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Tomorrowland

Previously on Movie Curiosities, I got the chance to preview and write about an extended sequence from the first act of Tomorrowland. It was awesome. But then, that was never in question.

Tomorrowland was directed and co-written by Brad Bird, one of the most criminally underutilized filmmakers in the business. But it was also co-written and co-produced by Damon Lindelof, a Bad Robot alumnus previously responsible to varying degrees for “Lost”, Star Trek Into Darkness, Prometheus, and other notorious disappointments. It’s surprising to me that this movie isn’t a Bad Robot release, because the movie’s promotion has all the hallmarks.

J.J. Abrams and all of his old disciples have prominent reputations for leading on their audiences, delivering productions so gorgeous with such enticing set-ups that they hope no one will notice when the payoffs turn out to be crap. Lindelof has proven to be an particularly bad case in point, especially after his previously mentioned works.

So even after the preview sequence floored me, I still wasn’t convinced that the film was going to be worth the hype when all the dust had cleared. Then the film came out to a Tomatometer of 50 percent, which worried me. Was Bird going through a rough patch? Or maybe it’s yet another controversial Lindelof release which the naysayers “just don’t get”? Maybe it doesn’t make sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the tie-in prequel comics or special edition DVD extras or the viral campaign or whatever?

The answer to all of the above is “no.” The film is a self-contained story that explains itself clearly and Brad Bird directed it superbly. Yet the whole thing was conceived and put together in a way that practically begs for controversy.

A huge part of that is in the pacing. Through the vast majority of the film, our protagonist (Casey, played by newcomer Britt Robertson) goes through the plot without the slightest fucking clue about what is going on. The characters and the filmmakers are all extremely aggressive in keeping secrets about who they are and what they want. Without such basic knowledge about the plot or premise, we’re expected to simply go along with all of the questions and trust that the answers will be worth it if and when they ever come.

There’s seriously one point when Casey is asking questions to Frank (George Clooney), who tells her (in pretty much these exact words) to shut up, quit asking questions, be amazed with what she’s seeing, and move on. Even better, there’s a moment when one character — after driving the entire plot forward — is asked what the plan was this whole time. Then the character says that there was no plan and it was all made up on the fly. And then a similar conversation happens just as the movie is wrapping up.

I’m sorry, but it’s just too damned easy to take this as a meta commentary. It’s not that Lindelof hasn’t learned, he just doesn’t care.

The good news is that we are eventually told just what the hell is going on. In the third act. There is so much exposition and dialogue crammed into so little time that it comes off as incredibly preachy and long-winded. Yet even with so much going on, the climax still comes to a complete halt so a character can dispense with one of those why-do-so-called-“professional-storytellers”-still-use-this-worthless-goddamn-trite-fucking-waste-of-time-and-patience cliche death speeches.

Put simply, the pacing is all over the place. As with anything else that Lindelof has ever written (to my knowledge, anyway), your enjoyment of this movie will depend greatly on your patience. It’s all a matter of how long you care to chase after that carrot dangling in front of your face before you decide it’s all a waste of time. The other factor has to do with the revelations themselves.

So many answers about the characters’ motivations are concentrated into one or two info-dumps in the third act. This means that the characters have to make very long and very overt speeches about their beliefs, which could easily come off as preachy. As for the revelations themselves… well, I’ll try and discuss them as best I can without spoilers. Suffice to say that the movie goes very meta, commenting on our fascination with post-apocalyptic fiction. That was a bridge too far. From conception to execution, it was just plain silly.

As for the message, the film was made as a very passionate rejection of 21st-century cynicism. It’s a call to action, berating us for more or less embracing the apocalypse and giving up on our world because it’s the easiest and most comfortable course of action. Of course, it’s not like the movie offers any suggestions about how to fix our world, but then again, finding a solution to climate change was probably outside this movie’s scope. No, this movie was made to galvanize its viewers, instilling hope for a brighter tomorrow and motivation to find solutions we so badly need.

It could easily have come off as condescending in anyone else’s hands, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some viewers were turned off by how the message is conveyed in such a blunt manner. I didn’t mind it so much personally, since I firmly agree with the message and believe that it needs to be said. More importantly, Bird’s direction does so much to present the speeches with humor and passion. The film is so positively throbbing with hope for the future, faith in humanity, and love for the potential wonders of science, that it’s positively infectious.

Come to think of it, why didn’t Lindelof bring some of that to Star Trek Into Darkness? Where the hell was Brad Bird when Paramount was rebooting that franchise?

Anyway, the presentation is outstanding across the board. The score was so good that it could only have been composed by Michael Giacchino (who makes a cameo as the operator of “It’s a Small World,” by the way). The action scenes are great load of fun. The jokes land beautifully. The visuals are astonishing from start to finish. Aside from the damned awful pacing, it’s obvious that Bird wrote and directed the hell out of this picture.

The cast, however, is a bit of a mixed bag.

Such a shame I can’t spoil which actors play robots, because they do a phenomenal job of chewing scenery in a creepy-funny way without ever losing that sense of menace. Hugh Laurie succeeds at making a strong impression, though he sadly gets very little screen time to work with. Speaking of which, Judy Greer makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance near the start of the film, and it always breaks my heart to see her keep getting short shrift over and over again. She’s beautiful, she’s funny, she’s talented, somebody please give her a halfway decent role!

Incidentally, the movie features a supporting turn from Tim McGraw — yes, THAT Tim McGraw — in the role of Casey’s father. He’s supposed to be a brilliant NASA engineer and I couldn’t even type that without cracking up. Excuse me while I go laugh my ass off for a moment.

Moving on to the stars, let’s start with George Clooney. He’s mostly stuck playing a cranky and disillusioned old man who gradually learns to hope again with Casey’s help. It’s a cliched role that Clooney could play in his sleep. Yet the script and Bird’s direction provide Frank with just enough humor to be watchable. Even better, Clooney looks and acts like a weathered man of middle-age, one who’s seen and done enough to be beaten by the world, yet still has enough time and energy that his best days may still be ahead of him. It’s exactly what the film needed.

Then we have Britt Robertson. You’d be forgiven for not recognizing the name or the face, because she was pretty much a nobody (aside from some TV work and a few minor film roles) just a year ago. Then she came out with The Longest Ride a few months back, and now she’s the female lead in one of the year’s most anticipated films. And I honestly couldn’t tell you how she did, because Casey is a plain crappy role.

Don’t get me wrong, the character is very proactive. She’s smart, she has a sense of humor, and she does show a tremendous amount of initiative throughout the film. Unfortunately, the character’s raw determination matters for very little when she goes through the entire movie getting pushed around by other characters. Throughout the vast majority of her screen time, Casey is either complaining about how no one is telling her anything or she’s doing whatever someone else is forcing her to do. Moreover, her biggest contribution to the plot and premise turns out to be her unyielding optimism, which can magically change things at plot-convenient moments. All of that makes for a very frustrating protagonist, through no fault of the actor. I really do want to believe that Robertson is the next great up-and-coming actress, but her most prominent gigs to date have been this and a Nicholas Sparks film. Come on, Britt, give me something I can use!

Conversely, we have Raffey Cassidy, whose character drives the plot forward more than everyone else put together. I don’t dare spoil much about the enigmatic Athena, except to say that Cassidy plays her with grace, charm, strength, and intelligence far beyond her years. I have absolutely no problem believing that Cassidy is going to be star once she hits her stride. Speaking of which, special mention must also be given to Thomas Robinson, who crushes it as Frank’s younger self.

I find it rather amusing that Tomorrowland was released while Mad Max: Fury Road is still the reigning champion of box office and word of mouth. In many ways, Tomorrowland was made as a counterpoint to the kind of pessimistic, post-apocalyptic frame of mind that Fury Road thrives on. Yet they’re both movies driven forward by proactive female characters, which is a fantastic trend.

I do recommend going out to see Tomorrowland, but that’s primarily because we very badly need what this film is trying to sell. The pacing is wretched, some performances are better than others, and the film drags out its mysteries for way, WAY too long. Even so, it’s a fun, humorous, and uplifting film that just might help inspire someone to make the world a better place. It’s certainly not a perfect movie, but I’m glad someone set out to make it.

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