Saturday, May 23, 2015

TOMORROWLAND: The Summer's First Big Spectacular Dud

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

TOMORROWLAND (Dir. Brad Bird, 2015)

After his phenomenal winning streak consisting of THE IRON GIANT, THE INCREDIBLES, RATATOUILLE, and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, Brad Bird gives us his most ambitious, and most personal feature yet: an epic adventure that shares its name, vision, and production company with one of Disney’s most popular amusement park rides.

Sadly, it’s also Bird’s most disappointing, and most thematically messy film. One which shares a lot in common with last year’s INTERSTELLAR, Christopher Nolan’s cosmically-minded misfire, in that they both aim for futuristic inspiration with the help of an A-lister, a few cute kids, and wall-to-wall special effects, but come up incredibly short in the movie magic department.

It begins at the 1964 World's Fair in Queens, New York where we learn via an 11-year old inventor wannabe named Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), the kid in this world who’ll grow up to be George Clooney, that there’s a portal to another dimension accessible though the “It’s A Small World” ride.

Frank was let into the alternate realm which encases an elaborate CGI-ied shiny city full of jet packs, flying cars, and gravity-defying wonders (like floating pools) of all kinds, by a young girl (Raffey Cassidy) named Athena, but he's discovered and kicked out by the Governor of Tomorrow, David Nix (Hugh Laurie).

Flashing forward to the present we meet Florida teen Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw), who finds a mysterious pin with the Tomorrowland logo. When she touches the pin it transports her to the same parallel dimension we saw previously, but, trouble is, when she moves forward she walks into the walls of the real world.

To figure out what’s going on with this alternate realm and to save both worlds from, of course, impending destruction, Casey teams up with the grown up and Frank (Clooney) and Athena. Our heroes are chased by black-clad MATRIX-style robot bad guys led by the slick Matthew MacCaull, through a few explosive set pieces that have some instances of violence that are a bit surprising for a PG-rated family film.

My friend Will Fonvielle, of the blog Filmvielle, joked that INTERSTELLAR could’ve been named EXPOSITION: THE MOVIE, but this film could easily win that title as there’s so many talky passages between the fights and the chases bogging the pace down. And that dialogue is so full of earnest yet infinitely tedious clich├ęs, about how mankind has invented its own doom, and how if we have faith we can change things, that even Clooney’s charm can’t elevate or make gel any of this mediocre material.

Bird, who co-wrote the film with Damon Lindelof (Lost, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, WORLD WAR Z), cinematographer Claudio Miranda (LIFE OF PI), and scores of visual design artists craft an immaculately vivid landscape, but it’s not anything we haven’t seen before. The imagery that they keep trying to wow us with is the kind of stuff that whizzes by in the background in like say, the city in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, but here as the main attraction it loses my interest pretty quickly.

That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had here. Several sequences have supreme watchability (I stole that from a Bud Light ad: “supreme drinkability”), like one involving a hidden rocket inside the Eiffel Tower. But the film speeds through its best ideas such as that there was a secret society founded by visionaries Gustave Eiffel, Tesla, Thomas Edison, and H.G. Welles at the 1889 World’s Fair, while it lingers on its worst ones - i.e. the inconsistencies of how this alternate retro-future dimension and our world intersect.

There’s also the factor that there folks like Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn, as the proprietors of a sci-fi toys and comics store called “Blast from the Past,” (full of Easter Eggs like IRON GIANT memorabilia), in a big shoot-out/fight scene that doesn’t play at all to those comic actors’ strengths. Same could be said for Laurie in the extremely anticlimatic finale, though he at least gets the obligatory speech in before the end.

After the heights of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Bird has the first big spectacular dud of the summer on his hands. As much as I admire the ambition, and all the attempts at mind-bending spectacle, this film's ultimate message of hope rings hollow.

Upon seeing that it all comes down to the exclusionary notion of a select group of visionaries being chosen by the superiors from an unknown dimension to save the world, I couldn't help but wonder how all those folks popping up in the vast fields outside the art deco streamlined utopian city won't just be walking into walls over and over.

More later...

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