I didn't think Disney could possibly top itself in terms of self-mythologizing and worshiping the vision of its namesake founder after Saving Mr. Banks. But along comes Tomorrowland, in which the “It’s a Small World” ride at the 1964 World’s Fair acts as a portal to a perfect sci-fi city in another dimension. Jeezy petes. And Ol’ Walt’s utopian outlook on the future is parroted numerous times by various characters. It’s how we know they’re the good guys. Even though when the bad guy gets his say, he makes way more sense. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We travel through that Small World portal alongside young Frank Walker, whom you can tell from his name to be the whitest boy to have ever lived. Our reality is too mundane and hostile to dreamers for Frank, so a creepy girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) invites him to come to Tomorrowland, where all the best thinkers can create to their hearts’ content, without any interference from politics or economics or the little people
Fast-forward to the present, and Athena (still a creepy little girl) slips a special pin to teenage girl Casey (Britt Robertson) which gives her visions of Tomorrowland. This spurs Casey — a “dreamer” so full of hope that she sabotages the deconstruction of a space shuttle launch platform, in the lamest teenage rebellion ever — to find out how to reach this high-tech other place. With Athena’s help and prompting, she finds a grown-up Frank (George Clooney), who it turns out got kicked out of Tomorrowland after a while. Frank is bitter and jaded and tragically no longer a Dreamer, but Casey sparks hope that a vague “it” can be fixed, and so the three are off to find a way to get to Tomorrowland.
That sounds like the description of a first act, but it’s actually the first four-fifths or so of the story. Seriously. Itchy, Scratchy, and Poochie would all die on the way to this fireworks factory. It’s shockingly bad plot construction, the kind I honestly thought studio wonks raised on Robert McKee and Save the Cat! (to say nothing of writer/director Brad Bird’s Pixar pedigree) had beaten out of them by now. It’s a big part of why Tomorrowland is so terminally boring most of the time. It’s mostly setup. All filler, no killer on the way to a gigantic anticlimax. Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof have taken their buddy J.J. Abrams’ mystery box to its logical, horrifying extreme.
Is there good to be found? Not particularly. Clooney can’t sell “disillusioned old grump” to save his life. Robertson is okay but constantly directed to overdo almost everything (it doesn’t help that she’s older than I am, but has to sell the “plucky teen” angle). You can feel the desperation to make her a Good Female Role Model. And sure, it’s nice to see a girl lead who’s smart and proactive and blah blah blah STEM fields whatever. But really, all that amounts to is that now a girl gets to lead a bland blockbuster. Which is its own sort of equality moment, I suppose. So… props?
…nah. For all the talk about how Casey may be the one to fix the thing, her actual contributions towards fixing the thing are minimal, pushed aside in favor of a good old-fashioned man to save the day. With a jetpack.
There’s also the truly uncomfortable subplot between Frank and Athena. He was in love with her as a child, but now he’s an old dude while she’s the same age. So he acts alternatively like a jilted lover and with pangs of longing towards her. It’s … it’s as disquieting as it sounds. Probably moreso. This is the kind of sci-fi scenario that would probably be wonderfully meaty in a book, or in a film that dared to actually explore it, but in a family-oriented mega-movie, it can only turn out badly.
Bird has proved himself before to be a great director of action, and there are sequences that rouse some excitement here. Not too many, though. It doesn’t help that many of them are tacked on to fulfill mandated excitement quotas. Gone too long without some shooting? Well, time for some shooting. A kid can’t cross a platform without falling off it for no reason. It’s the opposite of propelling the narrative through action.
Who will give a shit about Tomorrowland (the eponymous place, not the movie, although the answer to either question is the same) ? There’s nothing terribly new or exciting to behold along its skyline of shining towers and jetpacks zooming about. It doesn’t look at all different from any other future city cinema has brought us. There’s one nifty beat with floating three-dimensional pools, but that’s it. The movie seems to assume that the vision itself will wow audiences, as if this level of CGI is new and not something we’ve gotten used to over the past 15 years or so. It seems to think that it can force wonder on the viewer by insisting upon a wondrous worldview. No sell.
“Insisting upon wonder” is the film summed up, really. It frowns on pessimism, casting clucking disapproval at apocalypse-obssessed pop culture and news reports of riots, global warming, and war. “If we could only stop being so negative,” Tomorrowland pleads, “maybe we could fix things.” Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, it tells us. Which, okay, sure, you can build a movie around that argument, no problem. But…
- Delivered from the synergized mouth of giant corporation Disney, which contributes to more than a fair share of the problems in question, it’s more than slightly disingenuous.
- The film utterly elides all of the effort that goes into the process of actually fixing the world. The bad guys get kilt good, then there’s a cut and a year goes by. Clooney even gets a speech about how it’s easier to blow up an evil tower than it is to build a good one. So… the laziness is acknowledged. “Do good! How? LOL I ‘unno.”
What truly pushes things over the top is that the message is wholly literalized in the finale. It turns out that Tomorrowland never got around to the business of sharing all its technological wonders with the normal world because they built a “monitor” that can peer through time and saw that, welp, we’re boned. But then Casey figures out that the monitor can also act as a broadcaster, and that Tomorrowland Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie) has been deliberately beaming visions of doom into the heads of the citizens of Earth for years. So basically, we can’t fix anything because the smart people told us we can’t. Mmmmm-hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm
But then comes the real kicker. Nix explains that he didn’t send this message to kill us, but to try to spur us into action. And in a speech that, full credit to Bird/Lindelof, is pretty great, he despairs that instead of doing anything, humans instead repackaged and commodified the apocalypse. So we’re doomed. It’s a pretty airtight argument. But Casey, Frank, and Athena go ahead with their plan to blow up the monitor anyway, because… Dreamers, I guess.
Tomorrowland tells us that popular negativity is what prevents the world from getting better. It’s not entirely wrong — plenty of supposedly passionate progressives use “We’re screwed anyway” as an excuse to do no real activism. But I’d submit that pessimism is a perfectly valid response to the current state of the world, and that apocalypse pop culture is born of a collective feeling of being unable to do anything about the future, rather than the other way around.
The film is caught it the weirdest place, acknowledging dire problems but also scorning those who bring these problems to our attention. And presenting riots as a symptom of the problems? Man, a riot is a real reaction to the state of the world, and unquestionably a much more effective one than a moony, dull film. But I guess it’s too scary if a mass of brown people are the ones taking action instead of a few special white people.
Walt Disney had an unsettling authoritarian and paternal streak that this film lovingly perpetuates. The way to fix the world is to get out of the way of the Dreamers. Oh yes, there are non-white Dreamers out there. We see many of them when they’re called to Tomorrowland in an ending montage. But do they get to do anything? No. The only nonwhite character of any note in this film is the ever-delightful Keegan-Michael Key, only present for one scene. Otherwise, while the film takes pains to make its extras diverse, it still won’t go so far as doing the same with its proactive, important characters. A small world, sitting in the palm of a benevolent white hand. Don’t riot. Dream. Dreeeaaaaaammmmm.