Sunday, May 24, 2015

Current Reels: Tomorrowland's Convoluted Plot Hampers Its Thrill Factor

Where did my plotline go again? wonders Britt Robertson in Tomorrowland.
Brad Bird is one of my favorite directors, so when I heard Tomorrowland was coming out, I got mega excited. His films such as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, while not totally flawless, are true gems in my movie collection, ones that I can watch over and over and that I hope to share with my future kid someday. Bird also has a particular fascination that I happen to share with the way the 50s and 60s were obsessed with sci-fi and "the future." Despite the trailer for the film being a tad confusing, I was buoyed by Bird's successes of the past, and boldly went forth into Tomorrowland with high hopes...

....and I walked away a bit disappointed, perhaps, unsettled - I had the same sensation of eating at a restaurant highly recommended and still leaving hungry. When I went home to my long-suffering sweetie (who had declined to go) and attempted to dissect it over dinner, he said, "You've been talking about this movie for 20 minutes and I still have no idea what it is about." I thought about that for a moment and said, "You know, I'm not sure I know what it is about, either."

Tomorrowland has the feel of something half-baked; there is a lot of good concepts and plain ol' sci-fi fun floating around, but it doesn't quite come together in a coherent way for adult viewers (although the kids sitting behind me had a total blast, and for them, I am happy). Unlike some of Bird's other features, there were two other writers involved in the screenplay on this one, and they all seemed to be competing against Bird for first place. The film begins with George Clooney, playing Frank Walker, and his cohort, a precocious teen Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), arguing over who is going to tell the story first. This becomes weirdly appropriate as the film trundles along on shaky tracks. It starts out as Frank's story and his childhood, captured in bright and buoyant colors, entering and growing up in Tomorrowland, which is simultaneously a nostalgic tribute to Disneyland's days of yore and full of wondrous little touches, such as large, imposing, but ultimately helpful and friendly robots (throwback to The Iron Giant) and the rocket pack, a purposeful wink to adults in the audience who would remember one of my favorite Disney films of my childhood, The Rocketeer.

It then switches to being Casey's story, and this is the point where the plot unravels into the weird and convoluted. The linchpin that connects these two stories is (minor SPOILER) an android little girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy) that Walker as a young boy fell in love with and who first "recruited him" into this alternate future universe in the form of a pin that helps transport him.  It then ultimately becomes Frank's story again when Athena recruites Casey to convince him to return to save Tomorrowland - and by proxy, save the future...from what? Pessimism? I'm still not really sure. Also, I should note there is something ultimately weird about seeing a 50-something Walker saying to Athena, who as an android hasn't aged a day, admit his childhood crush on her. Bird, I'm sure, was aware of the shaky ground he was treading on filming that sequence, but it still made me feel a bit skeevy watching it.

While I am happy to disband my notions of reality to indulge in escapist fantasy, there were a few moments back in the real world seemed totally implausible. Example of the worst faux pas: Casey gets arrested for destroying public property and bailed out by her father. Upon being bailed out, she discovers a pin with a "T" on it. When she touches it, it takes her into Tomorrowland, if only for a moment. Her Dad, of course, doesn't believe her and thinks she is tripping out. She then decides it will be a good idea to head out on her own to find out just what the hell is going on, so she tells her little brother to tell Dad she's gone camping with friends and that she'll call when she gets to the campsite. Okay, if I were a parent and my daughter who I had just bailed out had gone missing and I couldn't reach her cell phone (which at this point in the movie is dead) I would be completely losing my shit. Bird makes some attempt to reconnect with reality with having her call her Dad via a payphone (apparently those are still around in some places?) and leave a voicemail saying that she's fine, but weird stuff is going down, and she has to do what she has to do. At this point as a parent, I would definitely have called the cops and started tracking her down. Upon her return, I would be happy, relieved, but mad as hell. But the plot doesn't bother with any of that.

The main problem is, there's far too many things happening in the movie all at once as well as too many things left on the table and never addressed again. We get a short glimpse at Walker's father and saw he wasn't a super nice guy, but did he ever mourn his son's loss when Walker chose to stay in Tomorrowland for 20 years? It it those things I wonder about on an adult level. I am not sorry I saw it, but it left me sad knowing it could have been so much more.

Toby sez: While visually stunning and a fun adventure caper for kids, a plot hampered with too many twists and uneven storytelling make it a muddled conundrum for adults.