Friday 19 June 2015

Tomorrowland (2015) - Movie Review

If you’ve seen Krusty the Klown being put on trial for robbery, Tom Cruise teaming up with Hawkeye or heard Edna Mode get unsettlingly excited about how indestructible clothing is, then you’re familiar with animation superstar Brad Bird. Starting out in the formative years of The Simpsons, shaping the show into what it is now, he went to blaze a trail through the industry with his feature films from the cult religious classic The Iron Giant to the universally lauded The Incredibles. Then, in 2012, he made the transition to live-action with the surprisingly awesome Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. With this kind of filmography behind him, in case all this gushing didn’t make it obvious enough, I was really looking forward to this latest film from one of my favourite directors. But, given the divided reaction to it so far, how did it turn out?

The plot: Supposedly by chance, Casey (Britt Robertson) happens upon a mysterious pin that, when she touches it, sends her to the futuristic utopia of Tomorrowland. Wanting to learn more about the world she saw, she tracks down scientist Frank (George Clooney) for answers. Before too long, Casey is brought into a race against time to save both Tomorrowland and Earth from destruction.

Wow, this film is purty! Its retro-futuristic aesthetic, looking like if Star Trek ate Bioshock Infinite, really helps the film stand out and looks gorgeous. Given that Brad Bird is (relatively) new to the live-action realm, the simple fact that this film looks as good as it does shows that he has very quickly gotten the hang of the format. The cinematography and effects work used in Casey’s full initial experience of Tomorrowland through her pin are proof positive of that and immediately help sell the locale as wondrous as the film keeps insisting that it is, or at least used to be. I want my anti-gravity swimming pools, dammit! There’s also a very cool, and simultaneously unnerving, idea behind the goons of the main villain in that they are Audio Animatronics that the IRL Disneyland utilises. Why this is as cool and unnerving as it is that Bird seems to have taken the general public’s perception of these constructs, in that they are extremely creepy, and ran with it. All but one of the actors playing the Animatronics venture into Uncanny Valley territory with how unsettling their mannerisms and facial expressions can get, despite the fact that they are not rendered in CGI.

Beyond just the visuals inspired by what the 50’s thought the future would look like, there’s quite a bit of old-school sci-fi worship here too; you’d be hard-pressed to find a geek out there who doesn’t squee at least a little at the prop-heavy fight sequence that takes place in a pop culture shop. Not only that, there’s also a subtle nod to classic dystopian fiction like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, particularly how they have influenced present-day culture to the point of almost reaching self-actualisation. It may not be the optimistic way of portraying it, it helps further a core idea of the film about how creative works affect and inspire people. Consider for a moment how many modern-day inventions have some rooting in the works of decades-old sci-fi; that is, if you can tear yourself away from the endless bitching about how much Back To The Future Part II has 'lied to us'.

One of Brad Bird’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker, be it animated or otherwise, is the amount of respect he has for his audience, children and adults alike. He never feels the need to beat people over the head with exposition and instead trusts the viewer to follow with the deceptively subtle writing flooded throughout his films. The best example of this, bar none, has to be the relationship between Frank and Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Without flat-out explaining any connection, because paedophilia is one of the few things Bird can’t get away with portraying on film and this is the same man who put attempted suicide in a Pixar film, their relationship is portrayed through small character moments and some very potent dialogue. To put it mildly, this sub-plot does what took The Age Of Adaline an entire film to portray in terms of age-displaced relationships and manages to outperform it on close to every level.

Aside from the aforementioned Cassidy, the rest of the cast all pull their respective weight, even in smaller roles. Hugh Laurie as our villain, David Nix, makes great use of Bird’s penchant for writing more mentally-balanced antagonists, creating a character that honestly had me rooting for him at a few points with how charismatically he details his surprisingly valid points; warnings being lost in translation isn’t necessarily all that alien a concept. George Clooney is a grizzled loner and makes for some seriously strong emotional moments when in tandem with Cassidy, and the fact that these two have this kind of chemistry together in the context that they do may squick me out slightly but there’s no denying that it works in any regard. Keegan-Michael Kay may have a small role this time round but that doesn’t stop him from stealing the show every second he’s on screen; between this and Pitch Perfect 2, he is officially on my list of actors to keep an eye out for. Probably the weakest link to be found here is Robertson as our lead, and that’s really only because of everyone surrounding her as she is more than capable as the fish-out-of-water of the story.

I don’t usually bring up the other professional (*cough*better*cough*) critics when talking about films, but my sheer bewilderment at some of the reactions this film has gotten has forced my hand. A brief glimpsing on Google of other reviews for this film will see it being called preachy, deranged in its optimism and, most baffling of all, a 'global warming con job'. Now, I will not deny anyone their opinion, aside from that last one which might be the most extreme case of selective hearing I’ve come across in a very long time, and it may be my fan-boy loyalty to Brad Bird that has induced such confusion over any inkling of a bad word against him. Hell, I can even see where people are coming from with their comments here. However, even with how my view of the film clashes with what others see it as, meaning that I could legitimately be in the wrong here (Provided that you’re one of those people that believes that there is an objectively 'wrong' way of interpreting such things), I will still give my own take on things as always.

Throughout the film, we see images of the world’s fear and partial realisation of its own destruction: Floods, famine, looming fears of nuclear holocaust, not to mention crappy disaster movies that capitalise on all of that and more. At its core, the film isn’t solely designed to make people hopeful for the future despite the constant pessimism around us; it knows full-well that that isn’t enough. Instead, it wants to inspire creativity in people, much like The Lego Movie quite successfully did last year, and goes one step further and wants them to use that creativity to make the world a better place. One of the earliest moments in the film has a young Frank showing off his half-working jet pack to Nix, basically saying "what’s wrong with fun?" and that others will be inspired just by seeing that such a thing as a jet pack exists in their reality. This film, while encouraging creativity, isn’t pushing the thought that you need to working on ending world hunger to be useful with it; just show off what your boundless imaginations can think up and we’ll get there. Hell, even if we don’t get there, we aren’t going down with giving it our all first. Co-writer Damon Lindelof, mainly known for his collabs with J.J. Abrams on works like Lost and the new Star Trek films, seems to work best when dealing with plots centred on conspiracy theories and the whole nerd Nirvana (Nerdvana?) idea surrounding Tomorrowland is right up his alley. As a result, his penchant for leaving a lot of unanswered questions in his wake works in the film’s favour, creating an ambiguous but hopeful closer to the overall product.

But, even with all of this potential over-analysis of what I consider to be a very well-thought out script, I’ll be the first to admit that this film isn’t perfect as it might have one of the most disparaging starts of a highly anticipated (by me, at least) film I’ve seen this year. Between the very frequent self-censoring, with “son of a…” almost becoming a catchphrase during the first act, and the opening featuring the Small World ride (yes, the actual Disney Small World ride), this doesn’t fill one with hope. Rather, it fills one with madness at having to hear that bloody song again! Initially, it reeks of an impression that the Disney higher-ups were trying to reign Bird in and have their own say on the production; I can’t exactly be blamed for having fears of another Walking With Dinosaurs incident here. However, without too much worry, that ends up fading away and what’s left over is… well, looks like it’s time for the wrap-up.

All in all, this has all of Brad Bird’s key strengths on full display: Intelligent and effective writing, well-realised characters, great visuals and, most importantly, a respect and consideration for the audience that I desperately wish more filmmakers had nowadays. It may feel very reactionary to the film industry as it stands right now, given the every-growing market for natural disasters and YA adaptations depicting increasingly bleak near-futures, but even with that in mind each facet of the film just adds armour to the film’s core ideal about creativity and how useful it can and will always be.

I rarely, if ever, say this about a film this close to its initial release, but I genuinely consider this to be an important film; and no, it’s not out of some Al Gore-inspired need to educate the youth about helping protect the Earth from those evil polluting humans. I consider this to be important for the same reason I consider The LEGO Movie to be important, as it is a perfect vehicle to inspire current and future generations to use that boundless imagination to make this world just a bit better one step at a time; with how many remakes/sequels/reboots/adaptations/etc. are out or are in the works right now, I’d say that that is something that is needed right now. With the divided opinion this film holds right now, I give this film the highest recommendation possible with an apostrophe that I can totally understand if people want to skip this one; I strongly advise you don’t, but nevertheless.

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