by Matt Levine
A quick perusal of last year’s Hollywood offerings reveals that ten of the top fifty box-officer earners are related to the apocalypse, with an astonishing four of those coming in the top ten. This reveals two relatively obvious things: first, that major studios have the end of the world on the brain (hardly surprising for an industry prone to regurgitation); and secondly, that American audiences love to see the planet destroyed, especially if it involves our metropolises crumbling with the help of plentiful CGI animators. The fact that such effects-laden end-of-the-world blockbusters have exploded (pun intended) over the last three decades suggests that such a bleak worldview has much to do with the studios' desire to wow audiences with the most cutting-edge graphics; after all, what better way to demonstrate your FX prowess than with the spectacle of the entire planet going to hell? More recently, though, such apocalyptic movies seem to have an urgent subtext, intentional or not: with a planet beset by famine, disease, war, pollution, and rampant greed, this sky-is-falling mentality becomes less science-fiction and more science-what-if.
Director: Brad Bird
Producers: Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeffrey Chernov
Writers: Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeff Jensen (story)
Cinematographer: Claudio Miranda
Editors: Walter Murch, Craig Wood
Music: Michael Giacchino
Cast: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon
US Theatrical Release: May 22, 2015
US Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Tomorrowland is yet another Hollywood film about the end of the world—or, more accurately, it’s about movies that are about the end of the world, and how such a media infatuation with extinction is encouraging us to throw up our hands (and shell out our dollars) in resignation. Calling the movie preachy or browbeating (as some have) is not off base, but considering that Tomorrowland tries to do no less than slap us awake and force us to take responsibility for our (possible) destruction of the planet, such a badgering tone seems appropriate. While movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron and San Andreas take devastation for granted and delight in its pixilated particulars, Tomorrowland tries to tell us that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Co-scripted by director Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Incredibles) and Damon Lindelof (writer of Lost, Prometheus, and others), Tomorrowland begins with a dizzying narrative structure that leaps back and forth through time and between perspectives. Dashing Frank Walker (George Clooney) speaks directly to the camera, joined by a talkative offscreen companion, as he starts the story, initially stressing its doom and gloom; the device of addressing the audience points to the movie’s admonitory tone, but such direct-address is typically good-humored and enables a more creative structure than in most Hollywood movies. When Frank finally settles down and begins his tale properly, we find ourselves at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, when a young Frank visits the World of Invention to demonstrate to a team of innovators his nitrogen-fueled jetpack. Frank is pat on the back and ushered out of the building, but an odd young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) gives him a pin emblazoned with a gold “T” and tells him to follow her and her father, the brilliant inventor David Nix (Hugh Laurie), no matter what. He does—pursuing them into the “It’s a Small World” amusement-park ride (an obnoxious indication of Walt Disney Studios’ funding)—and ends up in an alternate dimension called Tomorrowland, a utopian vision that’s all gleaming skyscrapers and levitating monorails (it’s basically The Jetsons with massive robots).
Before we can find out what happens to Frank or where/how Tomorrowland even exists, we switch to the story of his current-day companion, Casey (Britt Robertson), a teenage girl. She tells us her own story: her father, a NASA engineer, has instilled in her a wonder for cosmic exploration, which doesn’t pair well with her discovery that NASA will soon demolish its Cape Canaveral launchpads, no longer planning any explorations into space. Her father Eddie (Tim McGraw) has taught her an existential parable about two wolves living inside all of us—a creature of darkness and despair, and another of hope and optimism. The one that wins out, Eddie tells her, depends on the one that you feed. Taking this lesson to heart, Casey uses her brilliance and ingenuity to sabotage the demolition equipment at NASA, eventually getting her arrested and also gaining the attention of a young girl who smuggles into her possession a gold Tomorrowland pin. Whenever Casey touches the pin, she is magically jettisoned to the same world that Frank saw as a young boy; the best scene in the movie conveys Casey’s first visit to Tomorrowland, which adds just enough creativity to its futuristic worldview to be memorable (a multicultural populace in wild costumes, or a series of pools suspended in midair which allow you to dive from elevations of hundreds of feet).
Tomorrowland’s plot is convoluted and extremely dense, which is both a pleasure and an annoyance: there’s no question the film is imaginative and entertaining, but it also heedlessly speeds through everything and depends on a lot of exposition while still feeling muddled. Basically, Tomorrowland is an alternate dimension populated by the most brilliant people in the world—the “geniuses,” Casey is told, scientists and engineers and artists who can work without intrusion from corporate or military interests. This is the world humanity could create, and which Earth could have been if it wasn’t dictated by greed and petty quests for power. But an invention created by Frank connecting Tomorrowland to Earth has practically ensured the extinction of humanity on the planet, not to mention opened a precarious doorway between the two worlds. Frank is exiled back to Earth, making him angry and hopeless; he refuses, at first, to help Casey, assuming nothing they do will make a difference anyway.
It’s probably easy to tell that Tomorrowland is not your average sci-fi adventure; this is unambiguously a movie about the legacy humans will leave on this planet, a call-to-arms for those in the audience willing to change their lives in order to avoid a self-imposed extinction. Some of the ways in which this ambition are portrayed are off-putting: the “geniuses” of Tomorrowland are, at least at first, an elitist group of educated Americans, the wall of TV monitors in Frank’s house convey a predictable assortment of tragedy and violence, and a didactic speech by Hugh Laurie’s character about the hopelessness of Earth flatly tells us that humans are lazy, stupid, and desire their own demise. (Which, yes, might be true--Tomorrowland is a pretty accurate cynicism guage—but such a denunciation might have been presented more uniquely.)
This isn’t to mention the movie’s other, significant flaws. While director Bird has a knack for fast-paced coherency—his animated films (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) swiftly blend comedy, pathos, and subtext, while his Mission: Impossible installment is my favorite in the franchise, an amiable action movie that’s basically about how idiotic the world’s politicians are--Tomorrowland might be too jam-packed for its own good. Dialogue is often clunky and attempts at humor sometimes fall flat; a brief appearance by Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key is likably bizarre, but ultimately fails. Characters can be paper-thin: neither Frank nor Casey have a mother figure in their lives, though we never find out why. The tone is too grim and violent for younger audiences, but too cutesy for older viewers. In a perfect world, Tomorrowland would have had at least another hour to embellish its ideas, but we can hardly fault the movie for not having that option (it’s already 130 minutes).
In other ways, though, Tomorrowland reveals the aesthetic risks that Hollywood movies occasionally have the chance to take. (Both Bird and Lindelof also act as producers, which might explain why such an expensive, atypical project got off the ground in the first place.) The bright, roaming cinematography by Claudio Miranda (Oscar-winner for Life of Pi) is a wonder to behold, and the swift editing between various worlds and time periods (courtesy of Walter Murch and Craig Wood) can be as mind-boggling as anything in Inception. The narrative structure, finally, is admirably complex, especially when it is eventually revealed that Frank and Casey have not been speaking to us the whole time, but to an onscreen audience whose nature I won’t reveal. Tomorrowland is uneven, for sure, but it’s also an occasionally dazzling Hollywood project that isn’t a reboot or sequel or adaptation—and that in itself is something to cherish.
Honestly, the checklist of flaws and pleasures in Tomorrowland might be something of a moot point: this is a movie that takes very seriously the role of humans on Earth, that tells us in no uncertain terms we need to change our behavior if we want to save this planet (something scientists have already been trying to hammer home), and that unapologetically criticizes those in the audience who are too apathetic to care. Instead of giving in to despair, though, Tomorrowland ends on a note of optimism, believing—perhaps by necessity—that there is still time to steer us to a better future. The rosy, we-are-the-world ending might be a little ridiculous, but that beseeching sense of hopefulness is almost daring in its silliness, making this the most joyous movie about possible extinction since Wall-E. Tepid reviews from critics point to the preachy tone and simplistic view of the future, and while those are drawbacks they hardly lessen the power of the film’s urgency and optimism. (Its critical consensus and evocation of a future dystopia are certainly weaker than in Mad Max: Fury Road—a viscerally jaw-dropping experience, no doubt, which allows us to thrill in a futuristic wasteland that can no longer be relegated to fantasy.) One of those middling reviews belongs to the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, who writes: “belief without content, without a critical picture of the world as it is, is really just propaganda.” He’s right—propaganda that tries to mobilize us into action and responsibility, to make us realize that humans are not entitled to eternal life on a planet we’ve exploited throughout our existence. As a formal and narrative object, Tomorrowland is problematic, to say the least; as an expression of what it means to live on this planet in 2015, it’s more substantial than almost any Hollywood movie in years.