Disney’s Tomorrowland—directed by Brad Bird, written by Damon Lindelof, and starring George Clooney—is a plea for a New Frontier of imagination; for positivity in the face of seemingly overwhelming negativity, fear, and pessimism.
It is that rare giant, tent-pole summer blockbuster that asks—nay, begs—us to set aside the doom and gloom of disaster movies and Apocalyptic dystopias (darn you, Mad Max!) and be more creative and constructive humans. To turn away from fear and apathy, roll up our metaphorical (and literal) sleeves, and get to work envisioning and building the bright and shining jet-pack future we once dreamed of.
All of this nifty messaging is (barely) disguised as a young-adolescent action-adventure tale full of sci-fi flights of nostalgic retro-futurism fancy, noble scientific elegance, and can-do inventive spirit.
It’s packed into a two-hour-plus film chock full of “dazzling, entertaining fun and excitement,” complete with spectacular visuals, crackerjack action scenes, an antique steampunk rocket ship hidden in the Eiffel Tower, and George Clooney proving he can be effortlessly charming even when playing an (only on the outside!) embittered, curmudgeonly crank.
Oh, and Bird, Lindelof, and Disney would also like you to know—and this is made crystal clear in the film itself—that if you do not get on board and believe fully and guilelessly in all this relentlessly aggressive dream of a gleaming (fully Disney-branded) future, then you—with your dull, gray cynical, critical thinking—are officially Part of the Problem. You are, in the metaphoric philosophy of the film, feeding the wrong wolf; giving mental energy or emotional sustenance or whatever to the Bad Wolf of despair and darkness instead of the Good Wolf of hope and light, because, like the Witches of Oz, the wolves are fighting for control of our future, which I guess, whoever wins, will be ruled by our Future Lupine Overlords…
Oops, I suppose with those last bits of snark, I’ve already killed part of our future. Clubbed yet another Baby Seal of progress… or fed it to a Bad Wolf, or Bad Polar Bear or something. Terribly sorry about that. I feel just awful that you and all your children will now suffer due to my failure to Get On Board With the Plan.
Because yes, as much as I fully support a forward-looking philosophy that puts its energy behind a more enlightened future, I have a small problem with being de facto villainized for not shutting up and being suitably, obediently amazed by a big, long, disjointed, expensive, summer kids blockbuster the Walt Disney Corporation is insisting I be amazed by.
That said, most film geeks want to if not get on board with then at least give a pass to Tomorrowland director Brad Bird. His first film, 1999’s The Iron Giant, remains a straight-up masterpiece and possibly the last kids film I truly, unequivocally, personally adored. I’m not quite as fond of his subsequent animated work for Pixar—The Incredibles and Ratatouille—but I appreciate them as solidly pleasing, well-crafted Pixar movies (even as they further fleshed out what appears to be Bird’s growing, mildly annoying promotion of pseudo-Ayn Randian Objectivist philosophies—a trend absolutely present in Tomorrowland), and I really enjoyed his crackerjack first live-action film, 2011?’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol.
Mildly creepy and creeping themes of exceptionalism aside, Bird is a creative retro-positivist reformer—a term I just completely made up in order to lump him alongside such comic book creators as Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns.
Busiek and Johns (who is now the Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics and as such helps create and write several DC superhero TV shows) both rose as writers of superhero comics in the mid-‘90s, at a time when the dark and gritty subversive deconstruction Alan Moore and Frank Miller had introduced to comics in the ‘80s had become lazy, hackneyed cliché.
Johns at DC and Busiek at Marvel both rejected all that violent “realism,” instead focusing back on the glorious and deeply nostalgic Golden and Silver Ages of comics. They championed a throw-back style of superheroes who may have still been flawed and facing tough personal and public challenges, but ultimately stood for right and good and fought to save a brighter future everyone could believe in, not fear.
Bird is certainly playing at a similar game in Tomorrowland—the film is not so much envisioning a better future as it is an ode to a pre-Vietnam, pre-Watergate, pre-counterculture past when the early ‘60s, Space Race, Camelot-fueled notion of tomorrow was still bright and gleaming, filled with shining spires and Jetson-styled flying cars and jet packs—it’s pure nostalgia for a lost future.
In fact, the movie’s plot is rooted in the 1964 Worlds Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, where, not so coincidentally, Uncle Walt first unveiled the “It’s a Small World” world-peace and animatronic puppet-horror ride. In fact, the Small World ride itself plays a small-but-pointed role in Tomorrowland, one of many small-but-pointed reminders that our future, like our childhoods, is well and fully packaged, presented, and owned by The Walt Disney Company, a multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate.
On its energetic, visually spiffy surface, Tomorrowland is a sci-fi adventure film in the very Spielbergian vein of such beloved (by others, not so much myself) ‘80s pre-teen Saturday matinee entertainments as The Goonies, Explorers, or even Disney’s own ‘70s precursor to the sub-genre, Escape from Witch Mountain. (No, most of the film’s action does not take place in retro-futuristic Tomorrowland, but right here, right now in regular old present-day Earth.) As such, the film (like J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 a few years back) feels as much fueled by middle-aged fondness for those movies as by Disney Corporate goals.
Meanwhile, the actual plot is far too convoluted to explain, even if I had fully understood it—the addition of the visionary city of Tomorrowland’s time/space extra-dimensional element means the flashback-laden story line takes on extra layers of loops of utter narrative confusion.
There’s something about young, pre-Clooney Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) visiting the ’64 World’s Fair and discovering Tomorrowland, a dazzling, futuristic parallel dimensional think tank for incubating the future-making ideas of the best and brightest creators, inventors, innovators, and dreamers. And for showing off lots of CGI futurescapes and anti-gravitational frolicking. In the Brigadoon-like Tomorrowland, not only is young Frank’s prototype jetpack development encouraged, but he also meets a snooty-creepy grey-eyed little British girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and develops a crush on her.
Jump to present day Cape Canaveral, Florida, (coincidentally close to Disney World) where the meandering plotline is picked up by a spunky young woman named Casey (Britt Robertson). A precocious forward-thinker of indiscriminate “older teen” age (but possessing that most important attribute for young action-adventurers in “family” movies: a dead/absent mom), Casey rejects the resigned negativity of her teachers (asking instead, of our seemingly broken future, “How do we fix it?”) and focuses her do-good energy on sabotaging the dismantlement of Canaveral’s rocket launch pad (representing the downsizing of America’s space exploration). Because short-circuiting demolition cranes is much more fun than petitioning Congress to restore NASA funding.
(Though, to the film’s credit, at no point is Casey given even a hint of the usual requisite “cute boy” romantic interest. I have plenty of cranky issues with Tomorrowland, but happily give it a genuine hurray for small, almost casual victories over convention.)
To make the rest of Tomorrowland’s very long story short, Casey is also contacted by (an un-aged) Athena, given a tantalizing glimpse of Tomorrowland (in what turns out to be a sort of three-dimensional, immersive Carnival Cruise-like commercial), and sets out to find the now Clooney-aged Frank, who was long ago exiled from Tomorrowland for having done something with something that’s going to do something that really isn’t very well explained. Whatever it is, it means they have to get back to Tomorrowland to reverse it, but they’re being chased by (very inappropriately, for a kids film) smiling, deadly robots that are a cross between Terminators and Men In Black Ken dolls, and so on, and so forth, and The Eiffel Tower, and Hugh Laurie, and… plot!
For his part, Clooney seems admirably—I guess—committed to the film and his role in it, occasionally mugging it up, but often playing Frank with a seductive balance of bitterness and true-believer charm. (While the patented Clooney smile and eye-twinkle could still sell iWatches to the Amish, here he’s a little grayer, more wrinkled, and wearier—it feels like the actor’s slowly edging his way toward Gregory-Peck-as-Atticus-Finch territory.)
Clooney remains a personal favorite, as much due to my openly admitted Hetrosexual Man-Crush on the actor as for his talent and often-subversive, ‘70s-indie-film-loving choices. But a word of warning to George, should he continue to sublet his star power to the synergetic Disney Marketing Machine: My Hetrosexual Man-Crushes are not life-long appointments. They can be revoked. If you don’t believe me, just drive your four-wheeler down to Sumrall, Mississippi, and ask a certain Mr. Favre.
If all this sounds like a jumbled collection of less-than-whole parts, lay some of the blame on screenwriter Damon Lindelof, whose Hollywood career remains an impressive lesson in failing upward. After all, Lindelof is the “genius” behind stranding Lost on an island of incomprehensibly convoluted and cobbled together plots and themes, and who, when brought in to help “fix” the screenplays of films like Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, and World War Z, bungled, botched, and generally wrecked their third acts so badly he’s become the Jack Kevorkian of script doctors.
Besides its narrative ADD, the film feels confused about its audience. Clearly, Bird wants his message of forward progress to take seed in the minds of young people, the upcoming generation that will have to fix or fall to many of the planet’s current ills.
Yet Tomorrowland seems too weirdly violent and intense for very young kids—the movie’s various robot characters randomly disintegrate police officers, get suddenly and shockingly hit by cars, and in one particularly disturbing sequence undergo a variety of dismemberments that, artificial lifeforms or not, would feel more at home in an Evil Dead or Resident Evil flick. (The scene climaxes with our plucky heroine Casey going at one of the subdued ‘bots with a baseball bat, channeling a super-aggro rage that’d make Al Capone proud.)
On the other hand, all this action (including the “artificial” violence) is presented with the sort of gee-willikers cornball tone that’s guaranteed to turn off older teens. As far as the youth viewership goes, that leaves a rather narrow Disney Channel 10 to 13 year old demographic, but in fact the (lighter than expected) audience turn out at Cineplex opening weekend was almost two-thirds adult, not kids. In marketing hindsight, that makes perfect sense—all that ‘80s nostalgia and “think positive” finger wagging (not to mention Mr. Clooney’s appeal) play more naturally to grown-up kids than real kids.
In the film, some sort of giant machine zaps ideas into the heads of the Earthbound, imagination-bound masses, a thinly veiled sci-fi metaphor for mass media, news, reality TV, the Internet, and more. But 15 minutes watching the Disney Channel (as it seems all children between the ages of 3 and 13 are required by law to do) makes it clear just who is leading the pack when it comes to using multi-media, cross-channel content messaging to create a self-serving cultural groupthink that suits corporate goals.
Just as the vision of Tomorrowland shown to Frank and Casey is a commercial for a hopeful future, the film Tomorrowland is yet another commercial for Disney and its philosophy of culture as a capitalist commodity, as so much of Disney entertainment product is. Bird, Lindelof, and story-credited Jeff “Doc” Jessen (Entertainment Weekly’s one-time Lost expert) may feel they’re helping bring the future back, but as with Joss Whedon’s Avengers films, whatever personal, powerful, and pure-hearted intent they had, their film’s message is continually co-opted and corrupted by Disney’s overarching, over-reaching presence.
Maybe Tomorrowland’s mantras should be heard by everyone, of all ages (even if it tends to set up adult pragmatism as something of a straw man). But truly effective messages of optimism succeed and influence in the long run by leaning into the worldview and aesthetic of the audience that needs to hear them and working through specific, real-world obstacles, not by pandering and peddling facile slogans that would feel more at home in motivational speeches and hang-in-there cat posters.
What Disney has done so terrifyingly perfectly over the decades is make sure that audiences always see its product first as quality entertainment, not corporate propaganda—for example, taking your kids to a Disney theme park isn’t about spending a Space Mountain-load of cash on Disney goods and services, but helping your progeny experience a magical joy and wonder that is an essential part of childhood. (And now, it seems, visiting Disney’s real-life Tomorrowland parks helps save the future! Bonus!)
And what is the film Tomorrowland and its fantastical future construct Tomorrowland, but a both a metaphor for the inspirational power of illusionary simulacra (in the form of an extra-dimensional “theme city,” no less) and a two-hour ad for the Tomorrowland sections of Disney’s theme parks? It is, like so much Disney product, a plastic, mass-produced form of animatronic awe and wonder. We consumers are trapped on the ride, forced to watch the forever happy puppets sing their song over and over and over until it’s stuck in our heads.
(Even an extended scene in the film that’s set in a geeky sci-fi memorabilia store welcomes life-long Star Wars fans to a Brave New Entertainment World in which R2D2, Darth Vader, and The Millennium Falcon, like the Muppets and Marvel superheroes before them, are now promotional, merchandising cogs in the Massive Mouse Machine.)
Setting corporate hypocritical greed aside and looking at Tomorrowland from a purely entertainment angle, what’s most disappointing for a film that wraps itself in such lofty aspirations is the movie’s eventual acquiescence to exactly the sort of disheartening reliance on shallow attention-getting tropes as every “negative” or “dark” film it seems to be poo-pooing. Despite all the characters’ talk of a future built on unbounded aspirations and the filmmakers’ proscribed insistence on having “old-fashioned, gleeful fun,” the movie itself spends most of its second half solving its narrative and thematic conflicts with that most reliable and corrosive of mass entertainment programming: a whole bunch of fight scenes and big explosions.
The bad guys (whose primary crime is having somewhat reasonable alternate theories about how best to save the future) eventually get blown up, smooshed flat, or beaten into system failure with ball bats. “We believe in the power of ideas,” says Tomorrowland, “and we’re going to punch you in the face until you do too.”