Tomorrowland: A World Beyond
(SPOILERS) Tomorrowland is a muddle (and the UK stating-the-bleeding-obvious subtitle doesn’t help matters any). The trailers, as cryptic as they were, suggested a clear, clean rush of positivity and awe at an alternate and parallel world to out own, while the makers advanced sound bites positing the question, ”Where did all our hope go?” As a starting point, this kernel holds some merit; an express contrast with the overpowering trend towards dystopian and post-apocalyptic visions. Unfortunately, Tomorrowland’s realisation is limp and thematically confused. Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof’s “course correction” towards inspiration is confounded by the same kind of problematic thinking that troubled the final act of Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. There, the express desire to counterpoint Man of Steel’s wanton disregard for human life turned the picture into Avengers Save: People. Here, Bird and Lindelof are left flailing as soon as they attempt to grapple with their concept; how do you depict a dramatically persuasive utopia?
This is surely at the root of the structural problems plaguing Tomorrowland. As I’m sure everyone knows (everyone who has heard of the film, rather the many fewer who have actually opted to see it), the title derives from the Disney theme park attraction. That Tomorrowland conjures a bright and shining future age, one of humanity-improving scientific advances and all-round pipping good progress (the picture mentions Jules Verne, whose ideas were an inspiration to the themed land). Even Disney suits have recognised the gap between Walt’s ‘50s vision and the current state of the attraction, with their wish not to allow it to become “Yesterdayland”. It’s something Bird and Lindelof (and Jeff Jenson, the Entertainment Weekly journalist and Lost fan theorist whose enthusiasm for that ultimately botched show led to a collaboration for this conceptually botched movie) never really grasp.
Their Tomorrowland is a dream of jetpacks, rockets, and sleek, smooth architecture. The latter aspect owes more to The Shape of Things to Come than any ‘50s sci-fi. The overly literal premise holds that Tomorrowland withered on the vine as humanity became less engaged by what was possible and more consumed with what wasn’t, as defined by the spectre of the atomic bomb and mutually assured destruction. This is a little too neat and unrefined, basically comes down to “Thinking makes it so” in a spoon-fed, but simultaneously garbled in delivery, way.
Evidence of Lindelof and Bird’s laboured dedication to a nostalgic version of the future can be found in the unchanging nature of the world itself. Young Frank (Thomas Robinson) arrives in 1964, yet it doesn’t appear to have advanced at all any in 50 years since. Even if 30 of those years were crushed under the disillusion caused by his depressing invention (the Monitor, which through the magic of tachyonics conjures images of a blighted future Earth), there should have been some developments before he was chucked out (in the ‘80s?)
The Monitor itself is a bit of a fudge, just as Tomorrowland is a bit of a fudge. Its entire population is seemingly limited to Hugh Laurie’s baddie Nix. We have to fill in the blanks for both because it’s based on art direction rather than substance (Ryan Matsunaga, who has read prequel novel Before Tomorrowland, valiantly attempts to make sense of it all here). Accordingly, we’re asked to swallow some pretty big becauses that rather invert the straightforward message. Nix’s reaction to the Monitor is so overwhelming, he banishes Frank/Frank is so depressed he gets himself banished. Does Nix also singularly take it upon himself to forsake humanity? At what point does he learn the machine is also transmitting a signal that causes people to accept their negative fates? Did the (much depleted in 2015, it seems, but why and how we do not know) denizens of Tomorrowland have nothing to say about this? Are they just a bunch of highly intelligent, cerebral sheep, bowing to the will of their dictator? Do they become as resigned as Frank or as disillusioned as Nix? We don’t know, because we don’t see any of them.
The conceit of the Monitor serves to let humanity off the hook for its capacity for self-destruction in an ungainly fashion. We learn the intention was to create an environment free from the impediments of capitalism and greed, the destructive forces that inhibit our potential. Inherent in this is the idea that the Earth-bound billions are on a fast track to their own demise. Would it be any different if Frank hadn’t invented the Monitor? Lindelof and Bird treat their big idea very literally; thinking about destruction ensures destruction, but they leave gaping holes where narrative coherence should be.
Tomorrowland itself derives from negative thinking; secrecy and elitism, and the novel establishes that is located on a different planet (eh?!) discovered through a hole torn in the fabric of space-time by an atom bomb. Essentially, the city is built on the wages of destructive science (this is also a very glaring rip-off of Season Six of Lost, and Plus Ultra sounds rather similar to the DHARMA Initiative). Apparently the rulers intended to reveal its splendour to the inhabitants of Earth when all was ready (some 30 years after its 1899 inception). Thus there is a hierarchical and judgemental system in place even before Nix decides mankind just isn’t worth the effort (couldn’t they at least leak their evident medical advances to a sickness ravaged globe?) Can it be any surprise that he then fulfils his remit and becomes a full-blown despot?
The animated short describing the genesis of Tomorrowland references, as the reason for keeping its existence a secret, the danger of the “misuse of knowledge ungoverned by conscience”, but stretched to more than a century this reads like an excuse (as does the novel’s Nazi sabotage). The screenplay struggles to justify the convenience of the land being separate and distinct, in a manner that bizarrely puts it at odds with the thunderingly crude morality play of Elysium.
It’s no wonder then that, as with a number of points in the picture, it is easy to misread the makers’ intentions. There has been a lot of discussion regarding Brad Bird’s possible (purely historic?) objectivist sympathies, previously in relation to readings of The Incredibles. Tomorrowland has stirred up this hornet’s nest once again, and it’s easy to see why. In terms of the rule of Tomorrowland, and the comments above pertaining to its failings, it’s easy to read a criticism of the exclusive system on the parts of Bird and Lindelof; tenuously positive motives feed into a land as corrupt and negatively disposed as any on Earth. Running with that, however, leads to the suggestion that any utopian vision is inherently doomed. It’s almost as if Bird and Lindelof cannot bring themselves to follow through with their initial concept; it’s just too out there to be credible.
This may be why we stagger uncertainly to an ending that embraces the facile optimism absent elsewhere, but it doesn’t explain how it leaves the inequalities of the system intact. Yes, we get the idea; now, with the just and benign leadership of Frank (don’t forget, he’s the one who caused all this, with his rotten invention!) and Casey (Britt Robertson), the gates are open to new dreamers once more. They materialise as one in fields of ripe corn, as if dropped into an advert for British Airways, or Coca Cola, or one of those banks “bringing everyone together”. It’s quite insipid. Yet there is no mention of corrective measures to bring this message to humanity at large.
Was it simply enough for Casey to use her magic powers to avert global Armageddon (the imagery and concept are lifts from The Day the Earth Stood Still and more recently The Abyss), through blowing some shit up? Will people suddenly be positive enough to avert catastrophe, even though they weren’t before the Monitor was invented? As far as we can tell, Nix’s exclusive regime is still intact; can we assume Frank and Casey will be continually repositioning the date when mankind may benefit from its glorious inventions and innovations?
The figures used for Plus Ultra’s genesis are curious ones; Gustave Eiffel, Verne, and Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. The theft of Tesla’s ideas by Edison is referenced, but why would one who succeeded through pursuing the profit motive be put on the same level as Tesla, whom the conspiracy theories suggest had funding withdrawn because he came up with the ultimate threat to capitalism, free energy? It points to an essential flaw at the heart of the picture; without challenging the basis of the system Tomorrowland has sidestepped, any innovations will be subject to the same kind of misrule.
The picture only bothers to mention the proposed sharing of knowledge in a couple of lines, so it’s hardly surprising Lindelof et al haven’t devised a means for this to occur. Other than, “think positive”. After all, it works for the transparently manufactured hope of the space race, which Bird boorishly hearkens to when Casey attempts to prevent the dismantling of the NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral.
The power of one person’s optimism is no less horribly twee for being proudly and fiercely anti-cynical. It’s on a par with short-circuiting a logical computer brain through confronting it with imperfect human emotions. Like the retro-future, this sort of thing can’t get a free pass without serious refitting. At very least, one needs the accompanying anaesthetic of world building; Casey is a chosen one like The Matrix’s Neo, but his ability to reshape his environment came as part of an illusory world. Casey’s gift is more nebulous; she simply has more good vibrations than everyone else, and probably a higher midichlorian count. Whatever it is, she, and others invited to Tomorrowland, are special ones, better than the rest of us.
This takes us back to the misconceived opening section of the movie. Rote banter introduces us to Frank presenting the negative and Casey interrupting with the positive, addressing camera. Here lies the theme of the picture, right at the front, but it leads to mangled delivery because message is leading story by the nose and then ends up missing the wood for the trees. We see Frank arriving in Tomorrowland as a boy, so the reveal of what it is takes place immediately. The writers have no choice because they have boxed themselves in; we can’t see its splendour later because it has fallen from grace.
Well, they could have done, because then we get a virtual repeat in which Casey takes a virtual tour of its heyday. This decision completely flounders in narrative terms. Accompanied by a terminally John Williams-derivative score from Michael Giacchino (there was a time I would have laughed at the idea he could deliver anything ropey, but this evidences otherwise), Casey discovers the sheer vibrancy of the place. It’s a dull and redundant episode, and profoundly hinders the picture from moving forward. We already know what we need to know. Young Frank (Robinson is very good, managing somehow to convey an air of a young Clooney) has experienced a much more compelling introduction, with rocket pack, and there’s little mystery about who Athena must be (Raffey Cassidy, also good but not quite as assured with all the nuanced robot business asked of her). Yes, she might be preternaturally eternally youthful, just as Nix has halted his aging, rather than a robot, but we nevertheless know what her function is.
As a result, the pace of the first 40 minutes of the picture is flattened. It isn’t until Casey visits the memorabilia store that Bird manages to recover the reins, and then he’s only in control until the trio reach Tomorrowland. Once there, no one really seems to know what to do. There has to be some action, and some fighting, but it’s all a bit listless. As much of a comedown as the state of disrepair we find, There’s a brief pick up through Clooney finally having another adult to talk to, but Laurie’s role is reductively one-note and expositional. He ends up doing a Charlize Theron in Prometheus, getting his leg trapped under a falling column, and is then further insulted with a scrappy and low rent exit, exclaiming “Oh, bollocks” moments before he is crushed.
Another problematic area is the relationship between 50-something Frank and eternally 12 Athena. It wouldn’t have taken much to realign the relationship into something that didn’t border on the creepy, but Lindelof and Bird are unable to extract themselves from a mess of their own making. There’s almost a perverseness to such choices; they must surely have been aware of the dangers of possible misinterpretation. Frank remains stuck in the unforgiving mode of a childhood love spurned. His younger self didn’t know Athena was a robot and fell for her. Frank really needed – at least in this one respect – to be a well-balanced guy and have moved on; he could have other issues with her, due to her representing an ethically dubious system (and this is how it plays when they are first reunited), but being hung up for all that time, replaying home movies of their time together? Presumably he was nursing these wounds when he left Tomorrowland as an adult. There’s a flashback to him going but, aside from that, one gets the emotional sense he's picking up from where he was as a kid. Then there’s Athena’s deathbed confession to Frank that his feelings were reciprocated. It's really no wonder this is element is getting picked up on.
But let’s be positive and what is positive in the movie. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is gorgeous, bold and crisp and bright, as one would expect from the guy who lensed Oblivion, Life of Pi and TRON Legacy. Walter Murch and Craig Wood they make the most of it when have a good scene to get their teeth into; the mid-section of the picture is a breeze, and shows off the kind of pace and sense of adventure that is closest to the ‘80s Amblin pictures this (perhaps foolishly) seeks to evoke. From the fight in the memorabilia store, to the escape from Frank’s house, to the trip to the Eiffel Tower, the second act is imbued with a sense of energy and possibilities the picture so lacks elsewhere.
Bird and Lindelof appear to have made a conscious decision to pass to move on from the recent-ish trend for kick-ass female protagonists. Instead, they have kick-ass action child ones. So we get Frank’s jetpack escapades in the first scene, and then Athena disarming and generally dismembering robots throughout. This partially works as novelty, but is limited to the extent that it is passive spectacle rather than involving action (a little like whirling dervish Yoda in the Star Wars prequels, only better choreographed).
The straightforward evil bots (rictus-grinning Men in Black, led by Matthew MacCaull) are more engaging in this regard, although there’s more than a whiff of The World’s End to the functional carnage inflicted upon them. Their wilful destructiveness of all that stands in their way supports the inherent fallibility of any utopian vision. One wonders, if Tomorrowland had been a sequel-supporting hit, if Lindelof would have revisited the Frank-led land and found flaws in that too.
Clooney does the disgruntled old guy thing appealingly, hiding his charm beneath a gruff exterior; on that level, he’s a no-brainer of appealing casting. Robertson is also very good, and she and Clooney strike up a good odd couple rapport or squabbling. She delivers the irrepressible spirit of Casey perfectly. Really, the only faults with the depictions of Frank and Casey lie in material that short changes the actors (in the service of the lumbering thematic content, Casey is required to put her hand up in class and ask “Can we fix it?” as if she’s a precious five-year-old).
Where does this leave the picture’s leading creative lights? Well, Lindelof has lucked out on the big screen, suffering brickbats for pretty much everything (save some World War Z rewriting) he has so much as sniffed at. This will likely confirm the wisdom of his return to TV, at least until The Leftovers is cancelled. Bird’s work on the movie is flawless, so I doubt it will it stop people banging his door down, just make it less likely he can get his own projects (such as 1906) off the ground for the foreseeable. So that means the inspirationally challenged The Incredibles 2. And maybe Disney will finally snag him for a Star Wars movie.
Maybe the moral of Tomorrowland is, inspiration and positivity cannot be taught. Disapproving comparisons have been made with Mad Max: Fury Road, expressing the irony that Rockatansky’s wasteland accelerates to a much more inspiring finish than Tomorrowland’s bountiful but awkwardly uncertain trajectory. Bird and Lindelof would probably have been on safer ground looking towards what made those Amblin movies positive in tone. It wasn’t through envisaging an impossible horizon; rather it was a result of affirmative characterisation and plot resolution. By making the theme as transparent as Tomorrowland’s the message is rendered trite. Worse, to borrow the picture’s lumpen analogy, not only is the wolf is being fed something indigestible, but Lindelof and Bird don’t even seem sure whether they are feeding the right one or the wrong one.