Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
The Disney theme parks have always aimed for easy perfection in their imagined worlds – from the model representations of foreign lands in the World Showcase to the more fantastic, action-themed elements of Adventureland – and that’s nowhere more visible than in the slickly metallic brilliance of Tomorrowland. Designed as a glimpse into our “future,” the land visualizes a Utopia of peace and happiness through technological advancement and invention.
That creative spirit is on full display in Brad Bird’s new film, Tomorrowland, but while the high-tech, whiz-bang nature of it all is brought vividly to life it’s meant simply as part of the journey and not the destination. This is not a film about technology being the final answer – this is a movie about humanity’s continuing need for more questions.
“It’s hard to have ideas and easy to give up.”
A brief introduction from Frank Walker (George Clooney) gives way to a flashback to his youth when he attended the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. Young Frank has brought along a homemade jet pack in the hopes of catching the eye of an inventor on the lookout for such things, but while Nix (Hugh Laurie) dismisses the boy’s toy his daughter Athena (Raffey Cassidy) sees something more. She slips him a special lapel pin and teases his curiosity, and soon Frank finds himself transported to a bright new world of science fiction turned real.
The film then shifts to modern day as a smart and spunky teen named Casey (Britt Robertson) struggles to accept that her NASA engineer dad (Tim McGraw) is just days away from losing his job thanks to cutbacks and disinterest in further space exploration. One of those pins finds its way into her possession setting her on a journey to find not only the now grown Frank but also an entrance into Tomorrowland. What she finds in both cases is not quite what she (or we) expect.
Tomorrowland is a thematically straightforward movie with a message aimed at children and young adults. Those elements together will be enough to turn off some viewers, and while that’s unfortunate it also speaks to one of the film’s points. Hope and optimism for a brighter, better future once worked overtime to fuel imagination in the real world, but as both dwindled to be replaced by a more apathetic view on life, the universe and everything they also became targets for shame and easy dismissal. Optimism became synonymous with naivete, and while it’s easily visible throughout the arts it’s most dangerous throughout the real world. And make no mistake, while the film avoids feeling too sugary it remains an unabashedly hopeful tale.
Frank was filled with optimism and curiosity as a child, but something dried up that wide-eyed wonder leaving only a grizzled, cantankerous man in its wake. Casey has yet to give up that part of her soul no matter what the news and life throws her way, and it’s that positive resilience that Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof are championing here. Like so many YA novels and movies before it the film presents Casey as “special” in some initially nebulous way, but it does those other tales one better by making it clear that everyone is capable of achieving the same.
Simple or not, it’s not all heavy messages and themes – Tomorrowland is also an immensely fun and energetic cinematic ride. From young Frank’s early jet pack ride through the skies over Tomorrowland to a frantic home invasion and escape the action here is visually thrilling and frequently exhilarating. Cool gadgets, booby traps and slickly choreographed fight scenes highlight the smaller action while much larger set-pieces wait to blast off in the wings.
The film excels as youth-oriented summer escapism, but in addition to its old-school message of hope and optimism it also delivers big laughs and surprising heart. Regarding the latter, there’s a scene late in the film that probably shouldn’t work – your brain will insist what you’re seeing is wrong, but your heart knows better – but take one step beyond the ingredients it consists of and you find a supremely emotional and affecting sequence.
The humor meanwhile comes equally from all three leads – Robertson, Clooney, Cassidy – who deliver sharp dialogue and banter like a well-oiled trio. Unsurprisingly, Clooney gives great grump and fits into the world’s magic like a long lost puzzle piece just waiting for reunion, but the two girls are the stand-outs here. Cassidy brings an otherworldly, wiser than her years personality to Athena that finds its humanity in its observations while Robertson delivers awe and energy as our guide along the adventure.
It’s worth noting that Casey is an independent, smart, science-loving girl in a film that never feels it necessary to point a finger at that fact. It just is. Even better, she’s not saddled with a romantic subplot that’s seemingly mandatory in YA films.
Bird has long championed the exceptional or special people among us, but here at least he’s making no real claim of their superiority. The world of Tomorrowland shows the error and danger in doing so and instead suggests the most valuable traits are the ones that drive us forward with hope, desire and plans for a better tomorrow. His shiny, visceral thrill ride pairs that optimistic take with some tough love, and the end result is pure possibility.
Tomorrowland is not the point of Tomorrowland. Today is.
The Upside: Fun, sharp dialogue; excitingly paced action and visuals; surprising emotion; strong female characters; unabashedly hopeful; time bomb that stops time
The Downside: Very simplistic story; more oomph needed in particular 3rd-act revelation
On the Side: Bird was apparently pursued to direct Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens but chose to make Tomorrowland instead.