By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Brad Bird, U.S., Disney
We’ve forgotten how to dare to dream, dear reader. Discouraged by a prevailing attitude of doom-and-gloom, which is reinforced by a nihilistic mass culture, we don’t look to the stars anymore. I know this because some of the grandest juggernauts that mass culture has ever produced tell me so. “Dark,” à la Christopher Nolan’s Batmans, is out, and the Audacity of Hope is in—as in Nolan’s Interstellar, in which Matthew McConaughey’s ex-astronaut states “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are: explorers, pioneers, not caretakers.” (It might’ve made good ad copy for McConaughey’s Lincoln commercials.) Now we have Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, which has no less an aim than to reignite the flame of midcentury futurism nearly snuffed out by the comedown of the 21st century, a disappointment encapsulated in the name of a Scottish rock act: We Were Promised Jetpacks.
Not one to be left behind in Space-Age-dream-deferred symbolism, Tomorrowland stars a spunky young whiz kid heroine, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), who sneaks out of her Florida home on school nights—but only in order to sabotage the planned demolition of a nearby space shuttle launch platform, symbolic of contemporary reduced expectations. Casey’s father (Tim McGraw) is a laid-off NASA engineer who’s come down to earth, and her high school teachers feed her a steady diet of despair (all “mutually assured destruction” and “environmental entropy”), but Casey has not lost her capacity to aspire to a better world, and someone is paying attention. That someone is a mysterious, British-accented 11-year-old girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who slips Casey a souvenir pin which, when touched, gives her a glimpse at the world of her dreams realized. This vision is a very real techno-Utopia, Tomorrowland, which exists in a kind of parallel dimension, where it was built over the years by a society of humanity’s greatest thinkers, allowed to realize their dreams while “free from politics and bureaucracy.” (Which is to say, presumably, free from democracy.) In order to access Tomorrowland, Casey and Athena will have to seek out one of its former residents, Frank Walker, once upon a time a bright-eyed kid just like Casey, now a grizzled, disillusioned George Clooney living in seclusion in upstate New York, watching the world unravel across multiple cable news stations on a bank of TV screens not unlike The Man Who Fell to Earth’s aerie. From here follow oodles of exposition—you’d think someone in Tomorrowland would’ve come up with a way to deliver it in an easy-to-swallow pill.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be. “When I was a kid,” Clooney says in direct-address video diary which opens and closes the film, “the future was different”—cue flashback to the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, where a preadolescent Frank, then just a saucer-eyed boy (Thomas Robinson), registers his entry for an invention competition, a homemade jet pack. Tomorrowland is named for one of the themed lands that appears at Disney’s various amusement parks, the first of which opened in Anaheim in 1955, though it is even more closely tied to the World’s Fair and Disney’s contributions to it—the last major project that Uncle Walt, who died in 1966, would personally oversee to completion. For whatever reason, this Fair and its 1939 prequel have been unusually present in multiplex fare of the last few years: in Iron Man 2, Flushing Meadows was the grounds for the Stark Expo, and Steve Rogers is approached for recruitment there in Captain America: The First Avenger. Most recently, Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (2014) dramatized the incident in which Walter/Margaret Keane’s massive, chilling painting Tomorrow Forever was nixed from display in the ’64 Fair’s Hall of Education through the connivance of New York Times art critic John Canaday and master builder Robert Moses. In Tomorrowland, the Fair is introduced to the fanfare of the Sherman Brothers’ “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” the theme song of the General Electric–sponsored pavilion, whose centerpiece was Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress. (Disneyland’s Tomorrowland was also defined by its corporate sponsors, including ARCO, American Motors, and Monsanto Corporation.) We don’t get a close-up of the Carousel, although there is an actual starring role for Pepsi Presents Walt Disney’s It’s a Small World, which Disney created for the UNICEF pavilion, and which here offers a selected few entry to Tomorrowland. (Athena, who curiously hasn’t aged a day in fifty years, appears at the Fair to extend the invitation to Frank.)
No space is afforded to Disney’s other great triumph of the Fair, the State of Illinois Pavilion, in which the tireless inventors of his “Imagineers” workshop unveiled their masterpiece of robotic animation, a speechifying Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, the Disney-copyrighted term Audio-Animatronics, used for one of the first times in reference to Honest Abe, is heard here in reference to the robot henchmen who pursue Casey, Frank, and Athena at every turn, all at the behest of Tomorrowland’s current overseer, Nix (Hugh Laurie). For Disney, the Audio-Animatronic “actor” served to standardize performance—“You can’t have human beings working three or four shifts; we can’t afford to pay ’em, or they’ll make mistakes, or somebody won’t show up.” For Bird, they serve another purpose—allowing the visitation of extreme harm on humanoid forms while retaining an all-in-good-fun, kid-friendly PG rating. (After all, it’s only “sci-fi action violence.”) This leads to scenes in which an Audio-Animatronic pursuer is bludgeoned about the head with a baseball bat until his face is bent out of shape like silly putty, or where Athena, just revealed to be an automaton herself, is blasted several meters down the road when blindsided by a pickup truck.
While these violent eruptions suggest a certain lack of tonal control on Bird’s part, they pale in comparison to the atrocity exhibition on display in George Miller’s recent Mad Max: Fury Road, in which one is buffeted with a near-constant drubbing of fresh horrors, including a heavily pregnant woman disappearing under the wheel of a monster truck and an Isadora Duncan–style decapitation. Given that the Max movies are among the prototypical sci-fi dystopias, of the sort that Casey’s teachers prognosticate on the coming of and Tomorrowland warns against the perils of believing in, one suspects that Bird had them in mind when garnishing an establishing shot with a billboard for a film titled ToxiCosmos 3: Nowhere to Go. As we come to learn, the pervasive pessimism filling multiplexes and the screens of Frank’s viewing station is being piped into the atmosphere by Nix, ostensibly to warn humanity of a forthcoming catastrophe, though with the actual effect of hastening it and sealing its inevitability. “They didn’t fear their demise,” Laurie bemoans during an interminable “Why I did it” monologue, “they repackaged it.”
Casey is the one person with the power to dispel this miasma of pessimism. At several crucial junctures, the script by Bird and Damon Lindelof has her refer to the parable of two fighting wolves, one representing “darkness and despair,” the other “light and hope”—the one that wins is, the moral goes, whichever one you feed. The indefatigable optimist Casey—like the movie she’s the heroine of—is positioned as a buffer against this rising cultural tide of darkness and despair, feeding light and hope through clap-your-hands-if-you-believe affirmation and the Power of Positive Thinking as preached by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. There is a bit of rhetorical deck-stacking here for, the Terminator franchise’s Cyberdyne Systems notwithstanding, Americans not named “Henry Adams” have generally if not uniquely always held onto their belief in better-living-through-technology—we haven’t been bombed into the Stone Age yet. (Knock on laminate faux wood.) While positioning itself as an underdog, Tomorrowland is in fact reiterating the dominant creed.
Tomorrowland is the fifth feature by Bird, and his second live-action outing after 2011’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, although such designations as “animation” and live-action have ceased to carry the meaning that they once did, as computer graphics are frequently a matter of doodling pixels over a template created through rotoscoping and motion-capture, while many live-action blockbusters contain nary a frame that hasn’t, in some way, been digitally monkeyed with. As in Ghost Protocol, whose break-in set piece featuring a hallway hologram is a minor classic, Bird and his team have a real knack for ginning up gadgetry, given free rein in young Frank’s first visit to Tomorrowland, where his view (and our frame) is dragged to-and-fro with each new wonderment: Multi-tiered gravity-defiant swimming pools and full body air bags which take all the risk out of jet-pack cavorting. Later, Casey and Co. will take flight in a dimension-traveling craft contained within the Eiffel Tower by early Tomorrowland innovators Alexandre Eiffel, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and Jules Verne. (I’m tempted to say that Tomorrowland does for the concept of scientific progress what National Treasure did for that of democracy, but that makes it sound more fun than it actually is.)
In the course of his career, Bird has built up an impressive amount of cult cachet. The actor Simon Pegg, for example, recently stated on his website, sight-unseen, that Tomorrowland “[couldn’t] be anything but a hugely entertaining think piece” in the hands of Bird. He was right in at least one respect—it’s a polemic of a movie, more a well-oiled delivery system for a big idea than a collection of scenes within which glimmers of individual life are visible. But movies have a funny way of conveying feelings other than those they’re meant to—any work that exemplifies craft and felicity of form, as Mad Max: Fury Road does, is in some respects a hopeful film, while Tomorrowland, though a veritable rah-rah pep rally, is leaden and enervating.
A movie, to borrow a line from Tomorrowland, is “more than 1s and 0s,” and here is where Bird runs into trouble. A big part of the problem is Robertson’s Casey. Smart, chipper, full of can-do spirit, she is Strong Female Character incarnate, though it is difficult to imagine the adolescent girl who could find any foothold of identification with this cheerleader for progress, more of an automaton than any of the film’s humanoid robots. (The white rictus grin of one of the Audio-Animatronic pursuers is played for unnerving effect, though not greatly different from Robertson’s monotonous performance.) Anticipating and accommodating audience skepticism toward this goody two-shoes, Bird and Lindelof assign world-weary Clooney to act as her foil, cutting down her childlike wonderment with canned quips a la “Zip-a-dee-doo for you.” (The reference to Disney’s redacted 1946 film Song of the South is, if intentional, curious.) It is Clooney who has the film’s most moving scenes, these relating to the Nabokovian memory of his unrequited boyhood crush on android Athena, carried into middle age.
Tomorrowland is a folly and a failure, though there is something touching in its failure, tied as it is to the vision and personality of Walt Disney himself. No less than the Brook Farm and Oneida settlers, Disney was part of an American tradition of Utopian ambition. He had a pronounced interest in urban design, and in the last years of his life he dreamed of a project that would be called the City of the Arts, an Athens in the Age of Pericles built from the ground up in the precincts of Los Angeles. Since Disney’s death, such plans fell through, although the company bearing his name has made less ambitious ventures into City Beautiful building—for example the exclusive Golden Oak gated community in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, adjacent to Walt Disney World. The vision has been diminished, but hope, as they say, springs eternal.