creative and moving, with a core philosophy that is, by turns, disturbing, uplifting, straightforward and nuanced. Lovely, lovely stuff.

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