Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Review - Tomorrowland

Short review: Frank Walker finds Tomorrowland in 1964. Casey Newton finds it in the present. Athena brings them together and they save the world.

A pin that leads to
A world of shiny futures
But there is danger

Full review: Tomorrowland is a movie that is far better and far smarter than one would expect from watching the media that accompanied its release. Although the trailers for it made it look like it was a well-produced movie with decent special effects, they also made it look like it was a kind of dumb action-adventure movie aimed at kids. In reality, while the movie does have some fun action scenes, it is really about some fairly big science fictional ideas, and how our choices affect the kind of future that we get.

The first thing to understand about this movie is that George Clooney is not the lead, even though the advertisements for it might have given one that impression. Although he has a rather substantial role as the adult Frank Walker, aside from a brief scene addressing the camera directly at the very start of the movie, Clooney isn't really in the movie until almost halfway through its run time. The actual lead in the movie is Britt Robertson, who plays the sixteen year old Casey Newton, with Raffey Cassidy as the somewhat mysterious Athena in a primary supporting role. In Tomorrowland, Clooney leaves behind the leading man roles that he has been known for, takes up the role of a somewhat grumpy, embittered, and reluctant mentor, migrating to this new position quite well.

The movie starts with Clooney addressing the camera directly, starting at the beginning of the story, which turns out to be the 1964 World's Fair in New York, where a very young Frank Walker (played by Thomas Robinson) has brought his prototype jet pack to be evaluated. There, he meets David Nix (played by Hugh Laurie), who is unimpressed with the invention, in part because it doesn't quite work, but also because Nix doesn't think it could serve any useful purpose even if it did work. This exchange is interesting, as it seems to reflect the often repeated debate concerning how to fund scientific endeavors, with "pragmatists" asserting that only those projects that are directed to producing concrete results should receive precious research dollars, while others point out that you cannot predict what benefits "blue sky" science will produce ahead of time. The disparate ways Walker and Nix view the world will resonate down through the rest of the movie, putting them into a conflict over their fundamentally different ideologies.

At this stage, Athena, a young girl who appears to be Walker's age, enters the mix, and she surreptitiously gives him a pin and tells him to secretly follow her and Nix. This leads Walker into the It's a Small World ride (which seems like putting him into a miniature nightmare for a moment), where a hidden gateway leads him to the alternate dimension of "Tomorrowland". After some exploits involving his jet pack, Walker meets up with Nix and Athena again, and then the story abruptly shifts to Casey Newton. One of the things that the movie does fairly well is present a lot of exposition without slowing the movie down, mostly by simply showing the audience the background rather than having a character try to explain it. The audience knows of the existence of Tomorrowland, how it looks, and how Walker came to know about it because the movie shows these elements. This information could have been provided through an expository speech of some sort, and in many movies that is exactly how this would have been done, mostly so the movie could start with Casey and stick with her. In Tomorrowland, the creators trusted that the audience would stay with them through the shifting characters and time frames, and as a result, the film remains interesting and visually appealing even when filling in necessary backstory.

Having shifted to Cape Canaveral and Casey Newton, the story meanders for a bit to establish her as a bright and inquisitive girl who isn't afraid to take action to prevent something she considers to be wrong, and then gets on track when she finds a mysterious pin in her belongings after she has been arrested for trespassing. At this point, the movie begins to pick up steam as the pin leads her first to a vision of a sunny and beautiful Tomorrowland, a misadventure in a lake, and then to a strange science fiction memorabilia store in Houston where the shop's two owners seem just a little too interested in how Casey came by her mysterious pin. Athena also shows up in this portion of the story, looking pretty much exactly as she did in 1964, even though it is clear that the story revolving around Casey is supposed to be taking place more or less in the present day, which is an indicator that she is more than just a little girl. The two shop owners turn out to be robots and try to seize Casey, whereupon Athena shows up to save the day in a way that further demonstrates that she is more than she appears to be, and then the two girls engage in a little grand theft auto followed by some grand theft pickup truck, and head off to New York to find the now reclusive Frank Walker.

In their wake, Casey and Athena leave a smoldering memorabilia shop and two wrecked robots, drawing the attention of local law enforcement. Unfortunately for them, this also draws the attention of a collection of quirky looking fellows who rather unconvincingly claim to be members of the Secret Service. When the exchange doesn't go exactly as the newcomers had hoped, they end up murdering the three local police officers by disintegrating them. Despite the deadly nature of this scene, it is played partly for humor, and the combination of murder and satire works in an odd way. Despite being a Disney movie about the power of hope and optimism that is clearly aimed at kids and teens, Tomorrowland has an undercurrent of cynical humor running through it that comes to the fore in scenes like this.

The cynicism is pushed up to new heights when Casey arrives on Walker's doorstep (having been unceremoniously dumped on his driveway by Athena), but after some preliminaries, the movie makes clear Walker isn't just a cynic for cynicism's sake. Instead, the movie lays out in some short but pointed scenes exactly what sort of forces transformed Walker from an idealistic and creative boy into an angry and embittered man, providing a bit of character development for Casey on the way. Just as Walker is beginning to be turned around by Casey's youthful optimism, the team of robots that we last saw in Houston show up on his door, leading to an very visual action-packed set-piece that seems almost out of place in the movie, and which seems to have been mostly included in order to provide fodder for the trailer. As the pair go on the run, they are soon joined by Athena, at which point Walker's resentment comes bubbling back and it is only the fact that homicidal robots are on their trail that gets the trio to work together.

It must be emphasized just how effective Clooney is in the role of Frank Walker. Saddled with the difficult job of being both a cranky curmudgeon and a reluctantly doting mentor who must do a fair amount of expository heavy lifting, Clooney also manages to portray someone who was once the little boy that the audience saw in previous sequences, but who has since become a wounded and heartbroken adult. He also accomplishes this fairly impressive feat of acting while the movie pushes through a number of impressive effects scenes ranging from a machine that teleports our heroes across the globe, to the Eiffel Tower turning into a launch pad for a space ship, to a confrontation with some rather sizeable robots. Even more impressively, the story manages to put all of the puzzle pieces together even as it plows through this series of adventures, pausing only to catch its breath for brief moments while managing to connect all of the dots for the audience to display in stark relief the conflict between Nix's view of the world and Walker's.

Once our three heroes find their way back to Tomorrowland, the scene is very different from what the audience had seen before when Walker made his way into the alternate dimension at the beginning of the movie, and what Casey had seen when given a vision of the place by the pin bestowed upon her by Athena. Instead of a bright, sunny, and inviting place full of people, Tomorrowland is an overcast and empty city, that looks almost run down. One almost expects to see some trash being blown about on the mostly abandoned streets. Pretty much as soon as they arrive, the newcomers are greeted by Nix, who faces off against both Walker and Athena, pointing out that their presence is a violation of the terms of Walker's exile. What is especially revealing in this meeting is that Nix comments upon Walker's age, telling him he wears it well, prompting Walker to suggest that Nix should try it. Nix declines, saying that he would rather simply "drink his shake" every morning. What this seems to tell us is that Walker accepts growth and change (as the collection of technological devices he had in his New York home suggest quite strongly that he could have developed an anti-aging concoction had he been so inclined), while Nix has become ossified in place. It is subtle touches like this that make this movie so much more interesting, and so much smarter, than it could have been.

Everything builds to an epic confrontation between Nix and his minions and Walker, Casey, and Athena, and it is not hyperbolic to say that the fate of the world is in the balance. This is a movie that tackles some pretty big ideas: What would happen if one knew what was going to happen in the future? What is the role that science will play in our lives? How important is creativity as opposed to practicality? What service do we owe to others? Can we turn our backs on impending doom because we assume that it won't affect us personally? In one of the climactic scenes of the movie, Nix says that he doesn't care what will happen to the people of Earth because the people of Tomorrowland will go on without them. What the movie makes clear is that Nix has become somewhat blind to the negative impact that the crisis on Earth has had on Tomorrowland, but the audience can clearly see the empty streets and shabby buildings and should be able to realize that this is due to the lack of immigration from one world to the other, resulting in a lack of new residents who exhibit the creativity and ingenuity needed to keep Tomorrowland running. Nix has chosen safety and stability, and as a result, has chosen stagnation and decay.

In the end, the world is saved (this is a Disney movie after all), although there is a price paid for its salvation. The movie ends on an upbeat note, extolling the virtues of creative individuals of all stripes and not merely technological innovators. Overall, Tomorrowland is a fun movie that manages to pack in some moderately thought-provoking elements in with a story full of chase scenes, battles against robots, retro-future technology, and steampunk spaceships.

Potential 2016 Hugo Nominees

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