The trailers for Tomorrowland didn’t do much for me, but the name of director Brad Bird is on my ever-shrinking short-list of creators who commands my automatic attention with each new work. I count The Iron Giant and The Incredibles among my favorite films, “Krusty Gets Busted” as my all-time favorite Simpsons episode, Ratatouille as an underrated gem in Pixar’s back catalog, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol as the rare fourth film in a series that tops the first two. The Tomorrowland trailer could’ve been two minutes of Brad Bird filling out tax forms and I would’ve penciled it into my calendar.
And then I went and saw it.
One of my online cohorts called it “the worst thing Brad Bird’s ever done”. I feel like that’s a phrase that should never exist and everything he shoots should turn into an alchemical blend of gold stars and platinum A-pluses and bubbly magic dust. I refuse to complete this paragraph with “Well, this had to happen sooner or later,” because, no, it didn’t have to happen.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Under the Dome‘s Britt Robertson is a young NASA fan named Casey who wants to keep America’s space program going single-handedly by sabotaging the government’s efforts to shut down the nearest launchpad. An overnight arrest leads to a mysterious magic pin that lets her see into an other-dimensional World of Tomorrow where everything’s shiny and aeronautics never died. An internet search for more pins leads her to Disney cross-marketing product placement, assorted near-death experiences, a manipulative recruiter, a doomsday clock, and Academy Award Winner George Clooney, who shows us what might’ve happened if Oz had been exiled from the Emerald City and turned into a bitter hermit.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Hugh Laurie is a fellow scientist who’s more polite yet less humane than Dr. House. Tim McGraw is Casey’s all-American working-class rocketpad-construction-worker dad. Pierce Gagnon, the underage phenom from Looper, finds subtle ways to make the most of his few scenes as Casey’s kid brother, who probably should’ve been invited along for the ride.
Frank Sobotka from The Wire has a single scene as a young George Clooney’s dad. As the proprietors of a sci-fi collectibles shop, Keegan-Michael Key (Key & Peele) and Kathryn Hahn (Bobby Newport’s devious campaign manager on Parks & Rec) have more fun than anyone else in the entire movie. Blink and you’ll miss The Flash‘s Captain Singh underused as a guard.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? According to the movie, Tomorrowland is a special place where the best and brightest minds can live in harmony, work together, enjoy unlimited resources, require minimal oversight or legislation, and basically do whatever they want to do, on the underlying assumption that they all want to do science and nothing but science. All of this great work, ostensibly for humankind’s benefit, is done in secret and hidden away from humankind so they can hoard all the coolest toys for themselves, live freely without having to worry about developing coping mechanisms for prejudice or rudeness, and pride themselves on their elitist paradise. They’re the 1% among the 1%, and the movie thinks that’s awesome.
From time to time they extend invitations to select qualifying individuals to leave their loved ones behind, join their members-only enclave, and use their talents for unique contributions to a special, limited audience, apparently on an unlimited budget. And for a while the moral of the story is that the smartest among us could change the world through the power of wealthy benefactors, but the world wouldn’t appreciate it, so screw those guys.
More simply put in gamer terms: Tomorrowland is a renovated version of the underwater city of Rapture from Bioshock and Laurie’s Governor David Nix is a slightly more benign Andrew Ryan. When the founding fathers’ plan for perfection goes awry, it’s up to the outcasts to save the day, but after all is said and done, not much changes because they think the bad guy still had some valid points, so let’s not be too hasty about scrapping the whole gated-utopia idea.
Nitpicking? When Casey “sees” into Tomorrowland, she’s still standing in our world, making its presence like a massive hologram that exists only in her mind. If she walks into a puddle or a cabinet, she still gets wet or thumped in the head. There are so many ways a person could get themselves killed by living in one world while seeing another, that the potentially fatal side effects of the Tomorrowland demo pins seem like an awfully glaring oversight on the part of a bunch of geniuses.
There’s also an incredulous scene halfway through that relies on creaky mechanical devices that have stood unused for over a century but fire up and function at 100% without requiring so much as a tune-up or an oilcan, and even outperform their 21st-century counterparts. Three cheers for that Tomorrowland think tank for very nearly inventing magic, I guess.
Anyone who loves rehashes of the classic rivalry between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison will rejoice at a short scene that seems to include Edison only for the purpose of shaming him while Tesla fans cheer. I have to wonder if Bird wanted Edison in the scene in the first place or if someone higher up demanded Edison have equal screen time for bizarre corporate-concern reasons.
So did I like it or not? That’s not to say I hated it from start to finish. Bird still knows how to set up snappy action sequences, even when they’re composites of elements we’ve seen done elsewhere. To its credit, I’ll take the movie’s family-friendly positivity over the gritty glumness of this year’s other sci-fi spectacles. I do think it could’ve been forty minutes shorter, and that the riddles-wrapped-in-enigmas story structure wasn’t terribly tantalizing to follow. A few peers like to blame Bird’s co-writer Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus), because that’s their knee-jerk response to anything with his name on it, but Lindelof hardly acted alone and didn’t exactly have total creative control here.
The film’s strongest secret weapon is young Raffey Cassidy as a key player named Athena who brings Our Heroes together, keeps more than a few surprises to herself, and holds her own in hand-to-hand combat sequences that give the film its best, most supercharged moments. If Disney had put her on the front line of its jetpacks-and-explosions marketing campaign instead of shoving her into a shadowy corner, maybe even readied an entire line of Athena action figures and merchandise, I think we’d be seeing a much, much livelier response from the viewers at home, movie flaws or no movie flaws.
Regrettably, this isn’t Athena’s film to carry. Tomorrowland is based on the Disney theme park ride, which does me no good because I’ve never been to a Disney theme park. Rides tend to be a three-minute mix of immediate thrills, implied danger, and guaranteed relief at the end. The film’s idolization of optimism in and of itself feels similarly superficial: everything’s awesome as long as the rides don’t break and we don’t have to think about the things we don’t like about the park. With a rundown Six Flags, there’s the malfunctioning attractions or the crappy concession stands or the occasional ugly-spirited guests or the nasty sunburn. With Tomorrowland, it’s the issues and nuances of a vast, broken world where not all the problems can be fixed by expensive gizmos.
The worst thing of it is, for all its supposed awesomeness, during the entire film the only contribution that any single Tomorrowland resident makes to change the world is when they keep other Tomorrowland residents from destroying said world. I’ve seen a lot of that already on Twitter and in other communities where scientists waste enormous time and energy combating each other over morals and manners instead of teaming up and, y’know, doing science and improving life for all. To me, watching the equivalent of a flame-war dramatization is the opposite of optimism. If Science were running for political office, Tomorrowland would be its hollow campaign ad.
How about those end credits? There’s a two-second snippet of a scene after the end credits, so short that it hardly counts as a scene. A Tomorrowland pin lies in the middle of the screen; a hand reaches up to touch it; there’s one last flash of light; and then fade to black.
The credits also confirm that NASA consulted on the film, but stopped short of actually endorsing it.