[Note: This post contains major spoilers.]
Tomorrowland, writer-director Brad Bird’s absurdly sincere paean to the techno-utopianism of yesterday, is that rare feature in which the message significantly outshines the surrounding film. It is a miraculously eccentric work, in that a $190 million movie based on a cluster of Disney theme park attractions is just about the last piece of cinema one would expect to reflect the filmmaker’s ethos in such a pronounced fashion. Yet Tomorrowland unmistakably emanates from the same worldview that gave filmgoers The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and the screenplay to the all-but-forgotten *batteries not included. If anything, Bird’s latest film represents a distillation of the wonder, optimism, and humanism that have characterized much of his work, such that their concentrated essence permeates every frame. Given that Tomorrowland positions itself at an antidote to the paralyzing hopelessness that typifies the vast majority of contemporary genre fiction (and much of the news cycle, for that matter), the film’s heart is unquestionably in the right place. The problem is that the actual work of cinema encasing that heart is rife with problems.
Things get off to a rocky start with the framing device, in which a tetchy middle-aged man and an unseen younger female speaker—eventually identified as David Walker (George Clooney) and Casey Newton (Britte Robertson)—bicker for several minutes about the particular point at which their tale should begin. This conversation, in which Casey cheerfully and repeatedly interrupts the increasingly exasperated Frank, neatly previews the dynamic of their relationship: A world-weary grump is prodded out of his dismal yet comfortable beliefs by the sheer unbridled positivity of an adolescent who reflects his own mindset in earlier, less cynical times. Unfortunately, the exchange is a dreadfully unfunny drag, inclining one to wish that Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof would just get on with the damn story.
Eventually, the narrators settle on David’s childhood as a starting point. It was a time when, as he wistfully observes, “the future was different.” That future was exemplified by the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which is where an excitable and precocious young David (Thomas Robinson) arrives to gawk at the technological marvels of mid-century America. (Not incidentally, the fair was also a showcase for Walt Disney’s revolutionary Audio-Animatronics robotics system, which received its most notable debut in the “It’s a Small World” attraction.) While showing off a quasi-functional jetpack he has built to an unimpressed judge (Hugh Laurie) at an inventor’s competition, David encounters Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a similarly precocious British girl who give him a souvenir pin emblazoned with a “T.” This object eventually admits David into an astonishing, hidden metropolis filled with the kind of science fiction wonders that make the fair’s exhibits look like relics from the Dark Ages. This city is Tomorrowland, and although young David exhibits unabashed delight upon discovering its existence, old David claims that his arrival there ruined his life.
In the present day, the viewer is at last introduced to Casey, a Florida high school senior with a passion for furturism. (Robertson is unconvincing as a teenager, but so exuberant and charming in the role that it doesn't matter.) She also has a nocturnal hobby sabotaging the demolition equipment positioned to tear down the launch pads at Cape Canaveral. From her father (Tim McGraw), a former NASA engineer, she’s plainly inherited a keen interest in science—and in space exploration specifically—but her fannish enthusiasm and forthright sanguinity about tomorrow’s possibilities are all her own. Bombarded in the classroom by glum prophecies of war, riots, disease, famine, drought, and myriad forms of environmental devastation, Casey inquires brightly, “What are we doing to fix it?”
It’s this unflappable attitude that draws the scrutiny of Athena (mysteriously still tweenaged in appearance,) who secretly plants a Tomorrowland pin among Casey's possessions. When the girl later discovers the memento, it is revealed to have properties quite unlike the glorified keycard that David received some five decades earlier. Upon touching the pin, Casey is transported to a sunlit wheat field on the outskirts of Tomorrowland, which gleams in the distance like the proverbial city on a hill. This relocation is temporary, lasting only as long as pin-to-skin contact is maintained. It is also illusory, as Casey quickly determines after cracking her head on a couple of real-world walls while hurrying towards the metropolis. Eventually she gets the hang of the physics and spends several minutes on a dizzying exploration of Tomorrowland’s wonders, which include aerial mass transit, a bustling spaceport, levitating swimming pools, and, naturally, jetpacks complete with auto-deploying, self-inflating safety cushions. At once bleeding-edge fantastic and vaguely anachronistic, the city reflects the kind of retrofuturism that William Gibson described as “the tomorrow that never was”.
In monomyth terms, one can regard the Tomorrowland pin as Casey’s Call to Adventure: a glimpse of a heretofore unseen world that pushes her out the door on a life-changing journey. However, as the viewer eventually learns, Casey’s vision is actually more akin to an advertisement: a glossy, 3-D promotional video designed to entice the recipient to seek out the real Tomorrowland. Serving as both a sanctuary and laboratory, the city is a gathering place where great altruistic minds can develop the solutions to humanity’s problems in relative peace. Unfortunately, Bird and Lindelof’s screenplay takes its sweet time making this clear, and in the interim there’s a great deal of tedious shouting, arguing, running, driving, fisticuffs, and plasma pistol gunplay. This points to what is the film’s most glaring flaw: its penchant for padding out the plot with tiresome quarreling and lackluster action sequences that amount to so much narrative wheel-spinning.
To be clear, the problem is not that Tomorrowland’s dimension-hopping plot is convoluted, or even that it exhibits a typically Lindelof-esque frugality in dribbling out explanations for What the Hell Is Going On. (Both of those things are true, but this writer followed the plot just fine on the first pass. Never mind that Tomorrowland is literal kids’ stuff compared to the likes of Primer, The Fountain, and Inception.) Rather, the film’s stumbles are those of pacing and presentation. One suspects that there is a much more engaging 90-minute movie lurking somewhere in the screenplay, if Bird had had the courage to slice out significant chunks of go-nowhere dialog and wearisome action. The whole film simply feels flabby and clumsy in too many places, in a way that seems utterly inconsistent with Bird’s impressively nimble direction of Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
After taking an inordinately long time to actually get moving, Tomorrowland’s plot eventually starts to snap into focus. To exactly no one’s surprise, the ageless Athena is revealed to be a Tomorrowland android, albeit one who has been disavowed as a rogue unit. The truth is the opposite: Athena hasn’t strayed from her programming, but continues to follow it in both letter and spirit, pursuing her mission long after the masters of Tomorrowland have deemed it a worthless endeavor. Her assignment is to find “dreamers”: brilliant scientific and creative thinkers with an unwavering confidence that the world can be transformed into a better place through human ingenuity.
It was this task, of course, that initially brought Casey to Athena’s attention. Normally, a potential recruit would be left to find their way to Tomorrowland on their own—and thereby prove both their intellect and passion—but the present moment in human history is too critical for such niceties. Accordingly, Athena eventually delivers Casey to the doorstep of the now-grizzled Frank, who has evidently been exiled from Tomorrowland for decades. Holed up in a ramshackle house that resembles a junkyard Batcave, Frank has withdrawn from the world to anxiously monitor an intricate doomsday clock, which indicates a 100% probability of imminent global apocalypse (and apparently has for some time). However, the mere proximity of Casey’s sprightly confidence causes this secular Rapture Index to momentarily flicker to 99.99%, which is sufficient evidence to convince Frank of her super-specialness. This is roughly the moment when a regiment of smiling, plastic-haired Tomorrowland androids arrives to cheerfully vaporize the pair of them.
More forgettable action ensues, and after escaping the Stepford hit squad, rendezvousing with Athena, teleporting to Paris, launching into orbit, and then plunging through a dimensional portal, the group eventually reaches Tomorrowland. They find that the city is startlingly dilapidated and underpopulated, and that the “Plus-Ultra” leadership represented by the contemptuous Governor Nix (Laurie again) has wholly given up on humanity, preferring to hunker down and weather the looming Armageddon from its extra-dimensional perch.
In an obviously audience-directed monologue, Nix laments humankind’s refusal to take decisive action even when given ample evidence of impending calamities, speculating that people actually prefer dystopia, at least when the alternative is getting off their behinds and doing something. After sending out warnings both overt and subliminal for decades, the masters of Tomorrowland have thrown up their hands. It is, naturally, Casey who points out that conveying an incessant message of approaching catastrophe for years on end is likely to have crushed humanity’s hope, paradoxically ensuring that no action is taken to save the future. However, Nix isn’t interested in any last-minute gambits to forestall the apocalypse the Plus-Ultras’ calculations indicate to be just weeks away. And so a climactic escape and struggle ensues, with an outcome that is predictable but nonetheless agreeably rosy.
It’s challenging to recall a recent film as overtly message-oriented as Tomorrowland, which is the cinematic equivalent of a flashing Time Square advertisement written in hundred-foot, neon orange letters. It is not subtle in the least, but the film’s Popular Science optimism feels like a welcome breath of fresh air, given the ubiquity of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction in contemporary pop culture. So earnest are Tomorrowland’s pleas for hope and so intense are its ambitions for a lustrous tomorrow, defensive aficionados of more dismal scenarios will likely regard the film as interminably naïve, or worse yet as a scornful, schoolmarmish admonishment.
That would be a shame, for despite its narrative and formal defects, Tomorrowland is a much-needed corrective to the glut of urban hellscapes and ashen wastelands that have swamped the imagery of the future. Regardless of how much stock one puts in the film’s Mickey Mouse pop psychology—All You Need Is Hope!—it’s undeniable that a great swath of speculative fiction has become distressingly lazy and repetitive. Conceits and designs that were once innovative in features like Dawn of the Dead, The Road Warrior, Blade Runner, and Brazil have become de rigueur. What was formerly a radical reaction to the perceived squeaky-clean utopianism of the science fiction genre has itself become conventional, the dominant ideology of the future, so to speak.
In this landscape, even the aesthetics of Tomorrowland seem weirdly transgressive. Combining elements of Streamline Moderne and Googie design—with a hefty dose of glossy, friendly simplicity one might term “iBlanco”—the film's future is a safe, spotless, orderly place, where toil and struggle are replaced with leisure and discovery. It is not unlike Disney's theme parks in this respect, highlighting a curious correspondence: The Tomorrowland pin fulfills much the same function as Walt Disney World's Epcot, in that both constitute glorified commercials for an idealized, inspirational future. (Epcot, it should be recalled, was originally an abbreviation for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and was initially conceived by Walt Disney as a model city that would prod America into tackling the most intractable challenges of modern living.)
In one respect, Tomorrowland is a resounding success: While its elementally a Brad Bird film, it's also the first Disney feature in ages that feels as though it reflects the outlook of old Walt himself, who was an outspoken modernist and futurist. One needn't assume a blithely credulous stance toward the Disney conception of tomorrow---and all its attendant capitalist, imperialist, racist, and sexist baggage---to acknowledge the veracity of Tomorrowland's fundamental observation: that ceaseless visions of despair can create despair, and despair can create paralysis. The tribal disbelievers and professional dissemblers who deny the reality of global problems are justly seen as the primary enemies of progress, but the film proposes that misanthropic fatalism is a more insidious obstacle.
Despite Bird's supposed (and mostly groundless) notoriety for sprinkling Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy into his films, Tomorrowland's villains aren't the putative witless, mediocre masses who refuse to save their own skins. Rather, the antagonists are the Plus-Ultras like Nix, who first inundated the world with their frantic alarmism, and then disdainfully threw in the towel when the world preferred to wallow in the inevitability of destruction. Indeed, the crumbling Tomorrowland glimpsed in the film's present-day sequences can be regarded as an acidic satire of Galt's Gulch from Atlas Shrugged: a sanctuary where Earth's best and brightest withdrew to create a utopia, and instead ended up building little more than a cushy scenic viewpoint for the End Times. (In this, Tomorrowland the city bears some resemblance to the scathing depictions of a collapsed Objectivist paradise in the video game Bioshock.) It's a far cry from the egalitarian, multi-ethnic Shangri-la that Casey's vision promised.
Fortunately, the film's epilogue illustrates the can-do response that this discrepancy provokes. Freshly in command of Tomorrowland's destiny, Casey and Frank dispatch a new batch of androids to Earth, bestowing each with a set of pins and orders to find the dreamers that are needed to right the city and the future. The candidates that the robots are shown selecting pointedly represent a broad range of nationalities and ethnicities, as well as numerous disciplines: not only scientists and engineers, but artists, activists, and caretakers. The street musician, the film posits, is just as essential to tomorrow's innovations as the geochemist. A cynic might argue that this notion represents self-flattering myopia. However, in Tomorrowland's final moments, as the music swells and dozens of starry-eyed, prospective Plus-Ultras simultaneously reach for that “T” pin and, by extension, for a more luminous future, it's almost impossible to remain in a cynical frame of mind.