Director Brad Bird has an almost immaculate run of form when it comes to bringing larger-than-life entertainments to the screen. The Iron Giant was one of the most acclaimed animated films of the 1990s. The Incredibles and Ratatouille are among Pixar’s best films so far. His live-action debut Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, while not perfect, was perhaps the most entertaining movie entry since the first.
Bird brings his blue-sky storytelling to bear on Tomorrowland: A World Beyond, a eyed sci-fi fairytale with elements taken straight from classic pulp magazine stories. It’s The Wizard Of Oz retold by Ray Bradbury or Hugo Gernsback, with bits of The Terminator and Buck Rogers thrown in for good measure. It’s an entertaining yet sometimes befuddling bag of intricately moving parts, not all of which fit together too well.
Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) lives near a NASA facility in Florida with her engineer father and nosey, moppet brother. Having inherited her father’s intelligence, Casey’s fascinated by space travel and science, and can’t quite understand why the adults around her seem so disillusioned and fatalistic; there are gloomy stories about the end of the world on the television news. Teachers at school give lectures about melting ice caps and mutually-assured destruction. Even the movies are downbeat; a billboard advertises a disaster flick called “ToxiCosmos” (tagline: “Nowhere to go”).
Like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Tomorrowland is steeped in post-Space Age nostalgia. In Bird’s version of the present, the rockets are in mothballs, NASA’s launch platforms are being torn up, and the scientists have been put out to pasture – including Casey’s father, who sits at home, wanly fiddling with his soldering iron.
Casey, on the other hand, remains upbeat about the future. The question is, how to convince everybody else? Things suddenly change when Casey comes into possession of an enchanted pin badge, which, when touched, gives her intoxicating glimpses of a utopian future: gleaming towers reach up into the sky. Youths fly around on jetpacks. Explorers prepare to blast off on space missions in rockets.
The pin was sneaked into Casey’s belongings by a diminutive yet deceptively tough little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). She’s convinced that Casey’s the archetypal Chosen One – someone who can change the course of the world’s future. Unfortunately, Casey’s special badge is a rare and sought after item, and Casey quickly ends up on the hit list of a group of grinning, black-suited assassins. With the bad guys in hot pursuit, Casey attempts to find out the meaning of the world seen when she holds the pin badge, which has a connection to Clooney’s reclusive scientist, Frank Walker (George Clooney) and a mysterious character named Nix (Hugh Laurie).
Tomorrowland begins with a superbly-realised prologue set at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, where we meet a young Frank (here played by Thomas Robinson). Thereafter, the plot whisks us from place to place, tickling us with one mystery before rushing off to another. Brad’s creativity as a director – not to mention Walter Murch’s superb editing – is evident throughout the first half an hour or so, particularly when Casey’s experimenting with the dimension-warping properties of her new-found pin badge. But the story suffers for being so obtuse about its direction or the motivations of its characters.
Imagine if Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was reworked so that it was a mystery where you didn’t know what the golden ticket did, why lots of characters wanted it, or even what the chocolate factory was – that’s the fault that lies at the heart of Tomorrowland. For a film clearly aimed at a family audience, the plot remains opaque for far too long. By the time Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof, have finished moving all their pieces into place, it’s worryingly late in the film. By this point, MacGuffins have been introduced and then forgotten about, villains have come and gone, and a final mind-bending gadget’s wheeled in to throw everything through a loop.
The result, then, is a film that is full to bursting with special effects, positive sentiments, picturesque ideas and set-pieces – there are rockets hidden everywhere in Bird’s world, it seems – that never quite hang together. Nevertheless, Michael Giacchino’s triumphant score and Bird’s lightness of touch as a director help to smooth over some of the cracks, and the young leads are good value.
Something of a throwback to the films Disney was making in the 70s before Star Wars changed the cinematic landscape – cute stuff like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes or Escape To Witch Mountain – Tomorrowland is a fun, unusually upbeat adventure. Had the story retained the same simple purity of the pulp sci-fi tales that inspired it, the result could have been a work of genuine wonder.
Tomorrowland: A World Beyond is out in UK cinemas on the 22nd May.
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