Apocalypse Never: The Utopian Frustrations of 'Tomorrowland'
The Disney film is clunky in places, but its optimistic message is the sort of thing summer blockbusters could use a lot more of.
Still from 'Tomorrowland' (2015). Photo courtesy of Disney
The end is nigh. That is, so it appears to be the case on our our consoles, our screens, our newsfeeds—all of the outlets through which we channel our societal jonesing for dystopian catharsis. Such is merely the beginning of the frequently stated thesis in Tomorrowland, a relentlessly earnest bumper sticker of a film which argues our love for the narrative of dystopia has become a self-fulfilling prophecy and that we've lost our once keen cultural calling for exploration and innovation as a result. It's a noble message, even a bold and necessary one, but one loses its potency when the film goes about expressing it with a megaphone.
Written by Lost scribe Damon Lindelof and the great Brad Bird (Bird also directed), Tomorrowland follows a teen of indeterminate age, Casey (Britt Robertson), who is first seen sabotaging the disassembly of a Cape Canaveral NASA launch platform where her father works. "Why are they taking the platform down?" Casey's little brother asks her one night. "Because it's hard to have ideas," she responds. "And easy to give up." Frustratingly, this is not the only exchange in the film that feels cribbed from the self-help aisle.
Casey comes upon a pin with the apparent ability to transport her to a secret world created by elites in both the arts and the sciences—a world beyond the graying, desaturated colors of her chronically uncurious Earth. At this point, Tomorrowland finally feels as though it is about to spring to wondrous life, like a blockbuster answer to the full-color reveal in Tarkovsky's 1979 dystopian classic Stalker, but here with gravity defying multi-layer pools and jetpacks with built-in crash cushions pushing A-grade futurist imagination candy. However, Casey's trip ends abruptly when the pin loses energy, leading her to join forces with the curmudgeonly old inventor,Frank (George Clooney, segueing comfortably into the winningly groggy grumpiness of late-period Harrison Ford) who was once a fixture in Tomorrowland before being mysteriously excommunicated.
Trailer for 'Tomorrowland' (2015)
And that's pretty much it. For a film that's gotten the full mystery box marketing anti-blitz, there's not a whole lot hidden for reveal here. While our initial glimpses of Tomorrowland are intoxicating—thanks in no small part to the crisp work of cinematographer Claudio Miranda, production designer Scott Chambliss, and composer Michael Giacchino—almost all of the ensuing film is about the not-particularly-urgent race to return, resulting in the cinematic equivalent of that Itchy and Scratchy cartoon from The Simpsons with the elusive fireworks factory. In that episode, Itchy and Scratchy pass a series of billboard promising the increasing proximity of a fireworks factory—an ideal venue for cartoon destruction. But instead of the fireworks factory we get Poochie, leaving Springfield's favorite loser Milhouse to wail in disappointment. In the elongated, feature-length act one that is Tomorrowland, we are all Milhouse.
Yet for all of the failings of Tomorrowland, almost all of them are noble ones. There's a lionization of braininess in the film that's genuinely inspiring and lends the movie its affecting final image. And while most summer tentpole films, good or bad, seem to rush through the talking in a race to the pyrotechnics. Tomorrowland goes full stream in the opposite direction.
Aside from a midpoint raid on Frank's home, staged with Bird's signature sugar-rush sense of giddiness, most of the action beats feel obligatory, as though Lindelof and Bird were on a warpath towards their true object of desire: constant, nudging, laborious affirmations about the necessity of optimism. I have no doubt that the team behind Tomorrowland is earnest in their intentions—the film bares not the stink of a committee-sanctioned hack-job, but rather the heated fervor of a passion project gone awry.
Still from 'Tomorrowland' (2015). Photo courtesy of Disney
This makes a good deal of sense. Bird, an auteur of the whiz-bang variety, and a frequently brilliant one at that, has always expressed an inclination towards humanistic good vibes in the face of unimaginable destruction, whether those stem from the tensions of the atomic age (The Iron Giant) or the potential for comic-book annihilation (The Incredibles). He's a gifted storyteller, armed not only with tremendous imagination, but great generosity as well—an empathetic impulse that finds the same allure and beating heart in the delicately seared salmon plates of Ratatouille as it does in the endlessly cool gadgetry of his Mission Impossible entry. And of course, nearly all of his films have demonstrated an appreciation for the popping colors and shiny surfaces of 60s futurism—making this film a seeming confluence of aesthetic and tonal concerns that you would think spells out a slam dunk.
Nevertheless, the unwieldiness of Tomorrowland gets the better of Bird. His earlier films managed to articulate similar sentiments about the importance of visionary thinking, the dangers of cynicism, the value of iconoclasts, and the necessity of goodness. Here, the movie plays like the themes came first and everything else was an afterthought. The text swallows the subtext whole, and then monologues about it. The effect is exhausting.
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It's all the more interesting that Tomorrowland never quite gets it together, considering its placement on the summer-movie calendar. Our multiplexes continue to assault us with visions of impending doom and death. A destruction of a major city in the climax of a superhero movie here, the collapse of the West coast in the new Dwayne Johnson vehicle there. As giddy as I am to see the Rock go mana-a-mono with an uncooperative fault line, a little utopia goes a long way these days.
Maybe that's why the new Mad Max feels like such a wake-up call. It's an action movie set in the dystopia to end all dystopias, a hellscape of fire, rot, sand, and blind, mutant, roving guitarists. And yet, the film is still rousing, even invigorating—a brightly colored and supremely humanistic dismantling of the establishment, one explosion at a time. If you're trying to find hope at the end of the world, shouldn't it at least be a good time along the way?