It is both poetic irony and a great shame that Tomorrowland shares two features with its fellow May 22, 2015 wide release, Gil Kenan’s Poltergeist remake. First, both films boast directors who are inordinately perfect for the films they were matched with. Second, in each case, that director didn’t do their job, or found themselves victims to outside interests. In both cases, the acquisition of the ideal candidate for shepherding a certain film did little to actually ensure said film was any good. If nothing else, this phenomenon tells us one thing: auteur theory, and the idea that a director can do anything to ensure their films will reflect the core of their talents and personhoods, ain’t everything when all is said and done.
With Poltergeist, the issue is clear: Kenan was forced into making a Poltergeist film, and his lithe creativity was swallowed under the weight of forcing his film, at every turn, to copy the original Poltergeist. Tomorrowland doesn’t afford us an answer so easily. I cannot tell if Bird was so smitten with Disney’s theme park attraction that he left his talent at the door so his ego could run free, or whether he was prey to outside forces sculpting the film in their own directions, but Tomorrowland is a surprisingly leaden, confused product for a director who usually strives for elegant buoyancy.
A likely candidate for confusion is the tension between Bird and screenwriter Damon Lindelof, who is about as perfect a polar opposite for Bird’s gee-whiz simplicity as humanly possible. Lindelof is a particularly devious sort, to say the least, and he loves him some crippling self-seriousness. Take, for instance, Cowboys & Aliens, a perfect slice of mid-century conceptual matinee fluff if ever there was one, given to a director matched in sensibility to Bird, if not in talent: Jon Favreau. Usually a slight, flippant director of sky-high silliness, Favreau was undone by Lindelof’s unaffected gloominess and perpetual habit of drastic, mechanical over-writing, turning a simple, effervescent concept – “cowboys fight aliens” – into a turgid narrative of arbitrary, belabored twists and turns that rest on one of the laziest and more dubious of all modern screenwriter principles: that any and all films, no matter the lightness of the concept or whether the material actually has the weight to back it up, desperately, absolutely require complicated script machinations that stretch the concept of “narrative” too thin and crumble in on themselves.
The same flaw persists in Tomorrowland, a film that by all accounts doesn’t have the greatest anchor as far as narrative goes; the “Tomorrowland” theme park attraction is many things, but potential for a great, complex meditation on humanity is not one of them. Watching Lindelof and Bird struggle to turn this concept, which is more an idea or a state of mind than a narrative proper, into a “story” is haphazard at best and painful at worst. Not since Martin Scorsese was asked to run circles around himself turning Shutter Island into a soulless, concept-heavy Nolanesque puzzle-box that deadened and embalmed all the filmmaking ingenuity in its path has a film been hurt so much by trying to couch all of its invention in a screenplay, rather than in the visual filmmaking on the screen. Tomorrowland, and definitionally, any theme park attraction turned into a film, should probably cut to the chase – the same “let’s turn it into a complicated narrative” mentality almost crushed the original Pirates of the Caribbean, and ruinously devoured all of its sequels. It is for this reason that, even when Tomorrowland does alight momentarily, we are left wondering how luminous it could have been had it simply arrived at Tomorrowland and skipped and cavorted to its hearts content in one of the most magisterially visual movie locations in years.
Yes, and this location is where Bird’s heart lies. Not in telling a narrative with it, but in simply exploring it with his camera, letting the setting gracefully evoke and imply the story of this location rather than forcibly and apologetically hammering a story into every little crevice and hole the film’s screenplay can find. Watching Tomorrowland is a particularly disconcerting form of pleasure delay, which isn’t a problem in itself. The problem, in essence, is that the film doesn’t realize it is pleasure delay, and needlessly insists that the narrative itself is the pleasure. What ought to be a sky-high flight of fancy that gamely rejects serious narrative for a sort of “let’s have an adventure” winsomeness is instead a mechanical, programmatic, dogged trudge of a film that insists far too heavily on its own importance and mystery.
Not that it never enters flight. Bird’s aww shucks inventiveness and penchant for the innocent comic book zeal of the 1950s and ’60s, back when, he claims, children were more innocent and humans were all “dreamers”, is a naïve claim, for sure, but it is potent fodder for set and production design that runs away with narrative and characters and places world-building front-and-center. World-building that Bird occasionally gets around to, and when his cinematically forward-thinking brand of looking to the past comes to the forefront, namely when the film actually does arrive at the titular alternate reality of Tomorrowland, the film is on fine form. His awareness of the bulbous, high-contrast colors of the time period play exceedingly well in a modern age of blockbusters that would rather be brown and gray, both emotionally and physically on the screen.
Even outside of Tomorrowland itself, when we are watching young dreamer Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) discovering a pin that leads her on a country-wide adventure to the house of Frank Walker (George Clooney), Bird stops occasionally for a few moments of genuine presentational whimsy. A fight in a memorabilia store, dotted up with little details from the likes of Star Wars and Bird’s own The Iron Giant – now, itself part of the pop-culture canon – plays like a catch-a-reference roller-coaster of sheer silliness in the most generous possible way. Add to that Robertson, who is wonderfully wide-eyed and sufficiently knowing in her role, and George Clooney, who brought his best exposition scruff and can sell just about any line of dialogue with the right mix of charisma and world-weary snark, and you have enough intoxicants to stave off boredom, if not to surely set the film alight.
But the contours of the screenplay clash most mightily with Bird’s innocence, begging something dour and convoluted when the film really just ought to fly around and soar in a burst of cosmic cotton-candy. A clash that is disheartening and problematic, especially in light of the film’s implication that we all ought to be cartoon dreamers. For a movie that wants to be so innocent and bubbly – a pointed conceptual riposte to the dour Christopher Nolan’s of the world and their halfhearted sub-Kubrickian aesthetic – Tomorrowland spends an awful amount of time trying to ape the dense, anti-bubbly writing style of Nolan’s co-writer David S. Goyer.
Especially when it veers into a bizarre strain of moralism toward the end that seems like an intentional rejection of the latent Objectivist streak Bird has so long been accused of. In trying to paint Tomorrowland itself as this mythical haven of individualist inventors who invent only for themselves, refusing to share their strengths with humankind, the film seems like an obvious attempt to critique Randianism. But Bird doubles back, smugly mocking human-kind for failing to “earn” the admiration of the best and the brightest. In some moments, he even seems to openly sympathize with an elitist villain played with sufficient oil by Hugh Laurie.
It ultimately seems like Bird’s individualist streak and love for the most-talented of the world has got the better of him, keeling over the wide-eyed ambition of The Iron Giant into something more like a gross amalgamation of politicized individualism, essentially saying that only the best and the brightest of the world can save us, and that if we, in all our inhumanity, only “earned” their help, we would just be A-OK. Bird makes passing gestures toward community and supporting the talents of the poor as much as the wealthy, but the equalizing strain means little in a world where the wealthy have the opportunity to pursue and hone talents that others do not. Bird’s individualist heroizing works best when it is deliberately slight so that it can soar in a way wholly distanced from concerns about reality; it works, essentially, when it is a cartoon. In trying to teach humankind a lesson, and in couching that lesson in stew of seriousness and realism, the implications of his “only the talented” philosophy becomes much harder to stomach. In trying to be both weighty and weightless, Tomorrowland is left standing on the ground.