(Tomorrowland SPOILERS ahead)
By this point of the Great Summer Film Extravaganza and Flying Hype Machine Show, you’ve likely heard the general consensus that has formed around Tomorrowland, Disney’s latest stab at spinning a lower-profile preconceived property into box office gold. You’ve probably read the wildly mixed reviews, and the critical opprobrium consisting of words like “sermonizing”, and “underwhelming”, and “unbearably preachy.” You’ve witnessed its branding as one of the company’s biggest financial flops of all time. And you’ve possibly lumped it in with the dynamic duo of recent Disney live action flops, John Carter and The Lone Ranger, yet another misguided venture outside of the safety of their animation wheelhouse…although those two films were intriguing cinematic works in their own right.
And if this ends up being the lasting take on Tomorrowland….well, that’s a shame. Because what Brad Bird and his creative team have crafted is a film very much of and for our time, an unabashed paean to imagination and optimism, and in some ways a self-reflexive critique of the modern corporate Disney machine. It’s a cinematic dreamscape that profoundly embraces nostalgia for a bygone sense of adventure and hope, while also rejecting notions of becoming trapped in the prison that said nostalgia can so easily construct.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed Bird’s career that Tomorrowland is a rousing rejection of cynicism, and a nakedly earnest appeal for the wholesale embrace of idealistic passion. Aside from the pre-Elizabethtown Cameron Crowe, Bird might be one of the few modern Hollywood directors to so ably balance such an approach while also delivering compelling drama (and in his case, widescreen thrills.) With The Incredibles, he reshaped the contemporary superhero film as a Watchmen-inspired tale of familial dysfunction and the idolatry of heroism, all the while the centrality of such heroism in the cultural zeitgeist. With Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol, he trumped standard expectations by delivering a fourth entry in an action franchise that played up the larger than life aspects of the series and the living cartoon hero aspirations of Tom Cruise. The Iron Giant is still one of the ballsiest animated films of our era, a touching anti-gun, anti-violence manifesto in which we are the enemy and the classic giant robot antagonist is the ultimate defender of humanity (the climactic “Superman” scene still gets most people I know altogether misty.) And there’s Ratatouille, a film about a cooking rat!
But even beyond his previous directorial efforts, Tomorrowland traffics in the intensity and necessity of rejecting cynicism. And it does so in what seems to be some of the most obvious ways possible. Following an apparent fourth-wall shattering address to the camera by Frank Walker (George Clooney), the action flashes back to young Frank’s trip to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. There’s a distinct possibility that some of the film’s financial struggles are the direct result of what this scene hearkens back to, and the cultural gap that such a hearkening invokes. For so much of what is lost in the intervening years between that World’s Fair and the film’s present revolves around the wonder of the Space Age, the glorious Science Fiction aspirations of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the dream of reaching the Moon and beyond was ingrained in the cultural DNA. When young people imagined a near future of interstellar luxury and mind-bending explorational possibilities. It’s no mistake that young Frank’s homemade invention is a jet pack; several generations of children grew up with such a concept as the fantasy toy du jour.
What the modern era of technology has given us has been both surpassed some of those expectations and wildly disappointed them. The power and breadth of globally interconnected communications continues to progress at an astonishing rate, and nanotechnology promises to upend so many of our long-standing notions of health and longevity. But the dreams of yore are too often left subservient to the wow factor of today. There’s such easy mass access to most consumer technology, but the emphasis of so much of it is on the cycle of planned obsolescence, science fiction dreams reduced to superficial fashion chasing.
That stark dichotomy is what might shape reactions to the film amongst viewers under, say, 30 and anyone older. I grew up in the ‘80s, and yet I still felt a strong sense of that old Space Age wonder in the cultural influences that shaped me. Bird establishes Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) as a young woman clearly shaped by the remnants of that philosophy, and yearning for a return to it. Facing the end of her NASA engineer father’s livelihood and the shuttering of the space program in general, she continually returns to sabotaging the planned dismantling of the Cape Canaveral launching pad, a Sisyphean task that still brings richness to her life (even as dad tries to disabuse her of her idealistic notions.) Casey checks off many of the boxes of a modern YA heroine: smart, beautiful, sassy, a bit of a tomboy and a bit of a prom queen. It’s her total commitment to her idealism that really sets her apart. She’s never chasing the unreachable boy, or cheating cancer, or railing against social injustice. No, her aim is the resurrection of hope, the Proustian regaining of a lost time that she was never old enough to experience firsthand.
The manner in which the film deals with this desire is fascinating. It’s clearly advocating for the goodness, the rightness of the pre-Watergate, pre-reduced expectations era that it so lovingly evokes. Yet it also proffers barbed criticisms of the exploitation of that nostalgia. The entrance to Casey’s journey is her stop at the Houston sci-fi nostalgia store Blast From the Past. But its run by a pair of androids masquerading as quirky eccentrics (a wonderful cameo by Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn), and the scene ends with the complete obliteration of this temple of easy remembrance. Walt surrogate David Nix continues to run the empty theme park that is Tomorrowland as his own personal refutation of the outside world’s progress. He uses his greatest innovation (the tachyon harnessing monitor that the younger Frank invents…another nod to Watchmen?) to ultimately exploit the worst tendencies of humanity, abandoning the possibility of change when the intermittent broadcasting of the Earth’s potential fate yields only a further embrace of apocalypse culture. This plot point, in particular, deftly walks the tricky line between hope and despair; it’s made quite clear that too much of the human race doesn’t want to strive for a future that makes today uncomfortable, and yet the possibility that those who haven’t given up this hope could sway the majority is the mission on which the film’s end rests.
At the heart of this mission is Clooney, slyly subverting his confidence merchant screen presence as a broken-hearted boy trapped in an aging man’s body. His pseudo-Nabokovian sadness over the loss of eternally youthful android crush Athena forms the most obvious emotional thread of his psyche, although his greater existential despair is over that magical Space Age world of his childhood. The country house in which he lives his hermetic existence bears all the trappings of a youthful imagination, even though it’s gone to seed and sealed itself in a milieu that merely observes collapse instead of striving to change those conditions. Clooney is so good in this role because above most modern screen icons, he’s maintained a youthful playfulness in the shaping of his suave, modern-day Cary Grant persona. And he’s always shown a willingness to display his classically, philosophically romantic side, especially in service of characters whose sense of that feeling has been terminally bruised or damaged. His real-life political and social activism can’t be entirely escaped when watching his performances, so seeing a man who is the ideal on so many levels for so many people portraying such a disillusioned dreamer is moving on a dramatic and meta-level.
It’s the potentially larger meta-commentary on display in the film that also makes it compelling beyond just the optimism and awe. For as earnest as Uncle Walt’s proselytizing for the Space Age might have been, it was also (to paraphrase Frank’s initial admonishment to Casey) a commercial for the Disney empire. Tomorrowland itself serves as not only an extended commercial for the Magic Kingdom’s sub-section, but for the newly acquired Star Wars properties (prominently featured in the toy store scene.) But this is quite the subversive bit of self-advertisement, as this Tomorrowland is a faded paradise that has been too often neglected or exploited for the few. It’s shades of the old Eisner-Katzenberg Disney kingdom, which rejuvenated the company before descending into a steady stream of projects aimed more at shareholder profits than artistic greatness. Even in the post-Pixar, post-Lasseter era, Disney is still one of the largest corporations in the world, as much profiteer as cultural inspiration. But if the Pixar era has done anything, it’s proven that corporate cash cows can still double as transcendent works of art. And it’s brought a renewed sense of the old Imagineering ideal that the Walt-driven studio pioneered, even as accusations of wage-fixing have dogged the company in the interim.
But on a meta-level, that’s sort of the point that Tomorrowland drives home. The world is deeply flawed, but to believe in the potential for change is what gives humanity its soul. It’s only by cynically exploiting or abandoning idealism that things become worse. Such a sentiment might seem treacly and preachy to some, but in an era in which so many possibilities exist, it would be sad to only focus on dreams that end in Big Data results or data-mined profits. It would be sad to give up on dreams, even ones that spring from childhood, and the infinite paths down which those dreams could take us.