Sunday, May 24, 2015

TOMORROWLAND Crashes Like A Faulty Jet Pack

TOMORROWLAND (directed by Brad Bird, 2015)

How much you enjoy "Tomorrowland" largely boils down to how much you're willing to lie to yourself.

Here is a movie I'm desperate to like, I'm practically dying to like. Director/co-writer Brad Bird (of "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant" fame) has yet to inflict cinematic wrong, and with his latest, he attempts no less than to conjure classic live-action Disney magic of the past, where the movie screen feels like a doorway, beckoning us to a more extraordinary version of ourselves and our world. "Tomorrowland" proudly slaps its heart on its sleeve, then asks us why we aren't doing the same.

And yet...and yet. Do we support a movie for what it's trying to do, or for what it ultimately does? I want to live in a world where "Tomorrowland" kickstarts a new wide-eyed, original franchise. I want to live in a world where it imbues us with that feeling of hope and optimism it so clearly wishes, where kids exit the theater keen on becoming scientists and artists and inventors and thinkers. Sometimes life demands painful admissions we'd rather deny, though, and here's one of them: "Tomorrowland" fails. I support its intent and its spirit and its message with every fiber of my blogger being, but at a point, we must remove the goggles and face the world we've got to live in. Bird stands on the mountaintop and preaches the gospel of wonder. What a damn shame his movie curiously lacks it. 

I take no pleasure in this.

Chief among the movie's faults is the most elemental one of structure. As the movie starts, we meet young inventor Frank Walker in 1964, hitching a bus to the New York World's Fair to show off his new jet pack. Although he fails to impress judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie), he is invited on a ominous fair ride that launches him on a secret tunnel to Tomorrowland, a futuristic, seemingly otherworldly city where anything is possible and dreaming is encouraged. Flash forward to today, where cynicism abounds and a young, idealistic girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) starts having visions of the city, and only an adult Frank (now played by George Clooney), who was mysteriously exiled from Tomorrowland, can take her there. 

As reasonable a pitch for a movie as any. But you don't spend all day cranking a Jack In The Box only to learn there's nothing inside - there are basic rules of pacing and payoff. You set up a world, introduce the players, create the stakes, and take us to the finish line. For a movie clocking in at two solid hours before credits, "Tomorrowland" feels oddly stuck in Act 1, constantly feeding us table scraps of information that only mildly tantalize the story's true scope, creating unreasonable anticipation for where we're heading, until arriving at a bizarrely rushed conclusion.

It's not that "Tomorrowland"'s ultimate destination - that of a basic end-of-the-world scenario - is disappointing (though it is). It's the blatant tease of it all. What we have here is a fundamentally obvious story marred by the promise of something grand, an almost bizarre experiment in how much of a feature length movie you can create using set-up. "Tomorrowland" pulls back curtains only to reveal more curtains.

All the more tragic is what "Tomorrowland" clearly could have been. From the deepest recesses of the celluloid, you can almost hear a passionate work of art screaming to be set free, everything good and noble about Bird as a filmmaker and a storyteller swallowed up in the quicksand of the studio machine. Consider the movie's ultimate message, that our world on the verge of extinction can be saved not through bombs or bullets or domination, but through sheer hope - the unlocking of our best selves. That's a brazenly personal note of optimism to strike when most summer movies climax with buildings crumbling and people fleeing, and it requires a healthy dose of awe to land. 

"Tomorrowland" has no awe. It has no wonder. Where it should have us saying, "Wow," we can only say, "Huh?" Remember the fist pumping passion of Bird's "The Iron Giant" as the machine proclaims, "I am not a gun!"? Or the lovely little aside in "The Incredibles" as Dash, finally given permission to run as fast as he can, chuckles with joy as he races across water? Moments like that make Bird such a vital voice of optimism in film, a masterful weaver of story, character, and action able to strike the exact emotions he wants, when he wants.

This is the first movie in his repertoire where you can see the wheels spinning, where the movie tells us what to think instead of making us think it. If "The Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles" (and his other Pixar effort, "Ratatouille") felt like genuine, complete encapsulations of hope and possibility, "Tomorrowland" is a corporate seminar on the stuff.

Instead of a whole movie, we just have threads of a movie, many left awkwardly dangling. Who sent the characters played by Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn to capture Casey, and why? How did Tomorrowland crumble into the destitute wasteland it is today? Why did Hugh Laurie's character stick around? And the main draw of the movie, Tomorrowland itself, comes explored frustratingly little in the first two thirds, so when we see its ruins in the end, we have no sense of enchantment to compare to the tragic rubble. 

You can feel the material getting the better of Bird, played with the same awkward, self-serving corporate synergy of Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks" that lacks an intelligent drawing together of its themes. He is absolutely a great filmmaker, and will absolutely be great again. Sometimes earnestness just can't overcome obliqueness.

To paraphrase Cosmo Kramer's take on an unpublished manuscript, it's a story about love, deception, greed, and unbridled enthusiasm - that's what led to the movie's downfall. You see, "Tomorrowland" was a simple country movie, some might say a cockeyed optimist, that got itself mixed up in the high stakes game of Disney sponsorship and artistic passion projects.

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