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Film Review: Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland (2015; Directed by Brad Bird)

Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland has a theory about what’s wrong with America (or the world, really, but for Americans, there is little difference), and it just can’t wait to tell you all about it. It will entertain you a bit first, maybe unleash some visual wonder, and definitely go straight for the jugular as far as rose-tinted Space Age cultural nostalgia goes. Being a Brad Bird joint, it would be foolish to expect anything less than all of that, as well as numerous action sequences of impressive force-and-counterforce precision. But what we come out of Tomorrowland with is less than should be expected. Because, despite all of its delights, it has a point that is must make, and that dogged insistence is a joykill.

Directed by Bird from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof, Tomorrowland features much of the latter’s literary, scientific, and historical referentiality as well as dimensional and spacetime chicanery, as displayed most clearly in Lindelof’s Lost (Bird and Lindelof came up with the story along with Jeff “Doc” Jensen, whose informed, erudite, and endlessly digressive deep-dive Lost episode recaps for Entertainment Weekly were almost more of a weekly highlight than the actual episodes of the show themselves by the end of its broadcast run). The basic concept exists independently of the futuristic Disney theme park land, but leaps off from the now-dated 1950s image of an optimistic future that Tomorrowland presented. As such, it begins with young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), a precocious inventor, visiting the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, that boomer-era distillation of the Space Age’s dayglow futurism. His homemade jetpack, which doesn’t exactly work (the witty Bird cuts to young Frank test-crashing it through his cornfield at home), fails to impress invention assessor David Nix (Hugh Laurie), but does catch the eye of a young girl (or so it seems) named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). She invites him on a journey to a wondrous city of the future of Space Age sci-fi vintage (flying cars and the lot), with a small “T” pin as his golden ticket.

This distinctive pin reappears half a century later, this time in the personal effects of bright, idealistic troublemaker Casey Newton (Britt Robertson). The Florida teenager is being sprung from prison after she is caught breaking into government property, namely the NASA launchpads at Cape Canaveral. She’s committed regular industrial sabotage on the demolition cranes bringing down these symbols of America’s vaulting ambition and scientific achievement, now a casualty of the tightening budgets and narrowing vision of a diminishing imperial power. Her aim is not simply romantic, as her dad (Tim McGraw; yes, that one) is a NASA engineer (yes, that’s what Tim McGraw plays) who will be out of work once the facility is taken down. But her spirit grabs the attention of Athena, amazingly still a young girl 50 years on, who points Casey in the direction of a middle-aged, disillusioned Frank Walker (George Clooney) and both of them in the direction of that optimistic, shining city on a dimensional hill.

This synopsis renders in basic form what Tomorrowland tells with delightful misdirection, meta narrative shaping, and Bird’s trademarked movement of precise abandon, at least in its first couple of acts. Young Frank’s arrival in Tomorrowland is couched in Clooney’s grizzled narration, frequently interrupted by edits by the irrepressibly perky Robertson’s initially-unseen Casey, who then introduces her own introductory narrative. Both Frank’s and Casey’s first glimpses of the gleaming city are memorably rendered by Bird: young Frank escapes from peril with contruction-bots erecting a bridge before blasting through the fog into the awe-spun pinnacles of the futuristic land on his jetpack, while Casey drinks in the cornucopia of wonders on the streets of the city along with the audience in a sweeping, masterful multi-minute single shot.

Casey’s first proper meeting with Athena in a Houston pop-culture memorabilia store (manned by Kathryn Hahn and a dredlocked Keegan-Michael Key) and her introduction to the older Frank in his booby-trapped house in upstate New York are models of Bird’s singular facility with visual gags and witty sequences of action and motion, as our protagonists battle off robot pursuers bent on their immediate demise. Athena, in particular, is a deliriously bizarre character, a robot (or Audio-Animatronic, to be precise) in the form of a little girl with huge blue eyes, freckles, and a posh British accent (an important marker, as I’ll discuss) who fights off attackers with martial arts and drives motor vehicles and fiddles with her circuitry to speak foreign languages. It’s a loopy touch that convincingly destabilizes the all-American milieu of the world that Bird and Lindelof are creating in Tomorrowland.

What they are also creating, however, is a stunted, heavy-handed allegory of American decline, a sample of liberal social commentary with a strong vein of smug elitist disdain to it. When Casey, Frank, and Athena finally make it to Tomorrowland, they discover that it’s still run by the pessimistic Nix (what else would you expect, with such a name?). The place has already been established as a secret social, scientific, and cultural experiment by the best-and-brightest elite that called themselves (with an unacknowledged Orwellian flourish) the Plus Ultra, a brilliant example of what the world could be, a kind of permanent 1964 World’s Fair, if you will. But, as Frank puts it, everything went to hell before its creators were ready to reveal it to the world. In a Bond-villain-like monologue, Nix reveals why, with Laurie summoning every iota of his considerable upper-crust British dismissiveness in doing so: a tachyon machine developed by Frank allowed the Plus Ultra to see into Earth’s future and predict the exact day of its demise, but instead of heeding the machine’s persistent warning signals and mending their broken ways, the world’s citizens embraced the coming apocalypse with a sense of the grimly inevitable.

Nix’s lengthy lecture, devolved upon naive New World provincials by the authoritatively-accented RP voice of the distant imperium that they revolted against two-and-a-half centuries ago but whose inbred sense of superiority they still lingeringly respect, stops Tomorrowland absolutely dead, and with Bird’s canny sense of momentum thus arrested, it’s death to the surface affect. But it’s the fulcrum point of the film’s interminably preachy dominant interlinked dichotomies: optimism vs. pessimism, dreamers vs. pragmatists, hope vs. cynicism. An early montage in Casey’s school is a series of object lessons in these poles. Her teachers deliver withering, Nix-like lectures on nuclear proliferation, environmental collapse, and dystopian literature, but won’t even answer Casey’s quasi-penetrating query about what can be done to fix things (if they could, they’d be Plus Ultras, not high school teachers).

Bird and Lindelof are crystal clear about what’s broken and what can fix it: America lost its way when it stopped dreaming big, and will only divert its course away from alternating decadence and mass suffering when it rediscovers the pie-in-the-sky ambition that allowed it to put a man on the moon. Of course, it could be argued just as reasonably that those grand social projects of America’s post-war renaissance were bought with deficit spending that puts an eventual ceiling on such ambitions, as well as that the technological advances undertaken by the space program have largely been diverted into the military-industrial complex and the never-ending foreign wars and interventions that have drained the national purse. Limitless dreaming puts a lovely glow in your heart, but it costs a pretty penny and the bill has come due for America’s dreamers.

At least it has for those who aren’t making someone less imaginative a lot of money. As Bird and Lindelof should know, the creative class has been marshaled for capitalization, to prop up the sagging tower of American capitalist might with their “innovation”. What they achieve, what they create, is generally more wealth for the upper percentile of oligarchs, while the physical and social infrastructure that undergirded the Space Age daydreaming crumbles, leaving millions behind. Tomorrowland takes a strong stance about America’s ills and offers the sort of solution Casey begs her teachers for: grand, optimistic, and feel-good. Realistic and achievable, though? Even asking that question puts the questioner on the wrong side of this movie’s overriding binary.

Despite Tomorrowland‘s grandiose, didactic position-taking, it’s hard to lose sight of the fact that this is a big corporate studio product named after a section of the same corporation’s popular (and expensive) theme parks, furiously cross-promoting while simultaneously hard-selling optimistic dreamers as a preferred elite in an ideological boot-licking of its legendary founder (and its beknighted Bay Area technological wizard connections, specifically at Pixar). It becomes even harder to do so when faced with a scene like the one in the memorabilia store, with Iron Giant figurines (a nod to Bird’s cinematic breakthrough) appearing alongside a glut of Star Wars merchandise (and even music), an unmissable reminder of Disney’s ownership of that franchise’s rightsTomorrowland insists that pessimistic fatalism and lack of imaginative vision has doomed America to decline at least partly to divert attention from how aggressively commodified every aspect of American life has become, but it undoes this work because it can’t help but engage in aggressive commodification while doing so. Whatever one might think of the film’s firm diagnosis of its culture’s illness, it should be fairly evident that Tomorrowland itself is no kind of cure.

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