“Tomorrowland” feels like Neil Degrasse Tyson’s version of “Atlas Shrugged”. It is an unabashed plea toward optimism, hope, and the power of science fueled by imagination. It is also often corny and simplistic in a hippie-ish, kumbaya sort of way. This is a film one WANTS to like more than ACTUALLY likes, but one also finds their heart warmed a little at attempting to make something this uncynical and hopeful.
I’m afraid this is a review I cannot write without going into HEAVY SPOILERS. You’ve been warned. “Tomorrowland” is a film begging the audience, and the human race, to step enjoying and perpetuating apocalypse and disaster porn and actually try to make the world a better place. It’s a film that sees politicians and “captains of industry” (the film’s words…I would have said “capitalists”, but never mind) as impediments to any real progress as a species, and it’s a film that wears a smile even as it harbors barely repressed anger, much like the robots in the film that smile widely while trying to vaporize people. It’s also, weirdly, a film that seems to promote destruction of property in the cause of stopping bad things from happening, ala the Weather Underground, so one could potentially read the film as pro-terrorism or pro-revolution, but only in the benign, good intentioned, nobody-gets-hurt way. Perhaps a plot summary is in order.
In 1964 there is a World’s Fair going on, and a young boy goes there to try to win $50.00 by submitting his jet pack in a contest. The contest seems to be judged by David Nix (Hugh Laurie), who cares more about the fact that the jet pack doesn’t quite work (it goes fast horizontally, but not vertically) than the fact that a young boy invented an almost working jet pack out of old vacuum cleaner parts. The boy thinks people seeing a guy wearing a jet pack flying would cause hope and wonder. Nix replies that maybe it would…if it worked. Nowadays, I’m pretty sure a guy in a jet pack would be a side item at the bottom of the Huffington Post, but this film is very old fashioned and hey, back in the 50s and 60s, these “Jetsons”-style innovations really wowed people. In the present, each of us carries a supercomputer in our pockets and we use it to gossip and send dick pics. Technology alone cannot wow us.
Despite the rejection, a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy, who gives one helluva performance for a child actor) takes a shine to the boy and gives him a shiny pin with a “T” on it and tells him to follow her and Nix but to not be seen. He follows them into the “It’s a Small World” ride. Yes, that ride makes an appearance in this film. The most annoying thing Disney has ever produced turns out to, when activated by detecting the pin, lead to a secret place that transports the boy to Tomorrowland, a city in another dimension that looks like every 1950s sci-fi magazine cover art you’ve ever looked at. A robot repairs the kid’s jetpack, and we learn that the kid will grow up to be Frank Walker, played as an adult by George Clooney.
We leave that storyline to join Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) a young girl who is upset that her NASA engineer father (Tim McGraw…yes, Tim McGraw) is losing his job because America doesn’t send people into space anymore. Casey decides to commit a little harmless terrorism by sneaking into Cape Canaveral and sabotaging the tools needed to dismantle the launch pad, the completion of which would begin her dad’s layoff. Aside from revenge, Casey is also an optimism junkie and lover of science who is tired of reading dystopias in high school and learning about the melting polar ice caps and wants to know what she can do, rather than give in to defeatism. After being arrested for attempting to continue sabotaging Government property, she is bailed out by her dad and finds a pin that doesn’t belong to her in the possession given back to her upon release. When she touches the pin, she is transported to Tomorrowland (not really, but in a virtual reality type of way). Naturally, she becomes intrigued by the pin and goes about searching for what it is, where it comes from, and what it means.
It’s obvious that Athena gave her the pin, because the film doesn’t hide this, and eventually, after saving Casey from killer robots, Athena gives her some information and drops her off at now-adult Frank’s place. After his house is attacked by robots, Frank reluctantly agrees to go back to Tomorrowland with Casey and Athena. See, Frank created something, and that something lead to him being exiled so that he spends his days on Earth watching footage of bad things happening around the world and watching a clock tick down to something which, we can guess, is the end of the world.
It’s not until all of our main characters are in Tomorrowland in the third act that we get explanations for everything, and the film actually gets interesting. Not that the first two acts are boring, because they’re often enjoyable, but we as an audience beat the film to the punch before the film is willing to finally explain shit to us. We get that scientists (and artists, the film points out) were recruited to go to this utopia of the imaginative intelligentsia in the 1960s, something went wrong, and now something big is on the line. The first two acts of this film tend to stare at its feet, pretend the audience hasn’t even connected the dots of the previous sentence yet even though we have fairly early into act one, and then FINALLY give answer ACTUAL questions in act three. Act three of this film is good, and it makes me wish the film decided to tell us a story about Frank, Nix, and Athena in Tomorrowland for the first two acts, instead of giving us the story of annoying Casey.
So here’s the thrust of the film. After initial recruitment to this technocratic and meritocratic Galt’s Gulch, the citizens of Tomorrowland were getting ready to reveal this place and its achievements to the masses of Earth and invite them to emigrate there, where all good benefit from the fruits of the labors of genius. But then Frank created a device which, using particles that travel faster than light, could see into the future. This device revealed Earth’s destruction. In an attempt to stop this, Nix, knowing that merely trying to convince those in power with data and evidence wouldn’t work (as it doesn’t today for Global Warming, which seems to have replaced the nuclear war of the 50s and 60s as the most likely culprit in ending human life as we know it), decided to “beam” (for lack of a better word) images of our destruction to us here on Earth. Rather than be repulsed by these and work to fix our issues in order to avoid it, Nix saw that we as humans embrace our destruction. In a lengthy monologue that sounds like the misanthropic rantings of, well, my own Facebook page, Nix calls out movies and video games in which we turn out destruction into fun. I’m sure the target here are those idiots who actually WISH they could be alive during a real zombie apocalypse because they of course assume THEY would survive. The issue with Nix calling out apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is that those fictions often work as an allegory and bring attention to issues we are facing in the hopes that we will avoid them. In that way, they can be useful and not pornographic. Honestly, Nix’s issue should be with the politicians who ignore evidence for the sake of special interest money and “captains of industry” who make a profit off of destroying the world and, thus, have no incentive to try and save it since they assume they will die rich long before the world burns. The film’s issue should be with Capitalism and government corruption, not a generalized state of apathy and malaise. Granted, apathy and malaise, causing people to give up and see no hope, helps keep evil government officials in power and evil Capitalists rich, but the film’s not exactly trying to inspire people toward revolution. It’s encouraging people to imagine things. Sadly, you can’t invent the thing you imagine if you don’t have the start-up capital.
We have plenty of people trying to invent, or having invented, stuff that would help us. Cars that run on urine, biofuel made from algae, etc. The issue isn’t that smart people stopped dreaming shit up. The issue is that people won’t fund that shit, or that people with more money want to shut them down so they don’t hurt THEIR profits. Okay, okay, not everyone reading this review is going to be an anti-Capitalist, and certainly I don’t expect a film by Walt Disney Studios to argue that, but it seems very naïve to argue that people need to dream. That’s all fine and dandy, but ACTIONS also need to be taken. The film itself tells us in dialogue that it’s easy to blow up an evil building (or something to that effect) but that the hard part is building something in its place. Dreaming alone doesn’t build anything.
So okay. Nix’s plan creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading the people of Earth to just sit on their ass and accept their inevitable destruction. It’s like the people who get fed up with the whole political process and refuse to vote when it’s that very refusal which keeps anything from happening (and their refusal to RUN for office when they’re upset that no one expresses their views). So, our heroes blow up the transmitter, and that’s pretty much how Earth at least has a chance of being saved. Okay. I guess. Not sure why that plan is so special that Casey has to be in this film at all. Also, in the third act we see that Tomorrowland is still up and running, but some of it looks to be in states of mild disrepair. Why is this? If Tomorrowland won’t be effected by Earth’s destruction, why did Tomorrowland not continue to thrive with the small population of learned scientists and artists that it had? Were they too sad to invent anything knowing that the rest of their species would die? In Tomorrowland there isn’t the Capitalist Profit motive, but there IS apparently a Dream Motive that is woefully dry. I guess.
I get the writers’ tiredness with dystopian fiction. It’s been everywhere recently, and especially in the entertainment of the youth with “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” and their ilk. I get that in the 50s we were dreaming of moon bases and jet packs when we were kids, and now our kids are wondering what Fascist horrorland while rise from our world’s ashes. Fine. “Tomorrowland” is merely telling us to have hope, don’t get beaten down, and maybe that way we’ll think up a way out of our cultural malaise and planet-wide predicaments. It’s a fine message, but it’s simplistic and pie-eyed and just not enough. We HAVE people dreaming, and we HAVE scientists trying shit out. THOSE people don’t have the MONEY that fossil fuel companies have, and while governments do have that money, they don’t spend it on that stuff because politicians are owned by persons who don’t want anything other than economic growth for themselves.
That being said, the film is enjoyable enough, and perhaps it will encourage some viewers to be proactive and attempt to change the world. In the Vietnam era, some young people thought that their protesting could end that war and the country could move beyond the racist, Christian dystopia that was the American 1950s. Those young people got the right to vote (the voting age was lowered to 18 by Constitutional Amendment), but they didn’t change much else. Young people have been cynical ever since, and the brief hope of Obama’s election ebbed when he didn’t turn out to be the hope we thought he could be. Maybe some 9 year old kid will see this film and keep it in the back of their head and one day try to do something with their life to make the world a better place. Stranger things have happened.
I do also like the character of Nix. He showcases how and intelligent, hopeful person can be beaten down and give up on the idiots around him that he initially was hoping to bring a better world too. It’s how I feel when I talk to my peers about Marxism and they shrug me off as a pie-eyed radical, and I think the plebeians will get what’s coming to them and I’ll be able to say “I Told You So”. I haven’t given up, but in my 20s I did for a long time. Nix is the idealist who becomes corrupted when his utopia didn’t accomplish what it was supposed to be. I think of Trotsky when the promise of the Soviet Union became Stalin’s nightmare land.
“Tomorrowland” would have been better without the character of Casey. It has some nice touches and fun moments, and Raffey Cassidy is VERY GOOD in this film. Despite being a child, she is able to play a character who is wise not just beyond her years, but beyond her species. I expect that young actress to go places. I wish the film has just been about the trifecta of Frank, Athena, and Nix, but I have to review the film that exists and not the film I would have liked to see, and the former film gets an affectionate B.
P.S.: The special effects in this film are often lacking, especially when live actors are blended into CGI backgrounds. I was never convinced I was seeing young Frank on a jet pack flying through Tomorrowland. Considering the director, Brad Bird, got his start at Pixar, I’m surprised by how under whelmed I was with this film’s computer animation.