I could have sworn J.J. Abrams had something to do with this. Looking at IMDB after the fact I realize he does not have so much as a credit on it, but I still find it hard to believe. It’s not just because he previously worked with both director Brad Bird (on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and co-writer Damon Lindelof (on the show “Lost”), rather it’s because of the movie’s advertising campaign. In its run-up Tomorrowland had a very Abrams-esque advertising campaign in that, rather than announcing a press conference for every last element of the movie in an attempt to get the movie in front of people for days on end, the campaign tried to keep every last detail save for a few tantalizing images a secret in order to give it an intriguing aura of mystery. As a movie viewer I’m inclined to love this approach, I hate coming out of a movie feeling like I’d already seen it because of an overly pushy ad campaign that gave away everything before the movie came out. However, I’ve found that more often than not this “mystery box” approach to film publicly seems to backfire. Part of the problem may simply be that the masses want to know what they’re getting themselves into with any given movie, but the bigger problem is that these campaigns invite audiences to imagine a movie in their heads which almost always ends up being a lot grander than the movies that actually get made. Still, even without the mysterybox campaign Tomorrowland looked like a hell of a project with its hotshot director and cool premise, and now that it’s here it can finally be a mere movie rather than an abstract bundle of promise.
The film is set mostly in the present and mainly focuses on Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a sixteen year old with a penchant for technology and a strong set of optimistic beliefs. As her story starts she’s rather angry that NASA is planning to dismantle the Cape Canaveral launch site, which offends her both as an admirer of space travel and as the daughter of a NASA engineer. This vandalism eventually lands her in jail and shortly after she’s bailed out she stumbles upon a seemingly magical pin that give her visions of a strange futuristic city. Eventually this pin seems to run out of power, leading her to go on something of a quest to find answers about this strange place where it seems the world’s brightest minds have come together to work unimpeded by red tape and naysayers. Along the way she meets a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) that wants to help lead her there as well as an aging former inhabitant named Frank Walker (George Clooney) who has become embittered by his experiences in this city of tomorrow and seems to know about some sort of massive threat that has emanated from it.
Tomorrowland, the place not the movie, is a pretty intriguing idea. The glimpses that we do get of this titular location (which is sort of like Columbia from “Bioshock Infinite” but more futuristic and less racist) are visually rich and generally intriguing. The thing is, the movie does not really spend a lot of time in Tomorrowland, nor does it go into detail about what it’s like as a society. The basic concept, that human society would be far more advanced if scientists didn’t have to contend with red tape is kind of a fucked up idea if you think about it too long. At best it’s a kind of Randian argument in favor of deregulation, at worst it almost seems like the kind of philosophy that Josef Mengele could get behind. Also it’s kind of a mystery why these scientists are inventing all this fun shit only to stow it away from the rest of us. But I don’t think the movie is really all that concerned about scientists being stifled by regulation so much as a general lack of vision on the part of society. The film barters in the same “gee wiz” enthusiasm for science and progress that fueled Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last year and like that film it kind of suffers from a case of maybe trying a little too hard to be a sort of infomercial for the STEM fields.
It’s not entirely clear how old the character of Casey Newton is supposed to be. She’s of driving age, so I guess she must be sixteen or seventeen, but she’s played by a twenty five year old actress and all too often seems to be written like she was originally supposed to be thirteen or fourteen. The character actually comes off pretty well on screen, which I largely attribute to the efforts of Britt Robertson, but on the page it’s kind of an odd character. She’s almost immediately established as an optimist, a dreamer, and a science wiz with an emphasis on the former two roles much more than the last one. I’m pretty sure that the character is supposed to be some kind of science and engineering savant but the film very rarely actually has her doing anything scientific. This actually isn’t too far out of line with the movie’s general approach to science, which is the opposite of Thomas Edison’s approach in that it seems to think that genius is 99% inspiration and 1% perspiration.
It’s established at the end of the film (Spoilers, I guess) that what ails the world is pessimism. In fact it’s established, via an incredibly on the nose monolog, that the problem ailing the world is that people are far too pessimistic and that we’ve lost the optimistic spirit of the sixties. Popular culture itself is itself indicted for telling stories that are a little too Mad Max and not enough Star Trek. Frankly I think this logic is flawed both because it endows fiction with way more power than it actually has (the cheerleaders seldom have any real influence over which team wins) and secondly just for being generally inaccurate about the history of science fiction. Apocalyptic sci-fi visions were not, contrary to popular belief, invented the day Blade Runner came out. There was a strong strain of nuclear paranoia and scientific pessimism that ran through the science fiction all through the age of the space race. The fact that cinema viewers in 1968 witnessed Charlton Heston stumbling upon a rusted and destroyed Statue of Liberty in the middle of a desolate wasteland that used to be New York didn’t seem to do anything to hinder the moon landing one year later. Of course these movies kind of had a good reason to be skeptical of unrestrained scientific advancement what with all the nuclear bombs and polluting automobiles and to dismiss these cautionary tales as counterproductive is maybe to miss the point.
Long story short, the science fiction in this movie is dumb, instead you’re probably better off ignoring that as much as possible in order to simply enjoy the movie as a sort of Spielbergian adventure movie and on that level the movie succeeds more often than it fails. I wasn’t a huge fan of Brad Bird’s first live action effort, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (a movie which was basically three pretty decent set-pieces loosely tied together by a whole lot of nothing) in part because it didn’t really establish Bird as the kind of unique visual stylist that that series needed, but this movie feels a lot more like a natural extension of his animated work. The guy seems to have a very good grasp of the whimsical tone the film needs and also creates some really fun action scenes out of the film’s creative science fiction equipment. Also, the dude’s shot compositions are fucking luscious.
Despite the fact that it has some rather gaping problems Tomorrowland isn’t a particularly easy movie to dislike. On paper it has everything we all keep asking Hollywood to give us what with it being an original IP with a distinctive visual style and a message beyond “hey isn’t this action awesome.” There’s definitely some good stuff in the movie and as clumsy as its message is I guess I did sort of appreciate that it was trying to say something when all too often this kind of movie actively says nothing. In fact I was pretty much ready to give the movie a light pass when I left the theater, but the more I think about the movie the less I can really justify supporting it. This is not a good movie, it does too much wrong and ultimately it’s a swing and a miss. However, this is not the kind of bad movie that people should be mad at, it’s a noble effort one that might work better for children than for adults and I wouldn’t be shocked if it turns out to be something of a cult film amongst a certain generation of viewers.
**1/2 out of Four