People often complain that today’s generation is so “uninspired”, or there is nothing in the world today to inspire us to move forward with global unity to better the world in which we live in today or boldly venture forth into new worlds of the future. We have the technology. We have the skills. But where are the dreamers? One need look no further than Brad Bird’s ‘Tomorrowland” for all that is needed to inspire the dreamer in each of us. Inspiring and hopeful, as much a visionary wonder of the meld of technology and humanity for the ages, as it is entertaining and exciting, ‘Tomorrowland” shows us the best, and the cynical worst, in each of us, while putting forth a call to arms under the beauteous and eye-popping guise of a movie. Who’d a thunk it!
Frank Walker is a boy genius. Inventive and creative, he looks to the future and where man can go rather than where he now sits. Where most may see nothing more than an Electrolux canister vacuum cleaner in their hands, with some imagination and determination, Frank sees – and builds – a jet pack. And this is in 1964.
1964. The World’s Fair. A time when the world still dreamed and dreams were possible. Walt Disney and others saw that, knew that, and that within the confines of a “small small world” put all those dreams together and we could find our way to ‘Tomorrowland.” And that’s just what young Frank Walker wanted to do. So, setting out alone on the bus, Frank took himself to the World’s Fair and the Hall of Inventions, seeking help with some glitches in his jet pack. Although pushed aside by some of the mature scientists and technicians, a young girl named Athena takes an interest in Frank’s dreams and thus begins the ride of his life – and ours.
Fast forward to 2014 Cape Canaveral and the home of the Newtons. Ed Newton is a rocket scientist and engineer at Cape Canaveral. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, the last launch pad is being torn down and with it will end his job. Truly her father’s daughter, Casey Newton is bursting with scientific curiosity and hope for the future, making her father’s acquiescence to the NASA situation unacceptable. Her defiance spurs Casey to spending her nights committing acts of felony vandalism at NASA trying to not only thwart the plans to tear down the future, but to rekindle the spirit of discovery and hope for the future in her father and all who will listen.
Of course, one of the serendipitous events that comes from Casey’s indiscretions is crossing paths with a young girl named Athena who surreptitiously plants a pin marked with a “T” in Casey’s belongings, found on Casey’s release from the police station one night after being caught at Canaveral. On touching the pin, Casey is transported to (or maybe is just hallucinating) a glossy polished techno world of jet packs and space travel, people movers and anti-gravitational swimming pools (very very cool). Is it live or is it Memorex?
And with just one touch, and then another, and then another, Casey reinvigorates not only herself, but the audience as we collectively believe that anything is possible when there’s a place called “Tomorrowland.” But just how does she get there when the “magic” of the pin runs out?
Enter a now cynical, curmudgeonly Frank Walker who long ago lost his inspiration, lost the dreamer within himself but who holds the key to Casey’s dreams. Can Casey, along with Athena (who knows Frank Walker well), reawaken the boy genius in Frank and all his wide-eyed wonder and hope for the future? With killer robots and an android attack team known as the Dave Clark Five hot on their heels, Casey has her work cut out for her if she, and the world, are ever going to get to “Tomorrowland.”
No one but George Clooney could play Frank Walker. The spirit and hope within the young Frank Walker, not to mention the boyish hijinks, is the mirror image of the George Clooney we know and love. As Clooney himself notes, “You turn on your television set and it’s rough out there. It’s not fun. That can really wear on you after a period of time. We see generations now feeling as if they’re hopeless, in a way. And what I love about this is that it speaks to the idea that your future is not pre-ordained or pre-destined. If you’re involved, a single voice can make a difference, and I believe in that. I love the idea that there’s still so much that we can all do to make things better.”
Embracing the role of Frank Walker, one monologue in particular within the film sounds like it could have been written by Clooney himself and essentially captures the spirit of his philosophy about mankind. “I think everybody participates in whatever way they can. As time goes on and you become more comfortable in your career path, and things are starting to make sense, and it’s not just about work, you find that you’re able to focus on other things and other people. . .I have places that matter to me, in sub-Saharan Africa and places like that. I’ve been involved in lots of things like that. There is an awful lot that we have to do to participate, and we try to, as much as possible. We’re not policymakers, so what we try to do is shine a light on people who really don’t get light shone upon them.”
You will fall in love with the adorable Thomas Anderson who steals every scene, and your heart, as young Frank. Interesting is that we see the same wide-eyed wonder appear in Clooney as older Frank after being reinvigorated by Robertson’s Casey and Cassidy’s Athena.
And speaking of Raffey Cassidy – strong, powerful presence and really does a mighty job of not showing emotion yet tossing in slight sarcastic inflection whenever possible. She is equally at ease on screen with Robertson as she is with Clooney – but what really stands out is the chemistry pairings amongst the group as Clooney and Cassidy come across as bickering parent-child (with Clooney of course being the child) before morphing into playground arguments. On the other hand, Robertson and Cassidy bring a more equal adult footing into the equation.
Just what is up with Britt Robertson? First co-starring as love interest to Scott Eastwood and now sharing a bathtub rocket ride with Clooney and having Tim McGraw play her dad? Robertson is on a roll. And when it comes to this role, she brings spunky, spirited determination to Casey, undeterred by obstacles. So ingrained in the character, when Casey refuses to give up or give in about anything, we believe her.
Fabulous and fabulously funny cameos come from Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key, the nature of which I will not spoil for you here. Tim McGraw is the salt of the earth of supportive and scientific dad Ed Newton, while Hugh Laurie brings a nice authoritative counterbalance to the mix as Governor Nix.
Written by Damon Lindelof together with Brad Bird based on a story (and an archived “box” in the Disney vaults) by Jeff Jensen, for Lindelof, “Tomorrowland” is a reflection of his own passion and belief. “I’ve always been really interested in the future, and I feel like all of the movies that I’ve been exposed to, over the course of the last 20 to 30 years, have shown me a future that I don’t really want to be living in. It’s cool to watch. . .[t]hey’re all great, but what about that other future? And is there a way to tell that story? And I was really interested in the history of Disney, with the Imagineers and the theme parks, in particular, as it related to the World’s Fair.”
Perhaps George Clooney sums up the crux of the film best. “I thought Brad and Damon wanted to tell a story that is entertainment, first and foremost, but hopeful.” Tongue-in-cheek dialogue is peppered throughout with Clooney getting most of the fun, although just the character names themselves speak volumes as to the individuals, their traits and the story. Solidly constructed characters and ideals, wild and wacky entertaining adventures abound within the story construct. Having said that, however, there are moments where the glue is a little thin and while every element of the film from story to character to visuals to technical expertise are first rate, in some instances the transitions and cohesiveness are a bit weak. Disappointing is the minimal storyline and appearance of Tim McGraw’s character, along with the Cape Canaveral setting. Both could have, and should have, been expanded given the very core of NASA in 1964 was all about dreamers and reaching for the stars. The script lacks defining clarity on this point which, I fear, will be lost on this generation. As it now stands, that aspect of the film could have been eliminated without adversely affecting the story as a whole.
The real magic of “Tomorrowland” comes courtesy of its technical achievements. Visually, production design, VFX and cinematography are a perfect marriage, embodying the homespun quiet gentler times of the 60’s with the optimism, hope and scientific wonder of the future, which then serve as the crux of the life lessons we see unfold with the wars, famine, poverty, etc. of the destruction of the world; i.e., there is a better way, there was a better way, we just need to return to those roots to find our way again.
Cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s lighting and lensing dazzles with emotion and metaphoric storytelling in its own right. Riveting is the white white of “Tomorrowland” itself which is introduced through a mystical fog that unveils the purity of the world while a wafting, golden winter wheat field that seems to stretch forever shines brighter than the golden glow of the sun and interestingly, serves as a visual touchstone to a journey of some other dreamers heading towards and Emerald City. Contrasting graying of the palette and the addition of an overhead cloud cover speaks to the loss of inspiration and dreamers and the dower state of the world in the eyes of many. Similarly, the warmth and natural light of the Newton home harkens to days gone by but which serve as touchstones to the idea of home, hearth, and family. Color plays a large metaphoric contribution to the total cinematic bandwidth. Interesting is then whenever we have Casey in play, there is always light.
The meticulous detail of production designer Scott Chambliss is in a word, simply WOW! From “Tomorrowland” itself to the beauty of the saturated golden wheat fields and blue skies to the Newton garage (Huge kudos to Chambliss and his prop team, including set decorator Lin MacDonald, with the accuracy of the Newton garage and that fantastic engineering set-up complete with printed circuit board, alligator clips, transistors, resistors and a soldering iron at the ready that Ed Newton is tinkering with. Spot on perfection.) And then there’s Frank Walker’s house. The claustrophobic, yet fantastical design of the Walker house is exciting, thrilling, and telling about Frank Walker. You see the genius, you see the fear and disappointment, and you also see the excitement of the little boy with the contraptions he has built (a rocketship bathtub!)! And hand in hand is Miranda’s work, as the lensing is tighter, smaller, you feel the claustrophobia and Frank’s need to be alone after his heart, spirit and dreams were broken and spirit were destroyed; we lose the brightness of “Tomorrowland” and even the natural warmth of the Newton home and light becomes directional, dimmer with the glow of the monitors overtaking the entire space. Brilliant design construction.
And keep your eyes peeled for jet packs, not to mention a particular store called “Blast From The Past” which provides some of the movie’s greatest eye candy for the geek inside each of us!
Immersing us further into the conceptual and visual is director Brad Bird’s decision to build large scale epic set pieces, as opposed to making a CGI based film. A testament to Disney imagineers, Bridgeway Plaza is eye-popping. Certain scale built global landmarks (which I shall keep a surprise) are jaw-dropping. Acres of golden wheat fields are real, with the wheat planted for the film. And then there’s Cape Canaveral! Yes, that is really Cape Canaveral and a real launch pad. (Note to Congress: Every Congressman needs to see this film and give more funding to NASA.)
Come Oscar time, Michael Giacchino is a name we will undoubtedly hear. His scoring for “Tomorrowland” is cinematic in scope with an epic feel yet tailored with the fancy-free swoops of childlike awe and wonder, then balanced with the high energy action-packed danger zone, and tinged with soft emotional moments that mirror that of father and daughter, Frank and Athena, and the hope that is the future. The score is so beauteous and so emotionally perfect, there are moments of little shivers and chills. This could be another Oscar winner for Giacchino.
Reflective, the essence and spirit of “Tomorrowland” speaks to Clooney. “I grew up in an era where the power of the one really did feel as if it mattered. . .individual voices did make a huge difference. It wasn’t governments doing it, necessarily. So, I didn’t ever have that great disappointment in mankind. I always felt that it was going to work out, in the end, and I still feel that way. And so, what I loved about the film was that it reminds you that young people are not born or start out their lives cynical, angry or bigoted. You have to be taught all those things. I watch the world now and think, ‘Hell, I see really good signs from young people out there, and I feel as if the world really will get better.’ I’ve always been an optimist. I’m a realist, but I’m an optimist about it.”
A technical achievement, a visionary dream come true. From the set pieces and all the gimbal work to physical stunts to a story with the power to inspire the world (and notably, the new generation of dreamers in our own world), to the emotional embrace of the human connection, a song refrain from the 1957 classic by Harry Warren, Leo McCary and Harold Adamson featured in “An Affair to Remember”, echoes in the heart and mind:
“Ask me how do you get to ‘Tomorrowland’. Close your eyes, make a wish and you’re there.”
Brad Bird and Disney make that wish come true. “Tomorrowland” is here today.
Directed by Brad Bird
Written by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird with story by Jeff Jensen
Cast: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Hugh Laurie
NOTE: For a completely visual and sensory viewing experience, this is one time I can’t encourage you enough to see the film in IMAX as it truly does allow you to fully appreciate and experience the visionary craftsmanship at play both visually, emotionally and on a global consciousness level.