The future ain’t what it used to be, according to director and co-writer Brad Bird, bringing a passion project of sorts to the screen for his fifth film and second live-action entry. Young Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is surprised to find a pin from the 1964 New York World’s Fair with the extraordinary property of transporting her to a world beyond her own, Tomorrowland. In chasing this dream of a shining land, Casey is thrown into an adventure and web of intrigue involving enigmatic Athena (Raffey Cassidy), jaded Frank Walker (George Clooney), and clinical David Nix (Hugh Laurie).
I’m a bit torn with Casey, because the script gives her corny dialogue and a persistent sense of incredulousness that wears thin. On the other hand she is a reliable hero for this story, intelligent and never wilting. I’m not torn with Robertson’s performance, as she has undeniable screen presence; Britt Robertson can carry a film, and I think a lesser performer would have dragged it down.
She’s playing a super-reactive hero, but that fits with the film; this is a movie loosely based on a theme park section… that actually feels like a ride at times. There’s an early sequence that reveals a secret portal in a familiar Disneyland ride that really does convey a sense of childlike wonder – you play out the scenario in your own mind and think what it would be like if it happened to you. But most notably, the sequence where Casey just goes with the flow of Tomorrowland for a few minutes feels like she, and the audience, are on an immersive simulated ride.
The screenplay has an oblong structure that will leave many viewers at sea, and I do think that the structure could be better, but at least it’s not formulaic. As one example of bizarre structure, there’s a villain reveal at the climax, and the script proceeds to put this brand new villain through every beat a villain who had been built up over the course of a whole typical action film would go through at its climax. After this thread comes up out of the ether, the newly minted villain’s death is shot-for-shot identical to another villain’s end in a certain 1990s James Bond movie! That said, Bird directs action with flair (as previously seen in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), and composer Michael Giacchino’s cues evoke Walt Disney’s 1950s futuristic vision very well (it also helps that Giacchino masterminded the spectacular “remixed” Space Mountain theme for the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland).
But the main triumph of Tomorrowland is one of design. This is a film in which things look cool, which is no surprise, as Bird’s enthusiasm for the presentational aspects of his worlds has always been a constant. Tomorrowland itself is stunning, of course, money shot after money shot that do a great job in creating a connection between Casey and the audience, as I mentioned before. My favorite detail there is a spaceship launch runway straight out of When Worlds Collide! (How is there not an “Art of Tomorrowland” coffee table book out right now?) There are also some subtler elements that bear the Brad Bird stamp of retro-futurist nostalgia, including the pin featured prominently in the marketing. (I would have said my personal favorite is the countdown clock housed in a row of light bulbs, but it turns out that wasn’t designed for the movie. For the record, it exists in our world as a nixie tube.)
So there’s fun to be had with the film. But what really dragged Tomorrowland down for me is a dumb, heavy-handed script. It’s got themes that are superficially attractive, but are constructed on the most simplistic of foundations. Threaded throughout the film is the idea that humanity has seen dystopian fiction and “given up” on the future. Uh… do you know what an allegory is? The majority of dystopian stories are prisms that hold up current issues in our world in a heightened future, to make cogent and purposeful points. Fahrenheit 451=don’t become jaded to your cultural liberties. Mad Max: Fury Road=don’t let an unchecked patriarchy “kill the world”. Divergent=you are a special snowflake. I mean, a sign of giving up? This is vaguely insulting in a world where Thai rebels use the Hunger Games salute of solidarity, and that story complements their ideals in protests against an oppressive regime.
And don’t be too quick to lionize a Boy’s Own, gee whiz, Jetsons-esque, rocket-packed utopia. Firstly, in Tomorrowland, the chosen few are actually called “plus ultras”. This really reminds both of Brave New World‘s class distinctions (Alpha, Gamma, etc) and Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s newspeak (Big Brother is doubleplus good). But beyond that, think about the larger question of why this particular vision of the future came to prominence in the late 1940s into the 1950s.
After World War II, a crucible of intense human cruelty and conflict, America entered a Cold War with the Soviet Union, sometimes known as the atomic age. With the threat of mutually assured destruction and nuclear fallout a specter over everything, would you rather practice your duck-and-cover routines, or play pretend that you’re in a shining future of hover cars and jetpacks? It was an easy escape, a necessary one at the time. The film puts forward this idea that dystopian fiction breeds complacency – the future’s screwed, why should I care? But most of those dystopian stories are talking about real issues, while Tomorrowland‘s idealized future arguably breeds laziness and indolence to a greater degree – I need escapism in which all the answers have already been found and I don’t have to worry about anything.
Bird’s first film The Iron Giant nailed a tension between the escape of ray guns and the backdrop of the Cold War, and that complexity has been replaced here with a binary. And a final thing: Tomorrowland really is an atomic age vision. As a place of recruitment for “chosen” people to have their especial potential institutionally recognized, and brought to ultimate fruition, you can’t get much less socialist than that.
All that being said… the thing is, yes, I would like to see utopian fiction. It’s not the theme that I can’t get behind, but the way it’s presented. I believe, in the writing of this screenplay, that there must have been a way to ignite that sense of optimism in a way that is both less problematic and more thematically rich. A great start would be explaining what Tomorrowland means to us. I don’t know how a utopia in another dimension populated by our best, brightest and most well-rounded will affect those of us who don’t qualify and remain in our world in any way other than the negative. I mean, they’ve got all our “dreamers”, right? I’m sure a second viewing would provide me with better clues as to how the whole setup works from our world’s perspective, but the film as it stands seems opaque and elusive on the issue. Yes, it’s absolutely wonderful to skip the climate change-denying middlemen in a world without that bureaucracy, but how exactly do the two worlds relate? You can be clear about your themes, and without having to be simplistic; maybe if the script spent less time with ham for hands it could sharpen and crystallize the theme it so wants to promote.
Overwritten and under explained, this is half of a good movie. I like Britt Robertson’s central performance, and some of the aesthetic elements, but so many of the screenplay’s beats don’t land properly. Sometimes fun, sometimes frustrating, I’m sorry to report that Tomorrowland is Brad Bird’s first lackluster film. 5/10.