***/**** Image A+ (ultra) Sound A+ Extras C+
starring George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy
screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird
directed by Brad Bird
by Walter Chaw Brad Bird's Tomorrowland is a mess and it knows it. It's unruly, barely contained, just this side of completely falling apart. There are many and distracting continuity errors, and though it makes a joke of it, it's clear immediately that the movie doesn't know how to start, much less end. It has an engaging, irrepressible heroine it strands at the moment she should be doing something ("Am I supposed to be...doing something?" she actually asks), and it has a visit to a memorabilia/collectibles store run by unusual proprietors that is packed to the girders with Brad Bird ephemera of the Iron Giant and Incredibles variety. Tomorrowland has hanging about it, in other words, all the elements of disaster: winky meta references, lack of narrative cohesion, desperation-born mistakes, bad screenwriter/Nick-Riviera-bad script doctor Damon Lindelof as Bird's co-author...and yet it's good somehow. Credit Bird, who knows his way around spatial relationships, and credit a simple, plaintive idea that the world can be better if we believe that it can be better. If the sign of a great filmmaker is his ability to make a bad actor seem good, Bird is a frickin' genius for making something Lindelof worked on not an utter catastrophe. It's big and simple and corny in a Lone Ranger, Captain America, Silver Age Superman kind of way--the kind of big and simple and corny I can get behind.
Casey (Britt Robertson) is a dreamer. Her father (Tim McGraw) is a NASA engineer about to be laid off, so Casey engages in corporate sabotage to delay the inevitable. She calls herself an "optimist." She wears a red baseball cap, asks too many questions, and has a knack for knowing how things work...until she doesn't, but never mind that right now. She inherits a nifty pin from the 1964 World's Fair that gives her a vision of the titular, although forever-unnamed, Tomorrowland, a place where Earth's intellectuals have secreted themselves because the rest of Earth is too venal and obsessed with death to deserve them. There's something tricky about this: 1964 is after the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the first American casualties in Vietnam and the assassination of JFK. The World's Fair that year, looking forward, was also overcast. Bird positions Tomorrowland as two possible futures: the one where JFK's promised moon shot was followed by decades of optimism gradually declining into an objectivist nightmare of intellectual elitism; and our future, in which we were immediately drowned in Altamont, Watergate, the paranoid '70s, Reagan's '80s--by the virulent rise of anti-intellectualism. Tomorrowland would be a fascinating feature to pair with the similarly large, similarly corny, similarly flawed and yet emotionally effective Interstellar.
It's tricky, because both timelines in Tomorrowland have led to the apocalypse and the only key is a throwaway line where crusty genius Frank (George Clooney) sneers at bureaucrat Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie): "Just like Nix, no new ideas." The only currency of value is the nurturing of the New Idea--stagnation is death. Bird's The Incredibles is both a revolutionary entertainment and a controversial one, since it talked frankly about how if everyone's an Incredible, no one is incredible. Like notions lace his Ratatouille and his Cold War masterpiece, The Iron Giant. They're unpopular notions in the modern conversation, where everything is possible and anyone can be great. No, they can't. In the first five minutes of Tomorrowland, Casey's offscreen and dead-for-most-of-it mother (Judy Greer) says of little Casey's aspiration to one day visit the stars, "What if you get there and there's nothing?" Casey responds, "What if there's everything?" A groaner for sure, and the film has Frank groan accordingly, but it's the basis for Bird's worldview and he uses it in Tomorrowland as the invitation to talk in a broad binary. The world is ending because we are in love with the idea of apocalypse--we were in the '80s and we are again in the modern climate-change/terrorist Valhalla dystopia. What if we were in love, instead, with hope and aspiration? I admire a montage where Casey, in high school, sits through class after class of doomsaying teachers, her hand valiantly upraised and pointedly ignored.
It bears repeating: Tomorrowland is a mess, and it knows it. The picture bears the scars of some wild thing packed into a crate and refusing to be broken. It offers a hopeful ending but a deeply ambiguous one--and if you were cynical about it, it sort of looks like that Coca-Cola advert about teaching the world to sing. But Bird is too talented, and too singular, a filmmaker to offer up these images without that certain, single-minded cohesion a true auteur provides. Like his other films, it has a misfit "chosen one" as its hero (even Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, after all, is left exiled at the end of Ghost Protocol)--one who is called to action, who saves the world because he is guilelessly, mysteriously gifted and shows no false modesty about it. It's a celebration of intelligence and whatever birth defects result in an elevation of said intelligence. Tomorrowland prizes problem-solving ability and mental agility. And it offers an intriguing artificial intelligence (Raffey Cassidy) who joins Ultron and Ava as new explorations of the limits and morality of our creative impulses.
Of all the names Tomorrowland drops, the one that sticks is Jules Verne. Not merely for the movie's steampunk/"Bioshock: Infinite" aesthetic, but for its spirit of exploration and discovery as well. Remembered now as something like a French DaVinci, creator of fabulous machineries and teller of grand adventures, Verne is Bird's closest analog for me in terms of texture and feel. His best character, Captain Nemo, is a creature obsessed with invention. A loner, a scientific genius, he hated imperialism and championed the common man against oppression. He is Bird's muse. Tomorrowland is simple in the way that Verne's books are simple. Not "politics," Tomorrowland wears its idealism on its sleeve, this belief that the individual can triumph against the forces of man or nature that conspire to crush him/her. Frank is Nemo, Casey the interloper narrator who intrudes on his Nautilus and forces him back into the world. Nemo's motto is "Mobilis in mobili," or "motion in motion" (or "changing amidst changes"); it's something Frank has rejected in favour of his lonesome fatalism, though he's stirred to remember it when Casey appears on his doorstep with lost technology and a refusal to succumb.
There's an arresting scene where the Eiffel Tower reveals itself to be a literal beacon. There's another, the highlight of the film, where Frank holds the fallen body of an ally and floats above an idea that it might not be too late for him to plow a different path in the world, but only by discarding the detritus of his past. Tomorrowland is Bird's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It's his sloppiest picture by far (what's happened in that bathtub, exactly, that allows its occupants to swap places mid-flight?) and doomed to be his most divisive, too; but its message that being smart is good, that having ideas is good, and that hope is definable as the tension between the two is as bright and well-met now as it was in any of Bird's earlier films. Tomorrowland is a mess, but I get it: Sometimes the biggest, simplest things are the hardest to say. Originally published: May 20, 2015.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Disney brings Tomorrowland to Blu-ray in an impeccable, immaculate, pristine, even, 2.20:1, 1080p transfer, viewable with or without the animated "Plus Ultra short" (more on that later). The weird aspect ratio points to a 65mm source, but that isn't precisely the case: the picture was shot with the Sony F65 CineAlta, a 4K camera with a Super35 sensor and a base AR of 1.9:1, which is what Tomorrowland was projected at in IMAX. Although a high volume of night scenes led to the scrapping of director Brad Bird's original idea to shoot primarily on film stock in IMAX, sharpness remained paramount to the production and Tomorrowland became one of the first features to be photographed entirely in 4K. For non-large-format engagements and now Blu-ray, Bird opted for a 2.20:1 crop because, in DP Claudio Miranda's words, "Brad wanted to honour the old 65mm format." Getting to see the whole captured image at home might've been nice, but a filled IMAX screen is cinematic, whereas a filled TV screen is television. As is, the home presentation has a clarity of detail, richness of colour, and depth of dynamic range that are all breathtaking. Mere 1080p HD is passé now, yet this is a forceful reminder of the Blu-ray format's potential. The attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track is similarly wondrous and constantly dazzling. Highlights? The toy-store brawl, with its larger-than-life pchoo! pchoo! sound effects, for one, though there is also much to admire in the 360° ambience of Tomorrowland itself during Casey's first visit--it really puts you in her head. Moreover, the only saving grace of the superfluous framing device is the neat-o way the actors' voices take over the soundstage, Strange Days-style.
"Remembering the Future: A Personal Journey Through Tomorrowland by Brad Bird" (7 mins., HD) sets the unfortunate tenor for the supplementary material: sentimental, uninformative. Bird narrates a mix of behind-the-scenes B-roll and archival footage of the vintage Disneyland Tomorrowland (dig Mickey and Goofy traipsing the grounds in bubble helmets), waxing nostalgic about the space program and his corporate employer. "Casting Tomorrowland" (7 mins., HD) caps the usual platitudes--Britt's a trooper; Raffey sure does like doing stunts--with a tacked-on-feeling ending in which Bird mawkishly intones, "People have to believe that tomorrow is in their power and we can use that to build a positive future." I mean, way to kill Clooney's crack about the movie casting two former TV doctors as arch nemeses. "A Great Big Beautiful Scoring Session" (6 mins., HD) appears to have been shot by composer Michael Giacchino's brother and, after an introduction where Michael readies to put hot peppers in his coffee per some superstition, focuses on legendary Disney songwriter Richard Sherman's visit to the recording studio when a new version of the Sherman Brothers' "Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" was being recorded for the film. (Incidentally, there's an Easter egg on the disc of the Shermans and Walt Disney himself performing this ditty at a piano.) Sherman's great, still a sharp raconteur at 87; Giacchino's got a long way to go before he has that kind of gravitas.
"The World of Tomorrow Science Hour" (5 mins., HD) is staged outtakes from a non-existent Disney program featuring Hugh Laurie's David Nix, who becomes frustrated with his juvenile co-stars in a manner that is very funny for Laurie's dry English contempt. While the production design is a bit of an afterthought, the 1.33:1 aspect ratio gives it a convincing period flavour. "Plus Ultra Short" (3 mins., HD) is the aforementioned optional prologue setting up Tomorrowland's backstory (way, way backstory) with stentorian voiceover and Mary Blair aesthetics. It's delightfully old-fashioned, until it's just old-fashioned, and then just plain elderly. Also, it's not in 5.1, which seems unconscientious considering it was designed to accompany the feature. "Brad Bird Production Diaries" (5 mins., HD) is the umbrella heading for two brief video diaries, the latter of which was pillaged almost in toto for the "Remembering the Future" featurette. "Blast from the Past Commercial" (41 seconds, HD), meanwhile, is a spot for the toy shop seen in the film, with Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key reprising their roles. Hahn has nice buns--Princess Leia buns, you perv.
Lastly, not counting the Easter-egged Tomorrowland promotional ephemera, is a 23-minute, HiDef block of six deleted scenes with intros from Bird and/or co-writer Damon Lindelof. Lindelof justifies one elision with, "It felt like the movie was delving into a textbook modality"--the quintessence of his convoluted way of saying the most basic things. Anyway, there's more Judy Greer here, wearing a telltale cancer outfit but still not getting any lines. Bird at one point mentions reshoots like we know all about them already; I suspect this supplemental payload was going to be a lot more substantial before the movie opened to crickets. Sneak peeks at ABC's "The Muppets", Star Wars: The Force Awakens (in Dolby TrueHD), The Good Dinosaur, Inside Out, and Aladdin round out the platter. DVD and digital copies of Tomorrowland are packaged with the BD.