TOMORROWLAND Movie Review – The Retro-Future Never Looked So Bland
Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) would like to have a word with you. Bird has some “truth bombs” to deliver and wants you, each and every one of you, to play close attention. He doesn’t just want to entertain; Bird wants to educate and enlighten. He isn’t happy with the deteriorating state of the world and he wants the “best and the brightest” (and, apparently, whitest) among us to take the reigns in science, politics, culture, etc., and not only change the world, but save it from our worst, basest impulses (e.g., unfettered capitalism, environmental destruction, war, genocide). Apparently, he’s hoping his latest effort, Tomorrowland, a deeply flawed, problematic sci-fi/adventure presumably meant to entertain and engage family audiences (guaranteed by a PG-rating that oddly overlooks human-on-robot violence, vaporized tertiary characters, etc.) will convince audiences to reject their respective worldviews and embrace his. In essence, Tomorrowland just might be the most expensive public service announcements (PSA) to hit multiplexes during a long holiday weekend.
Tomorrowland opens with the first misstep of many, a wrap-around scene which focuses on dueling, bickering narrators, Frank Walker (George Clooney), the embodiment of white, male middle-aged despair and disappointment, and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), naive teen optimism and science nerdery personified. Whether the result of studio notes to spoon-feed audiences Tomorrowland’s major themes and conflicts or introduce Walker (he otherwise doesn’t appear for the better part of an hour), it’s a clumsy and awkward, a plot device that nearly two hours later, offers little in the way of a payoff. More often than not, of course, filmmakers have to compromise to get their visions funded by Hollywood studios (and there’s no bigger Hollywood studio/media conglomerate than Disney right now), but that does little to ameliorate the sense that we’re in for a series of ever-escalating missteps. Unfortunately, we are.
Eventually the opening scene gives way to an actual prologue set in 1964 at the World’s Fair held in Flushing, New York. A young Frank (Thomas Robinson) steps off a bus at the fair, apparently unchaperoned (mothers are conspicuously absent in Tomorrowland), eager to share his first invention, a semi-functioning jetpack with an inventor’s committee. He fails to convince the committee head that “fun” is more important than “function” (non-spoiler alert: semi-key theme), leaving him temporarily despondent. He perks up, however, when Athena (Raffey Cassidy), true to her Olympian goddess namesake, a dispenser of wisdom and later, of kickassery, offers Frank a very special pin with special powers, a Golden Ticket to Tomorrowland, an other dimensional world (or more accurately, a shining, gleaming, Oz-like city on a hill), where the aforementioned “best and brightest” (and whitest), the world’s scientists, thinkers, and artists (presumably) have created a retro-futuristic utopia filled with impossibly tall skyscrapers, free-floating monorails, and robots (the jet packs come later, presumably courtesy of a young Frank).
Tomorrowland eventually jumps forward to the present as Casey tries to slow down the dismantling of a rocket launch pad at Cape Canaveral via new-school sabotage. Her father, Eddie (Tim McGraw), a NASA engineer, has resigned himself to the inevitable end of the program and his career, but Casey won’t. Apparently, it’s her unflagging optimism, indomitable spirit, and her supposedly genius-level intellect (presumed more than shown) that brings her to the attention of a seemingly ageless Athena. Athena slips Casey the last remaining pin/Golden Ticket to Tomorrowland, giving Casey an all-too-brief, travelogue-style glimpse of Tomorrowland before the pin’s battery dies. It’s also Athena who drops just enough information to convince Casey that Frank, now a curmudgeonly recluse in exile, can take her to Tomorrowland.
Almost immediately, Bird defines their relationship through an increasingly annoying barrage of shrill, testy exchanges (that optimism vs. pessimism thing). Before long, though, Casey and Frank encounter Matrix-inspired robots sent by Tomorrowland’s rulers. Bird stages the subsequent run-and-chase set pieces with his usual elegance, wit, and grace (minus, unfortunately, a product placement-heavy scene set inside a novelty shop, Blast From the Past, filled with Disney, Pixar, and Star Wars memorabilia and toys), but they always feel like time-wasting diversions or digressions until Casey, Frank, and Athena reach Tomorrowland’s virtual doors. Bird, however, saves their return for a rushed, truncated third act, a third act dragged down by exposition dumps that nevertheless leave too much unexplained and an unimaginative finale punctuated by fighting robots, explosions, and wanton destruction of private/public property. Oddly, Bird sidelines Casey at the climax, forcing her to watch passively as Frank attempts to save not just the day, but the future too (the “future” defined as a reinvigorated Tomorrowland, with non-geniuses [normals] on the outside looking in).
Bird repeatedly plays the cautionary card, pointing out not just where we’ve gone wrong as stewards of our planet, but also our negative, pessimistic, self-defeating attitudes (a self-fulfilling prophecy in case you weren’t paying attention). Bird believes we can turn it all around, partly through the Power of Positive Thinking (Casey’s singular defining trait), but more importantly, faith, not in ourselves, but in anti-democratic, Randian/Objectivist/Libertarian elites that, if given the power could change the world for the greater good (or maybe just a pocket universe or alternate dimension like Tomorrowland). Everyone else who isn’t part of that elite, however, will have to make do with less or hope for noblesse oblige from those same elites. It’s a naïve, simplistic worldview, not least because there’s little connection or correlation to objective reality. Before he ventures back into “enlightening the masses” mode, Bird might want to take a course in history, government, and/or politics.