“There are two wolves. One is despair and darkness, the other is light and hope. Which one wins?”
“Whichever one you feed.”
So goes the exchange between optimistic teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson, The Longest Ride) and her weary father (Tim McGraw, Friday Night Lights). It's a moment that spells out the film's central theme, and if you didn't pick up on it the first time, the movie will gladly remind you of the exchange a few more times before the credits roll.
Directed by Brad Bird and co-written by Bird and Damon Lindelof, Tomorrowland is less a movie than a visual sermon. In many ways, it feels like Bird's version of the H.G. Wells-penned Things to Come: optimistic, idealistic, naive and endlessly preachy. I don't think the ideas it's peddling are as reprehensible as the ones Wells offered (that film promoted the idea of an advanced but emotionally sterile world ruled over by a benevolent dictatorship), but I'm also not quite convinced that it's actually right about very much. I'll give Bird this much: he's done an awfully fine job of creating a film designed to make the people who dislike it feel a little guilty about their grouchy cynicism.
Here's what you need to know about Casey: when a high school teacher tells the class that the earth is headed for an environmental collapse, Casey raises her hand and asks whether there's anything we can do to fix it. She's good at fixing things, boasting a natural gift for understanding all things scientific. Casey is an intensely curious girl, and her curiosity occasionally gets her into trouble – one night, she gets arrested for snooping around a private NASA site. When she's released from the police station, she notices an unusual item among her belongings: a pin with a “T” logo. She touches it and suddenly sees a vision of a strange, beautiful world. Alas, just as soon as her exploration of the world really gets going, the pin runs out of power. What was that place, and how can she get back there?
Casey's investigation eventually leads her to Frank Walker (George Clooney, Up in the Air), who was once an idealistic dreamer himself. The film's opening sequence gives us a flashback to Frank's past, when he presented a handmade jetpack at the 1964 world's fair. The judge (Hugh Laurie, House, M.D.) is unimpressed by the device (“What is its purpose? How can it make the world a better place?” he snaps), but Frank's enthusiasm eventually grants him access to the strange and marvelous new world of Tomorrowland, where he befriends a childlike android named Athena (Raffey Cassidy, Snow White and the Huntsman).
These days, Frank's sense of wonder is a thing of the past. He was eventually kicked out of Tomorrowland, and has grown into a bitter and angry hermit who spends his days waiting for the world to end. Athena got kicked out too, and her efforts to reignite Frank's optimism have been unsuccessful. Casey begs Frank to take her Tomorrowland, but Frank declines, claiming that the once-wondrous city of the future has been transformed into something oppressive and joyless. Naturally, Casey is eager to fix it. Little does she know she'll soon be tasked with fixing the entire world.
The early scenes of Tomorrowland have an appealing, youthful energy that I imagine will connect quite strongly with younger viewers of a certain sensibility. The “magical pin” idea is an enjoyable one (and one certain to help sell a decent amount of merchandise), and the movie successfully manages to capture the sort of wide-eyed wonder Disney's amusement parks work so hard to generate. This is the sort of film in which “A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” can appear on the soundtrack without a hint of irony, and I admired the way it sought to recreate the gee-whiz wonder of old-fashioned science fiction (you know, the kind that imagined a future filled with flying cars and walkie-talkies with signals that traveled the globe).
Unfortunately, the message – which is obvious and heavy-handed from the start – quickly begins to consume the tale, ultimately leading to a third act defined by dueling monologues. The most memorable one comes from the film's villain (Hugh Laurie again – turns out that science fair judge had access to some nifty anti-aging milkshakes), who makes the argument that human beings have foolishly chosen to embrace and fetishize the apocalypse rather than search for a way to stop it. He makes a fair point: our current obsession with dystopia borders on pornographic. I suspect that if we ever turn on the news and see a major American city in ruins, it will not shock us as much as it should because we've already seen it in hundreds of movies. As a culture, we're increasingly ready to jump into the war zones of The Hunger Games, the savage deserts of Mad Max and the emergency evacuations of 2012. However, Bird goes on to suggest that this is not just a symptom of society's ills, but the root of them. Everyone is telling us how terrible things are getting, but nobody's talking about how beautiful things could be. In other words, our attitude problem is the biggest problem.
I don't really agree with Bird's thesis (which basically amounts to a lofty version of “put on a happy face!”), but my bigger issue is that he chooses to tell rather than show. Even the preachier episodes of Star Trek (pick your version) feel subtle in comparison, because at least those episodes were actually showing us what a beautiful, progressive, science-loving future looks like. Bird doesn't provide anything comparable, limiting his vision of what the world could be to a few brief glimpses of a fancy-looking theme park and symbolic shots of sensitive people walking through a field of wheat. Late in the film, Clooney gives a speech admitting that it's easy to point out and destroy the bad things, but difficult to figure out what to replace them with (I am tempted to make a political analogy here, but will avoid it for the sake of diplomacy). This probably isn't intended as a self-aware confession, but it plays like one: Tomorrowland is good at pointing fingers, but struggles with figuring out how to solve the problems it underlines.
Bird and Lindelof maintain a laser-sharp focus on their central themes, but often fail to pay enough attention to the more traditional parts of filmmaking (storytelling and pacing in particular). Almost the entire movie feels like a first act, as the story builds and builds and build and then hastily delivers a few monologues and a dull action scene (a pity that a movie so intent on promoting imagination climaxes with yet another “blow up the villain's magical object” sequence). The tone tends to get awfully wobbly at times, veering between zippy fun and laborious weightiness. There are also moments when the film's corporate overlords start to overshadow everything else: a scene involving Keegan Michael-Key (Key & Peele) and Katheryn Hahn (Step Brothers) primarily seems to exist to remind us that Disney owns the rights to Star Wars now. The action scenes feel like filler, frankly, little obligatory bits of human-on-robot combat to keep the thing from feeling like an extended essay.
The performances are generally pretty good. I liked the two young actresses quite a bit, despite the fact that one is stuck playing another generic “chosen one” type and the other is playing a robot with some awfully inconsistent programming. Clooney is in Coen Brothers Movie Mode for much of the film, doing that comic exasperation thing Joel and Ethan enjoy making him do. He's fun, if perhaps a little too bright-eyed for the role he's playing. I greatly enjoyed Laurie in his handful of scenes, though I disliked the way his final moments were handled. The actors all handle what they're given quite well, but they aren't given enough.
One last thing: ever since releasing The Incredibles, Bird has been dodging charges of being a Randian Objectivist. I think those charges tend to get blown out of proportion, but Tomorrowland is only going to add fuel to the fire. Bird imagines that the best way to fix the world is to take our best and brightest people – our “special” people, as the film calls them – and permit them to pursue their own happiness without oversight. The problem is that his plan not only entails liberating the imaginative, but locking out the ordinary. The film suggests that Tomorrowland should eventually become a reality for everyone, but not until long after it becomes a reality for the special people who really deserve it (there's a weird little subplot involving a secret society of cultural supermen - Verne, Einstein, Tesla, Eiffel - who kept their most magnificent inventions hidden from the public). When we're ready, the gatekeepers can open the gates. I'm not sold, and not just because I lack the optimism required to earn a Tomorrowland entry pin. By all means, let's dream big – but whatever we do, we're gonna have to find a way to do it together.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Year: 2015