Review: Tomorrowland – A World Beyond

First thoughts, on what is a very deep movie that requires deeper investigation. I found the powerfully optimistic Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (the movie’s British title) a very enjoyable movie, if suprisingly bitterwseet in its themes and with a painfully cliched final action sequence. It turns out to be as much about the loss of our childhood dreams as about the future, and the magical nature of inspiration.

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The first two thirds of the movie are outstanding. But then our rationally optimistic heroine fatefully puts her hands on The Monitor’s big spinning ball, and the main plot rather spins off the rails. Actually, the ending that follows has three aspects, two of which are excellent (a poigniant deathbed goodbye, and then the sequence just before the closing credits). But the main battle-action part of the ending is mediocre at best.

Yet it seems there is some hope for the film’s future re-shaping. A recent press interview with the director reveals that an alternate ending was filmed. To me that suggests interference from Disney studio execs, who perhaps even tacked on a new cheaply-filmed conventional ending full of Bang! Boom! Sparks! Big Robots! Just my guess. But how else to explain that the ending we saw was seemingly filmed inside a large industrial shed with a CGI hole in one end? Or that Disney could not afford more than two rather wooden extras for its final scenes in a populous city? I really hope we get the alternate ending on a Blu-ray release, and that it is vastly more nuanced and intelligent. Because somewhere in Tomorrowland is a near-perfect thoughtful movie tantalising waiting for a mild re-cut and a better ending, if the material is available to make that happen. If Disney won’t give us that officially, let’s hope that a good fan-edit steps up to the challenge.

I never watch trailers online, but my understanding of the plot was certainly helped by seeing the Pixar-made deleted animated scene on YouTube. This was originally positioned early on in the movie — during the World’s Fair water-ride tunnel scene. The short scene very usefully explains exactly why our heroes suddenly pop up in Paris half way through the movie. I also saw a tiny segment (starts at 1:10) of the Japanese trailer on YouTube, which had a deleted scene explaining the role of Walt Disney and his theme parks in Plus Ultra. That also helped a little, but wasn’t vital.

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There was much that I anticipated would be bad, but which wasn’t. I was told by the reviews that it was a preachy movie. There were a few fleeting standard-issue Hollywood digs against “profit” and “greed” in places, but those are so commonplace and out-of-place in $200m movies that they’re faintly laughable. The real problem is that the preachyness that we do get is rather awkwardly placed — we’re smacked in the face with it right at the start, and then its drags the show to a stop in an over-long histrionic speech near the end. Ironically, Tomorrowland‘s message — that our media fetishise pessimism because it doesn’t demand anything of the audience but apathy — has been rather cruelly proved correct by the way that San Andreas and Mad Max have stomped on Tomorrowland at the box office.

I was also told by press reviews that Tomorrowland‘s plot was baffling, but I found it perfectly easy to follow. I was told that Hugh Laurie was mis-cast, but I felt he was perfect until he got bogged down by a long finale speech. I was told that the movie was too long at over two hours, but I felt it could be longer.

So what went wrong at the American box office in its dire opening week? Not the excellent acting and casting, which repeatedly ushers the movie past some of its own roadblocks. Perhaps it was the star-led marketing, with George Clooney needing to be front-and-centre in all the mainstream trailers. Sure, he grounds the movie for the few adults of a certain age who will doubtless be drawn into the cinema by the movie’s apparent surface-level 1960s techno-optimism, but in the actual movie his restrained and sour character (Frank) is only fairly lightly sketched in. In fact, at one point he’s totally and gloriously upstaged by his own house. I’d say that the real star, the one holding the whole movie together throughout, is the brilliant and mysterious Athena (Raffey Cassidy).

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The weighty novel Before Tomorrowland was also very useful in filling in a whole lot of back-story, though it appears to have slipped out well under-the-radar about six weeks before the movie. It’s a prequel novel with nice 1940s style line illustrations and also a 20-page comic book The Secret History of the World of Tomorrowland explaining the background of Plus Ultra (in the paper hardback only, or for iTunes for Mac users only). Perhaps the comic, at least, should have been available free online to more than just Apple Mac users. The official novel and additional comic-book were released six weeks ahead of the movie.

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Also part of the marketing was “The Optimist” aka “Stop Plus Ultra”, a Tomorrowland ARG, which implied that the famous sci-fi author Ray Bradbury had given a Tomorrowland pin to a character. The ARG had some nice concept art too…

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There was even a Disney Young Reader novelisation of the movie, for 9-12 year olds. And a The Secret History of the World of Tomorrowland comic-book for free (you need to have iTunes installed, and a privacy-sucking Apple ID set up, and even then it’s for Mac users only). Possibly the marketing for these did reach a younger audience, but if so then it didn’t impact the box office.

So what went wrong, apart from the marketing? Well, Tomorrowland is very obviously Part One of a trilogy. There is so much untold backstory here, and now a key character to resurrect to boot. Disney were obviously hoping for another two hours in which to tell Athena’s story, and (given Raffey Cassidy’s age) one wonders how much of it they may have already filmed against greenscreen. Then another two hours, to tell Frank’s story. Without parts two and three the fans are left with many questions to answer… Was the Tomorrowland resort city ever populated for real by more than a few hundred people from Earth? Or was it only ever an android-populated stage set, offering an inspiring glimpse for the chosen humans and then… back the chosen ones go to Earth to try to make it real? Frank was obviously in a city in the other dimension from 1964 through about 1974, but then what caused Frank’s exile circa the mid 1970s at around age 21? Or Athena’s escape to Earth some years later, circa 1984 (she tells Frank that she visited Paris 25 years ago) which was the date the Tomorrowland resort area was meant to open to Earth. Did Frank build The Monitor, or was it just his algorithms that made it work as Nix implies, thus enabling it to be built by the androids? Was that his un-named crime? Or was his crime the unwitting creation of love in an android, something seen by the other more advanced androids (Nix implies he is a more advanced android that Athena) as worthy of exile? Was this why, ten years later, Governor Nix wanted to disassemble Athena? Were there other unexpected effects arising from Frank’s Earth piracy of The Monitor’s tachyon stream? What was the fate of Athena’s other 10 pin-badges on Earth? Why did Athena never contact Frank on Earth, if she had been there for 25+ years? What of the Tomorrowland resort’s obvious population deficit — did the humans really all depart for the stars, leaving only a skeleton staff of androids? Or do androids only need a few ‘bodies’, while most of their being resides collectively in a ‘hive’ in the digital nano-aether (as implied by the novel Before Tomorrowland)? But it seems that there’s no hope of knowing all that now, other than perhaps from more illustrated novels, as the Disney bean-counters frown at the first week’s U.S. and Chinese box offices and move on.

But hey, this movie is still showing at the cinemas in the UK. So should you see it there rather than as a Director’s Cut / fan-edit at home in a few months’ time? Well, that somewhat depends on your cinema’s prices. I wouldn’t spend travel + £15 on seeing it in 3D, but at around £7.50 it’s worth seeing on a well-projected big screen. Just don’t expect a sunny Jetsons cruise through rational optimism and techno-utopianism. Beneath its gloss, Tomorrowland is a much darker film than that.

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