In the opening minutes of Tomorrowland, a young boy shows us his homemade jetpack. It is meant to be fun and inspiring, but has one problem: it doesn’t work.
It’s always nice when a movie hands you a metaphor for itself.
It’s not nice when that movie breaks your heart in the process.
There may be no movie I wanted more to succeed this summer than Tomorrowland, the latest from director Brad Bird (of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille fame). Bird is a master of his craft – just look at the aforementioned résumé – and Tomorrowland is an original blockbuster, not based on any previous film or comic book, a rare kind of gem in this age of sequels, reboots, and remakes. Moreover, among Disney’s live-action output, there are two camps: the stolidly generic live-action retellings of fairy tales, a la Maleficent and Cinderella, and those with personal visions behind them, a la Andrew Stanton’s John Carter and Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger. Sadly, Tomorrowland seems to be the last straw for the latter camp; a glimpse at Disney’s upcoming slate reveals remakes of The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, Pinocchio, and even Pete’s Dragon (though with David Lowery at the helm, we may hope for more from that one), with nary an original project in sight.
None of this does much to give me the optimism Tomorrowland tries so desperately to instill.
Indeed, Tomorrowland is so intent on inspiring us with Optimism that, when we are introduced to our protagonist (Britt Robertson) at the end of the second prologue, she describes herself as “an optimist” – a description I couldn’t really add to if I tried. The film is populated by such characters, who each possess one defining trait: Clooney, for instance, can be adequately described as “curmudgeonly.” The most memorable character here may be Agent Dave Clark, a villainous, perpetually smiling android G-man and one of the film’s better throwaway jokes. Oddly, the most interesting character might be Hugh Laurie’s David Nix, the antagonist of the piece, who embarks on a lengthy, literally show-stopping monologue explaining the mindset the film is attempting to critique (which, as it happens, is more interesting than the mindset the film actually holds). And then there’s Raffey Cassidy’s Athena, who is… well, Mysterious.
That Mystery, a trademark of co-writer Damon Lindelof, is chief among Tomorrowland’s problems. Lindelof is known for needless obfuscation of his plots, and this film is no different. As previously mentioned, we don’t meet our protagonist until the end of a second prologue, about twenty minutes into the film. Nor do we meet Clooney for about an hour into the film – and we don’t get a good sense of where the plot is going until twenty minutes after that (or, arguably, ever). All this is constructed nonsensically like one of J.J. Abrams’ notorious Mystery Boxes – but even Abrams knew, in Super 8, that the Mystery Box only worked if the audience invested in the characters. Here, in Tomorrowland, we’re simply thrust into a Mystery and bombarded with unanswered questions, which are occasionally answered and just as often not. By the end of the film, I couldn’t tell you exactly what Tomorrowland is or where it exists – just that it was built by a bunch of historical figures and, for some reason, our heroes had to blast off in a rocket hidden under the Eiffel Tower, turn around, zap through the Earth via some kind of portal… see what I mean? This is a movie that somehow manages to simultaneously explain too much and too little. At one point, Clooney chides, “Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” – a line that feels like a “note to self” Lindelof and Bird placed in their script and then forgot to heed.
All this amounts to what is essentially a tract decrying our culture’s fascination with its own demise. Once our heroes reach Tomorrowland, it turns out that the world is doomed because we have accepted the apocalypse. What we need to save the day, then, is – quite literally – positive thinking (and the third act of an action movie, complete with fighting robots and explosions). I’m sympathetic to the cause of optimistic fiction, but Tomorrowland’s vision of what pessimistic fiction offers is so woefully reductive that it ends up simply beating an argumentative straw man. Worse still, the film’s vision of what it’s arguing for is even more nebulous.
Tomorrowland brings this message into all-too-saccharine focus with a clunky framing device (part and parcel of the aforementioned plot obfuscation) in which Clooney and Robertson speak directly to the camera, admonishing us to save the human race with – well, yes, positive thinking, or something. As intent as it is on preaching the gospel of Optimism, Tomorrowland is maddeningly vague about what that might actually look like in a practical context. Instead, we get a cloying coda about the gates of Tomorrowland being opened to the world’s arbitrarily selected “dreamers,” who will, one can assume, do some neat stuff there.
None of this is to give the impression that Tomorrowland is utterly devoid of merit. Bird is able to breathe unique life into a few sequences, such as an inventive set piece in a besieged house or an extended long take that almost sells the wonder of Tomorrowland. CGI worlds have probably ceased to impress most viewers, but Bird (with the help of cinematographer Claudio Miranda and composer Michael Giacchino) still manages to conjure a few fleetingly effective moments of awe. Most importantly (and frustratingly), the film almost hits the emotional resonance it’s straining for in a few scenes near the end – but ultimately, it’s hamstrung by the fact that these moments exist in isolation, exclamation points added to the ends of sentences that were never especially interesting. It’s too little, too late.
I admire popular art that attempts to say something meaningful. Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service remains my favorite blockbuster of the year so far, with its cleverly meta-textual thesis on the spy genre. And on these grounds, perhaps Tomorrowland is not so much an abject failure as an admirable one. In principle, I appreciate much of what Bird is trying to accomplish here. In practice, it’s a cinematic equivalent of that jetpack: it simply doesn’t work.