Brad Bird's 'Tomorrowland' has a big message and too little to say about it
Tomorrowland Walt Disney Studios
Director: Brad Bird
Screenplay: Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird
Starring: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Raffey Cassidy, Hugh Laurie, Thomas Robinson, Tim McGraw and Pierce Gagnon
Rated PG / 2 hours, 10 minutes
May 22, 2015
(out of four)
The future is never bright. That much is obvious, at least if our movies are any indication.
If the future we're seeing looks pleasant, even idealistic, rest assured it's hiding a terrible secret. Probably the few - the rich - are harvesting clones or something, with the many quietly suffering in squalor. If it's not clones, it'll be infertility that takes us down. And if it's not that, it'll be our full and complete transition to a corporate oligarchy.
If it's none of those things, it will be a third World War, or a nuclear holocaust, which ... OK, fine those are the same thing. Otherwise, it might be a complete economic collapse, leaving us all to fend for ourselves in a lawless hellscape. Or climate change will finally get the best of us. Or, in our silliest flights of fancy, it will be the Internet that takes us down. Perhaps most likely of all, with a nod to Vonnegut, our great big brains will create something to bring about our own destruction. The machines will take over, or somesuch.
These scenarios are not just cautionary tales and satires - they are the conventional wisdom of futuristic cinema. Everything is getting worse, and will only continue to do so. To an extent, I get it - this is only natural. Fear is powerful, and fear of an unknown future - especially in the face of whatever crises are facing us in the present day - is an especially potent one. Beyond that, any kind of future is going to seem kinda scary, isn't it? Even the most lighthearted modern-day film would seem alienating to a viewer from decades ago. There's also less inherent drama in depicting a future in which everything has worked out just fine.
In any event, we're conditioned to fear change and anticipate the worst from it, and as a byproduct, virtually all of our futuristic movies paint one variation of a bleak dystopia or another. At a certain point, this became such a cinematic brand that it became, in many (if not most) cases not a commentary on the present nor a vision of the future, but a cheap affectation with no real purpose. So often, even now, it basically boils down to, The future is oppressive and awful and scary but hey look at all the cool technology they have. A dire future is pre-packaged and sold rather than imagined, feared and articulated by a filmmaker.
But as Godard said, the best way to criticize a movie (or in this case many movies) is to make another movie. And Brad Bird has taken that advice to heart. His fifth feature, Tomorrowland, explicitly takes aim at the negativity and pessimism about the future that defines not only popular fiction, but national discourse as well. In a particularly snarky early sequence, we see a montage of our main character - a bright, hopeful, somewhat criminally inclined (only for good reasons, of course) teenager named Casey (Britt Robertson) - at school, being fed lecture after lecture about the sorry state of affairs. About how Orwell's 1984 has come to life, and how things are only getting worse. The teachers aren't angry or impassioned - their attitude is one of dry resignation to the sad (apparent) fate of the world.
After impatiently raising her hand throughout the montage, Casey is finally called on by her teacher, and asks, basically, "OK, but what are we doing to make things better?" In that moment, she - and Bird - basically makes the film's mission statement. Later on, during a big, clunky chunk of third-act exposition, the script - from Bird and Damon Lindelof - doubles down on that idea, essentially blaming the pessimism of our collective view of the future for the calamitous future that occurs. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a negative version of The Secret.
Tomorrowland is aggressively and refreshingly optimistic, though its narrative is actually built on the other side of the same coin it's ostensibly criticizing - the equally persistent trend of overtly rosy, nostalgic, romanticized views of past eras that conveniently wipe away all their ugliness. The film inherits its sense of optimism from the 1964 World's Fair, which is where we begin as a bright-eyed young kid named Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) brings along his not-quite-functional jet-pack prototype to show off. There, he meets his future nemesis, Nix (Hugh Laurie), and most importantly, Nix's daughter Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who takes a liking to Frank and secretly lets him in on the secret of Tomorrowland, a seemingly magical place where technology and innovation have advanced beyond Frank's wildest dreams.
Fast-forward 50 years and Frank (George Clooney) has been exiled from Tomorrowland for mysterious reasons he finds too painful to discuss, but is forced into facing his old demons when Casey shows up at his door with a Tomorrowland pin demanding an explanation.
This is all, at least in theory, a pretty terrific setup, and the optimism at the heart of it calls to mind last year's Interstellar, which held a similar point of view. But the more Tomorrowland reveals and uncovers, the less there really is to see. By the time the credits rolled, I was surprised at just how thin, and how flimsily thought-out, the movie was. Even when we're immersed in the sci-fi wizardry of Tomorrowland itself, I was struck with the sense that this should be way cooler, way more interesting, than it actually was. The expertly rendered special effects and sparkling, almost heavenly design carried little weight. For a film trying to recapture a sense of wonder, all it really gives us is another version of the CGI-driven utopia we've seen a thousand times before.
Worse yet, when it comes down to explaining what this has all been about - the conflict between Frank and Nix, and how Casey and Athena figure into it - the film has astoundingly lightweight (and talky) explanations that lead to silly hand-to-hand combat scenes and action sequences that get us from one place to the next but accomplish little else. Bird is one of my favorite working directors and is particularly adept at action, but here he seems overwhelmed by the spectacle. Or maybe it's the ideas themselves that seem overwhelmed. Tomorrowland is not a terrible movie by any means, but for the sweeping statement it's trying to make - about sociopolitical problems, about American optimism and ingenuity, about thinking big - it offers rather small thinking as an antidote.