With bloggers from the four corners of the Web claiming oppression from a single (admittedly awful) line in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and pop culture gurus battling over whether Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is too feminist or not feminist enough, I think I’ve had all I can take of professional haters veiling their cynicism in mock social awareness. I nearly lost my mind at the press screening for Tomorrowland when two critics started spewing accusations of “smugness” and “fascism” before the film had even started. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we can’t have nice things.
Make no mistake: Tomorrowland is a nice thing. Inspired by the theme park attraction, Brad Bird’s ode to optimism brims with whimsy and imagination, evoking the wholesome Disney spirit of yesteryear without tripping into self-congratulating nostalgia. Consider the quirky conceit of our two leads, Casey (Britt Robertson) and Frank (George Clooney), bickering over the best way to narrate their adventure. I dig how they pull the veil on storytelling shortcuts like the ticking time bomb, acknowledging the digital timer on screen as a symbol of Very Bad Things to come, but always getting interrupted before they can describe the Very Bad Things.
In a way, screenwriter Damon Lindelof is having his cake and eating it too. Drama rests on conflict, suspense on foreboding, but the whole thesis of Tomorrowland is that we shouldn’t focus so much on the Very Bad Things. Certainly, the extended prologue, wherein a prepubescent Frank (Thomas Robinson) discovers Tomorrowland in 1964, makes a compelling argument for the can-do attitude. I love his answer when asked how humanity could benefit from his jetpack prototype: “If people see a man flying with a jetpack, they might get inspired.” The modern sight of an aborted NASA project soon follows, evoking recent cutbacks in scientific research. Naturally, Casey’s own sense of inspiration draws from the cosmos.
I find it intriguing that our heroine’s optimism comes off more rebellious in the twenty-first century, perhaps because she’s pushing against a culture of apocalyptic pessimism and self-important victimhood. I could just hug the girl when, upon hearing of the threat of World War III, climate change, and Orwell’s dystopian predictions, she asks, “What are we doing about it?” Unlike the titular doormat in Cinderella (2015), Casey complements her good nature with a sense of agency, making her a far more compelling presence on screen, not to mention a better role model. In fact, her curiosity alone drives most of the plot, as a virtual Tomorrowland demo compels the teenager to seek out the future and thereby save it. Symbolism, everybody!
Here’s more: it turns out grown-up Frank sealed our collective fate by inventing a machine that can predict it. Now he and Casey must reopen the gates of Tomorrowland and convince its head of state, Nix (Hugh Laurie), to embrace new possibilities for the future. High jinks ensue along with kooky anecdotes about history’s greatest inventors. Not coincidentally, the film’s first antagonists work at a shop filled with geek memorabilia, a perfect representation of how today’s dreamers have turned to the past instead of looking forward.
Yes, Tomorrowland can get preachy at times, but this strikes me as a small price to pay for such wondrous sights as the secret passage underneath Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” ride, the midair swimming pools, the Oculus Rift lapel pin, the time-freeze grenade, the bathtub escape pod, the nineteenth-century rocket ship hidden in the Eiffel tower… The list really does go on and on. I particularly like the farmhouse brawl, in which our heroes outsmart their attackers with holographic projectors and artificial wormholes, as if in protest of lazy Hollywood gunfights and CGI fisticuffs.
However, the most daring concept in Tomorrowland lies in the affecting relationship between Frank and Athena, a mysterious little girl who befriends our hero in 1964 and shows up fifty years later unchanged. It speaks to George Clooney and Raffey Cassidy’s tremendous skills as thespians that their characters’ unspoken romance never comes off creepy or perverse. He wisely steers clear of any longing, emphasising instead a deep sense of regret. She strips her performance of childhood mannerisms, convincing us fully of her timelessness. I still can’t believe Disney went there, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get teary-eyed by the time their subplot came to a head.
Otherwise, I’m afraid Tomorrowland doesn’t quite stick the landing, as is often the case with Lindelof scripts. The screenwriter misses a major opportunity by making Tomorrowland a place rather than a time, contorting what could have made for one hell of a head trip into a rather mundane blockbuster climax. Lasers are shot; punches are traded; a doohickey explodes; a building collapses; and viewers yawn. An unnecessary villain also emerges, albeit one with a refreshingly positive agenda: to warn the world of its possible downfall.
You see, even at its worst, Tomorrowland makes yet another salient observation in regard to the current zeitgeist, acknowledging that the sudden influx of doomsday prophecies stems from an earnest desire to inspire change. The problem lies in our basking in these images to fuel our navel-gazing cynicism. Consider the critics’ response to a motion picture daring to celebrate optimism as if it were a nice thing. I’m not suggesting Brad Bird gave us a masterpiece here, but maybe he’s got a point.