Tomorrowland is both an indictment of the Hollywood Dream Factory and a paean to its power, a film that aspires to inspire. It’ll play great with the 8-to-14 demo, though their parents may heave a sigh or two.
We open on Frank Walker (George Clooney), sporting a five o’clock shadow and delivering a message of unstoppable doom to an unseen audience. After a moment, Frank is interrupted and told to start earlier, to lead with something a bit more hopeful. So he goes back to his childhood and we see him head to the New York World’s Fair of 1964: He’s made a jetpack and hopes the swells running the invention tent will award him the $50 prize.
Unfortunately, the pack doesn’t work. And even if it did, he can’t really articulate its use to Nix (Hugh Laurie), the adult manning the booth. "Can’t it be just for fun?" young Frank asks, earning an eye roll from Nix. Does fun alone help improve the world? How would this jetpack help people?
"I’d be inspired," Frank says of seeing random rocketeers in the sky. "Wouldn’t that make the world a better place?"
That’s not enough for Nix. But it piques the interest of Nix’s oddly young compatriot, Athena (Raffey Cassidy). She gives Frank a pin and tells him to follow; before he knows it, he’s in Tomorrowland.
Then Frank, once again, gets morose with our unseen audience. So his compatriot, Casey (Britt Robertson), takes over and tells her story. Casey’s world is much less hopeful than Frank’s: her father, a NASA engineer, is about to be out of a job because the powers that be have decided Cape Canaveral should be closed. After being jailed for attempting to stop the demolition of the launch site, Casey discovers a pin amongst her belongings, a pin much like the one young Frank received so many years ago. Thus begins her trip to Tomorrowland—and her race to save the world.
I’ll say a bit more about Tomorrowland’s plot in a moment, but I don’t want to give away too much else for those who plan on seeing it. Allow me simply to say that if this movie were to have come out while I was a kid, it would likely have been one of my favorite films growing up: It’s funny, and it has a couple of great action sequences and a pair of dynamite performances by Robertson and Cassidy, rare for younger actors. Clooney’s a bit of a ham, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. At just over two hours, Tomorrowland occasionally drags and the plot doesn’t make a great deal of sense if you give it 30 seconds of thought—but I’m sure the filmmakers thought the discursive nature of the movie was worth it, as they had a very deep point to make. (Spoilers below.)
As the movie progresses, we discover Frank has been expelled from Tomorrowland. Turns out, he created a device that can see the future. And the future is bad, you guys. The waters have not receded—indeed, much of our world is underwater. There are protests in the street, mushroom clouds over our cities. The end of the world is coming, and there’s nothing we can do.
At least, that’s what Frank has been made to think. But when Casey meets up with Frank, her optimism reduces the probability of disaster from 100 percent to 99.996 percent. That slight downtick reinvigorates his hopeful side.
After a series of shenanigans, Casey and Frank get to Tomorrowland, where they are met by Nix. Casey is finally told that the end of the world is nigh—less than two months away, in fact—and Nix explains that the future-telling device has been transformed into a broadcaster of sorts. Confronted with images of doom, he tried to warn the world. And in doing so, he only made things worse: "They didn’t fear their demise—they embraced it," Nix says.
In Tomorrowland’s telling, post-apocalyptic media—last week’s Mad Max: Fury Road and next week’s San Andreas; The Walking Dead on television, the Fallout series in video games—is popular because we’ve given up as a society. One of the running gags in Tomorrowland is a series of billboards for a fake movie called Toxicosmos 3, the poison fruit of Nix’s efforts. We’ve rejected the optimism of Walt Disney’s "Tomorrowland" and embraced the fatalism of doom and despair. Nix says we’ve done this because it requires nothing of us, no sacrifice today to make tomorrow a better place. He blames politicians addicted to money and their constituents, equally as addicted to ease of living.
It’s clear that director Brad Bird, who cowrote the screenplay with Damon Lindelof, feels very strongly about this. He’s countered despair with a sort of optimistic agitprop. As the movie closes, we see that Clooney was talking not only to the audiences in theaters, but also to a cadre of young recruiters destined to discover the next batch of optimists. Where are these dreamers to be found? Why, working with wind turbines and counting elephants on the African plains and wandering amongst the Redwoods and, um, playing music on street corners.
Aw. No word yet if they gathered on a hilltop to share a Coke. Maybe that’ll be addressed in the sequel.
Perhaps Tomorrowland‘s environmentalist agitprop will inspire a new generation of youngsters to get out there and change the world. To reject despair and embrace hope! To put the apocalypse out of mind and appreciate art that improves the soul and provides a ray of sunshine about the future. In a weird way, it worked on me. I’m definitely headed back to the theaters this weekend—for a second viewing of Fury Road.