by Director: Brad Bird ; Writers: Writing Credits Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird, & Jeff Jensen
Review by Ernest Lilley
Disney Film ISBN/ITEM#: 1964418
Date: 22 May 2015
Tomorrowland is lot of fun, which is something Disney excels at, but it's also an attempt to disconnect Disney's retro-future from reality. If you're scratching your head, I get that, but the deal is that we're going to discover that the Walt Disney theme park, Tomorrowland, isn't a vision of the future, the way we always thought it was, but of a utopia on a parallel (or something) world that a secret cabal almost managed to present to us back in 1939, or 1952, depending. Alas, poor future, I knew you well.Still, all that aside, George Clooney as a boy-inventor grown older, and Britt Robertson as a troubled teen on the run look like a great team to take us somewhere dreams can come true. If they can keep one step ahead of the bad guys. Fortunately the film leaves us with the hope that the tagline, "fight for tomorrowland," is a fight we might just be able to win.
Remember Tomorrowland, the part of Disney's theme park with all the rockets and visions of the future? What if it wasn't really about when, but about where? That's the engaging revisionist premise that Disney has come up with to provide a back-story for the theme park that resonates with today. Much as they tapped Johnny Depp to breathe new life into the Pirates of the Caribbean, they’ve picked George Clooney to bridge the gap for Tomorrowland. And you know what? It works pretty well.
In Torrowland, Casey (Britt Robertson) is a teen-age girl who's been sneaking out at night to sabotage a NASA launch facility, one that's in the process of being torn down. She's not actually sabotaging the facility, but the demolition efforts, trying to keep the dream alive. When she winds up getting caught, and her father manages to get her released--as a former NASA engineer he still has some connections--she finds a Tomorrowland souvenir pin amongst her belongings, something she's never seen before. She tries to explain that it's not hers, but when she touches it, the world around her disappears, and she finds herself standing in the middle of a vast sunlit plain, with a fabulous futuristic cityscape on the horizon. Then she walks into a wall and drops the pin, only to discover that she's still in the sad real world where her teachers drone on about how bad everything is, but won't let her ask how it can be fixed, and that she was only shown a vision of some other place.
This is just the sort of world that the dreamer Casey has been looking for since she was a child memorizing star charts, and she's determined to find it if it really exists. Some web sleuthing puts her on the trail of collectors who might be able to tell her more about the pin, which leads her to a sci-fi collectibles shop that gives us the chance to realize how many different science fiction franchises Disney now owns, from Star Wars to the Day the Earth Stood Still(1), and for Casey to meet up with Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a sort of proto-Mary Poppins who appears to be about twelve, but is actually an android who's mission was to recruit people with potential into the secret organization that was actually building Tomorrowland decades ago.
We've actually met Athena before, when George Clooney was monologuing at the movie's start with a look back at his visit to the 1964 World's Fair in NYC, where he'd gone as a boy to enter a competition in the Hall of Invention. By the way, I was there, and I think I would have noticed it...sadly, there wasn't one. Young George, or young Frank Walker, played very nicely by Thomas Robinson, brought his own almost-working jet pack to the competition, only to be sneered at by none other than Hugh Laurie, re-purposing his House-ian disdain for the occasion. Nonetheless, Frank had caught Athena's robotic eye, and she encouraged him to sneak into Tomorrowland by following the select few that had been given the Plus Ultra seal of approval. Ultimately, he get's exiled back here to todayland, where he's allowed to live on the condition that he keep the other place secret
When Athena, who can't approach Frank directly because of their history, dumps Casey on his door, he has to abandon that pledge in order to save himself, Casey, Athena, and (wait for it) the entire world. He's been sitting around waiting for the end-of-it-all in his gloomy house...until Casey showed up, and he realized that there might just be a chance. Time to burn bridges then, and see if we can sneak back into Tomorrowland. By the way, Cassidy gives a solid performance playing against both young and old Frank Walker, even managing to make an older unshaven Clooney somehow not seem creepy as he struggles with his feelings for her.
I'd been afraid that once we got back to the gee-whiz world of Tomorrowland, the plot would run out of steam, but the truth is otherwise. I'm quite happy with where they took the story, and won't spoil it for you, other than to say that forty years on from when we first glimpsed its glowing towers, the wonderful world of tomorrow isn't the happiest place on whatever world it's on anymore.
The message that the movie delivers is that all this obsessing on doom and gloom has rotted our brains, but that we’re not completely at fault. because it's been beamed into our heads. In the film, the beaming is done by super-science in the hope of providing cautionary tales, but it's easy to decode the metaphor into SF flicks and pulps. Science fiction, nobler minds hoped, would provide a vision of a world worth building, rather than the inevitable collapse of this one. The problem in both film and mundane reality is that appealing to baser instincts pays better than our nobler ones.
Before I saw it, I resented Tomorrowland. I wasn't reacting completely without reason, as I'd read the prequel novel put out before the release of the movie. I was distressed at what I saw as the magic kingdom's attempt to steal the retro-future wholesale by creating a revised history that showed how it had all been a plot that they'd been in on, and that they were doing it to validate their catalog of science fiction assets in a world that had fallen out of step with a belief in progress as a positive thing, a world that had lost hope for a better tomorrow. And while they were at it, they criticized science fiction fans for turning the future dark.
That's a real problem, though not Disney's alone. Living in a future that's skewed towards dystopia rather than techno-utopia makes the generations of science fiction fans that grew up in SF’s golden years look hopelessly naïve, and as a result everything that came before SF's New Wave in the 60s or the Cyberpunk revolution of the 80s, is damaged goods, suitable only for an odd breed of fannish conservative that won't give up on the way things used to be to come.
Having seen the movie, which frankly, I loved, and yes, it brought more than a lump to my throat, I'm willing to grant them their narrative. There was a bright future once, but it failed to catch hold in the minds of more than a few fans, but the movie's message is that the light can shine again. Tinkerbell will live, but only if enough of us truly believe. Like George Clooney's character in Tomorrowand, I'm afraid to hope.
There are some interesting resonances in Tomorrowland with another recent SF film, Interstellar. In both, humanity, or at least the Earth is on the ropes and the poplar narrative is that there's nothing that can be done about things except to shut down our dreams. The heroine is a plucky tomboy (though I'm sure there's a more politically-correct name for the breed) who's determined to carry on their father's dream of a future where humanity soars to new heights, not one where it lies down and dies in the poisoned biosphere.
In the end, Tomorrowland sounds a clarion call for a new generation of dreamers, and I hope it's heard across the world. The film makes it clear that they're still among us, and it's my fervent hope that they'll all find their way to a wonderful world of tomorrow, and that we wake one day to find it's the one where we live.
Sign me up for the trip. I’ll be happy to work for my passage.
Links / References
(1) Actually, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet and others are available to Disney through a collaboration with Turner Classic Movies, so they may not quite own it.