We, as a people, have become more pessimistic in the last few decades. This pessimism has seeped into our news, our advertising, our eating habits, and even our fiction. Decades ago, science fiction centered around looking up to the stars and just imagining all the crazy things we could find out there. Asimov and Heinlein urged us to dream of a better tomorrow and to imagine the technology that could make it happen. But the Jet Age died, and with it died these stories about making a better tomorrow. Our optimism turned into nihilism, our self-determinism into fatalism. Now our most widely known speculative fiction—like Firefly, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Prometheus, and 2004’s Battlestar Galactica—revolves around struggling to survive in a hostile, aleatory world. “Boldly go” became, “Try not to die.” What the hell happened?
Brad Bird asks the same question. That lament of optimism became the basis for his newest film, Tomorrowland. Tomorrowland aims to bring back positive thinking and to remind its audience that changing the world starts by imagining you can. So naturally, the film really works… as a Disney film.
Tomorrowland centers on Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a teenage inventor with an on-the-nose surname and disturbing levels of naïve optimism. This drives her to make trouble for her NASA engineer father (Tim McGraw), but it also catches the attention of Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a mysterious child who holds the key to another world: Tomorrowland. We learn that the world’s scientists and inventors built Tomorrowland as a playground for their wildest ideas, free from distractions and politics. Casey soon obsesses over entering this new realm. To that end, she enlists inventor and Tomorrowland exile Frank Walker (George Clooney). When they arrive, they find a dying, decayed world ruled by Governor David Nix (Hugh Laurie), whose pessimism threatens to annihilate our world and possibly even his.
This film establishes a Brad Bird who knows his skill set. The timing, the shot composition, the music cues, and the dialog all feel like a live-action version of a Pixar film. The gorgeous aesthetic revolves around combining the heart of old sci-fi with the sophistication of modern CGI. Tomorrowland’s buildings and skyline have Raygun Gothic lines and shapes reminiscent of Frank R. Paul’s pulp art and sci-fi films of the 50s. The architecture looks like equal parts Googie, Erector Set, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The costumes start with big shapes and primary colors. The robots look like Robert Kinoshita designed them. The film even opens with an exhilarating sequence featuring the classic symbol of retrofuturism: the jetpack.
The preachy optimism that suffuses Tomorrowland can feel sickly-sweet, though, since it has no subtlety whatsoever. Half the time the film feels more like a graduation speech. Robertson and Clooney don’t get very challenging material, but they certainly meet the demands of their roles. They do as much as they can without turning to the camera and yelling, “Hey kids, go major in a STEM field right now!!” Laurie performs well as the living, breathing embodiment of today’s cynical sci-fi; his evil-villain monologue highlights the futility of pessimism. Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key have small but funny roles as proprietors of a retro sci-fi shop. Their absurd obsessiveness and overreactions satirize geek culture’s notorious reputation as unwelcoming and thin-skinned (as we observed with Simon Pegg’s recent comments). Cassidy, who resembles Fairuza Balk circa Return to Oz, has perhaps the most potential of all; she gets an emotional scene late in the film that she absolutely nails. Although her character feels like the latest incarnation in an tired cliché, Cassidy makes it something special.
That said, the humor doesn’t connect very often. A lot of those Pixar comedy beats feel telegraphed in live action. Clooney just doesn’t seem believable as an aging, embittered recluse. The character’s issues with his verbally abusive father (Chris Bauer), which could have made for an intriguing subplot, don’t go anywhere. Laurie gives a decent House-esque performance as Nix, but Nix’s motivation lies somewhere between nonsensical and nonexistent.
The script has other problems, desperately needing less exposition and better pacing. It stretches out in the strangest places, to the point that I didn’t even recognize the final climax when it happened. It doesn’t help that the film front-loads its best imagery. Everyone just seems enervated by the end, including the cinematographer. The screenplay also implies an insulting false dichotomy: that today’s scientists don’t currently work to fix environmental, economic, or health issues. The film’s depiction of Tomorrowland also comes off as elitist; both Nix and Frank envision it as a by-invitation-only place for proven geniuses. So basically, Tomorrowland functions as a magnet school with CGI.
But for all that the film could have handled better, I love its fundamental message. The power to change the world—to save the world—lies in the hands of people who can dream of making it happen.Liked This? Share It!