Some newer science fiction movies are as complicated as sci-fi novels, the kind that take seven hundred pages to unwind. Last year's interstellar was so complex that half the audience had to work overtime just to figure out what was going on. I'm certain that the other half never bothered to worry about what the multi-dimensional ending might have meant.
But at least these movies aren't dim-brained dumb, which has been the curse of much of sci-fi film from the beginning.
Brad Bird's Tomorrowland takes on a big mission. The writer-director could easily continue to make sweet Pixar movies, but he instead concocted this E-Ticket jolt into the wondrous frontier of retro sci-fi, and relates it to our real-world problems of planetary survival. From the outside Tomorrowland is an eclectic stack of happy ideas from the history of science fiction. Bird tries to join it all together with what amounts to a Unified Field Theory of futurism. His show asks, 'What happened to the glorious sci-fi future we dreamed of as kids?,' and tells us that it's still possible. I liked every step of his show, which certainly hits the wavelength of a confirmed sci-fi/futurist fan like myself. I kept notes as I watched. I predicted two different overarching themes, and the one I got right was only half right. But for most of the minor steps, I felt almost clairvoyant. Tomorrowland does a marvelous job of relating to viewers that have at least a little background in sci-fi's Sense of Wonder. We can tell that the show will end with in a tidy lecture, or five, on futurist politics, which is indeed what we get at the end of this very polished, brilliantly constructed picture.
Here's as much plot as bears telling. It's being explained by a man (George Clooney) and his daughter, who apparently live thirty or thirty-five years in the future.
At the 1964 New York World's Fair, young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) brings a rocket pack to a contest. He admits that it doesn't work well and is rejected, but his persistence attracts the attention of a striking young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Given a special little Tomorrowland pin, Frank follows Athena into a secret detour in the middle of the then-new "It's a Small World" ride, and discovers a fantastic future city. Robots fix his jet pack, and he's able to fly like a regular Commando Cody. Then the story re-starts with the experience of another young person, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) taking place now (2015). The daughter of a NASA engineer unemployed because of our abandonment of space exploration, Casey trespasses at Cape Canaveral to sabotage the demolition of the old Apollo Saturn launch site. This qualifies her to be approached by Athena as well. A pin appears out of nowhere, and when Casey touches it she's transported to the Tomorrowland dimension and its fabulous city. The pin only gives Casey a few minutes' joy in the marvelous new place -- when a timer runs out she's back in mundane Florida, where all the news is bad and nobody cares enough to fix the world's problems. But like Frank, Casey's not a quitter. She takes off for Texas, where a shop has quietly advertised that it wants to hear from anybody who's found one of those 'interesting' Tomorrowland pins.
Pretty much like everything Brad Bird comes up with, Tomorrowland dazzles with its deft storytelling and marvelous inventions. This screenplay calls for visual and conceptual miracles of the kind that sci-fi pictures have rarely achieved ever since the mass audience failed to appreciate Metropolis. The micro-budgeted Beyond the Time Barrier and Angry Red Planet both gave us faraway glimpses of a gleaming 'city on the horizon,' a desired Utopia of glass and steel... but the economic realities required the city to remain on the horizon, as far-away flat artwork. Frank and Casey's separate peeks into the Tomorrowland city are piercing dreams packed with detail, that pass by so fast we haven't a chance to sort out the miracles before our eyes. The incredible things Casey sees (I won't spoil them) aren't throwaways, but glimpses at a human future so unattainably desirable, it might as well be an afterlife.
Considering that Bird and his co-writer Damon Lindelof adopt a chase format for their film, the middle section holds together extremely well. Things begin to drag when we wonder when George Clooney's character will join in the proceedings. When he does, the first order of business is a House of the Future, where all the gadgets are security devices. Britt Robertson's Casey Newton is a charming and spunky heroine, yet not so pushy-assertive as to be annoying. Her brand of enthusiasm would indeed attract a talent recruiter from another dimension.
As Athena, Raffey Cassidy is so arresting that she almost throws the movie out of whack. An idealized child-woman complete with a refined English accent, Athena reminds us of an Anglicized Veronica Cartwright, all eyes and freckles and a chin that's a tiny point. She also reminds us of the child-adult princess in Wolfgang Petersen's The NeverEnding Story. We are informed that "the city might not exist for much longer." For a while we fear that Tomorrowland will be similarly 'neverEnding,' that the film's gag will be that young people must keep believing in Tomorrowland, or it will disappear. Well, that's only part of the story. Thankfully, Brad Bird doesn't give us a literal Tinker Bell moment, where we're all asked to pool our brainwaves to bring Tomorrowland back to life. That's the kind of gag that a BAD Disney film might attempt.
A huge PLUS for this movie is that so much of it seems fresh and unpredictable. Part of this is the way the story is told, withholding information. Let me interrupt for a list of notes I took on the eclectic parade of ideas in Tomorrowland.
Tomorrowland gives us sweet characters engaged in a glorious quest. It has higher and nobler ambitions than most anything out there. It eventually moves into 'big idea' territory, where it goes so far as to prescribe a solution for our deplored present dystopia. This is real bravery. Few if any Sci-fi films do more than hint at such things, as any concrete suggestions are going to be stomped on. Just generating a sense of wonder is usually enough: if the futuristic sights and conflicts thrill us, we'll accept gentle platitudes or well-meaning cop-outs. Joe Dante and his writer Eric Luke address this problem directly at the satirical conclusion of Explorers, when an alien tells the teenaged astronauts, "Gee, I guess we don't have enough time to show you the secrets of the universe."
Brad Bird instead goes for the message that assertive optimism justifies itself, even in bad times. To make another Disney reference, this is benign Pollyanna futurism. He posits that a conspiracy of bad vibes -- the negativity being pumped at us by the media -- is the culprit responsible for people giving up hope and embracing planetary failure. The antidote is Norman Vincent Peale's Positive Thinking, even if Athena's feel-good solution requires a lot of fibbing to motivate youngsters like Casey. The vision of Tomorrowland given Frank and Casey is a lie, a fib. It's a techno-secular Kingdom of Heaven, a devoutly desired future paradise that nevertheless exists now, because we believe in it. Well, maybe it isn't a lie, to the extent that every dream to improve humanity required blind belief before it could become a proven fact. Okay, I'll buy that. A lot of good things have been accomplished by people working in a bubble of optimism.
Casey doesn't need much motivation, as she's already rebelled against the onslaught of Bad Breaking News, and the negativity spouted by her teachers. This part of the picture is borderline offensive. Making Casey's teachers into dullard doomsayers seems an uncalled-for slam, aimed at the citizens in society that do the most to inspire young people. Does the amazing Casey raise her hand to open a discussion, or to simply tell her teachers the Truth of optimistic futurism? Casey's much praised 'refusal to give up' isn't far removed from an intransigent belief in other kinds of dogma, usually faith-based.
The film's prescription is to inspire young people to carry on the mission of life. The obvious answer to this is education, but Tomorrowland tells us that school is a spirit killer. I agree that the young people that will make a difference in the world are indeed the self-starters that don't stay within the lines, that break rules, that seek their own truth answering to a different drummer while pushing the edge of the envelope, to coin several phrases at once. Tomorrowland unfortunately defines 'winners' with the Star Wars philosophy, which has a glimmer of Ayn Rand-lite. Our chosen kid geniuses already possess the right answers, and already have the Right Stuff. They don't need to learn anything, certainly not from older people, 'who got it all wrong.' Casey in particular is fully independent. Despite her youth she barrels through difficulties better than any adult could. Part of this is not at all credible. Casey's father says he had a tough time getting her free from Homeland Security. I'm pretty sure that Casey would be closely monitored, if not detained, for at least a week while the Feds went through her dog's Email messages. Sabotage on government property? We watch NCIS. What evil Isis propaganda have you been reading, Casey?
The movie goes sad for me (not wrong) in two aspects. First, it doesn't acknowledge that the miseries of the world are the result of political problems that have proved wholly resistant to technological cures. The miracles that '50s shows told us would end poverty and starvation have arrived, but political-economic barriers prevent their application. We're perfectly capable of giving every person on the planet three good meals a day and a good education. It's the 'people-skills' that need work. A worldwide revolution is sort of hinted at in Tomorrowland but we also know that violent revolutions only bring more tyranny. The techno-paradise of H.G. Wells' Things to Come is created by a revolution of engineers very much like the idealistic prodigies the Tomorrowland recruiters want to gather together. Yet Wells' future seems sterile and oppressive.
The other aspect that bugs me is lingering residue from the Luke Skywalker factor. Casey is told that all she has to do to save the world is, 'be herself.' She's been chosen as a likely candidate for that job. She of course comes up with the Big Fix, which is to wipe out the source of the pessimism, and that's simplistic but well handled. If getting rid of the 'negative waves' making things bad only required the destruction of some All-Controlling Monitor, the job would be a cinch. One doesn't have to be a cynic to say that It' Just Not That Simple.
The notion that the way to proceed is just to inspire people, also has limits. Every bloated rap singer will tell you that his good work is 'inspiring young people.' Yet the only example he gives is to get rich and consume more. The happy task at the conclusion is to find inspiring young people to go out and locate more young people to be inspired and create an entire world of inspired and motivated young people. This sounds like an unending chain, with Frank and Casey using their energy portal to dispatch more door-to-door salesmen to get the job done right.
Casey and to a lesser extent Frank aren't very useful role models. Frank's worst offense is jumping the wait line for "Small World," but Casey has decided that the only way she can make a difference is through sabotage. Athena even says that Casey's civil disobedience is what makes her a great candidate for Tomorrowland. Well, Casey has guts, even though they're still Disney heroine disobey-Dad -cause-he-doesn't-understand guts. Maybe Athena should be recruiting in terrorist camps - where she'll find many idealistic young people, definitely eager to break rules. As in any chase film, stealing cars is a must. When the Dave Clark Five subplot kicks in, several innocent security guards are ignominiously disintegrated. 'Dreamers' get Gold Ticket privileges for the future, but nobody respects the poor workaday guys killed because our heroes are saving the world.
To Third Worlders living in primitive conditions, Tomorrowland is already here. It's the "Today-Land" paradise enjoyed by a relative few lucky citizens in the capitals of developed nations. Old Walt's Epcot dreams mean little if there are no enlightened people to inhabit the grand cities. To bring Tomorrowland to reality, we first need to develop the human experience beyond the present mode of desperate barbarism. A real Tomorrowland might not be based on our '50s gee-whiz Jetsons dreams, but on a more humanistic solution to man's problems.
Many reviews of Tomorrowland say that it misses the mark or somehow fails, which isn't my point at all. It's brilliant storytelling and inspired filmmaking, and its aggressively positive attitude is indeed sorely needed. Brad Bird presents his argument beautifully, and his show isn't a dumbed-down simple statement. It's a great movie -- with a positive message -- that still seems like a pipe dream. If the show wasn't a breakout success, it's because it's just too smart and too good for the audience. The marketing certainly wasn't right in a year when viewers were keen to feast on the post-apocalyptic grit and gore of Mad Max: Fury Road. It's possible that viewers simply resisted the 'gee whiz' future offerend in the marketing pitch for Tomorrowland. Yet I think the reputation for Bird's film will grow. It's obvious that we can use a lot more of this kind of thinking.
Walt Disney Home Video's Blu-ray of Tomorrowland is the expected glistening, gleaming item. The CGI wonderments are in such good taste and are judged so well that the show's a pleasure to behold. The city of the future looks almost exactly like the '50s Metropoli illustrated by Wallace Wood and others, yet the details keep it from looking retro -- monorails sans rails, that sort of thing.
A DVD is included, and the code to download an HD copy from an alternate dimension. The extras include featurettes on the cast and the music, as well as production diaries and deleted scenes.
Brad Bird doesn't let us down when it comes to quirky extras. We get several faux featurettes from the past, including a TV ad for "Blast from the Past," a 'vintage Tomorrowland TV promo with David Nix', and an introduction to the Paris Connection in Tomorrowland that I haven't mentioned at all, presented in the style of old Disney 'infotainment' animation.
The best item is Brad Bird's little video essay intro, illustrated with clips from Disney in Space and the manned rocket launches that the USA has abandoned. Brad Bird says that we need to revive the 'lost dreams' that went away when we turned our backs on space exploration. To avoid politics, he doesn't mention that we embraced warfare instead, at a cost that could bankroll three space programs and feed our country's starved infrastructure and gutted education system. Space exploration is continuing very strongly, except that some of the innovators are other nations, not the United States.
Who are the people on the disc cover illustration? Clooney is Clooney, I guess, but Britt Robertson now looks as if she's meant to be an adult girlfriend for Frank. Raffey Cassidy's unflattering image makes her look like Macaulay Culkin. And that's not good.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,