Days of Past Future
I stopped watching the news on May 8th 2015, a bit over two weeks ago. Since then I haven't watched a single TV bulletin, nor any breakfast television, nor even a topical comedy programme. I haven't intentionally looked at a newspaper or visited a general news website. If I've been sitting on a bus or in a taxi and the news has come on the radio, there has been some discreet humming and putting of fingers in ears. What has occasioned all this? Well, the news promised nothing but grimness and despair, and I couldn't face the prospect of feeling angry about things that were beyond my power to influence. I couldn't stop caring so I just stopped looking. I wonder how many other people have found themselves in a similar position.
This sense of helplessness and resignation as far as the future is concerned is at the heart of Brad Bird's Tomorrowland (trading under the not-at-all unwieldy title of Disney Tomorrowland: A World Beyond in some territories), a movie which I am tempted to describe as a technological fantasy rather than actual science fiction. This film is, in a very real sense, actually about the future as an idea (rather than just being a convenient setting) – how we view it, how we respond to it, and how we shape it.
At its heart is the fundamental disconnection between futurist views of the early 20th century, right up until about 1970, in which everything was chromium-plated and shiny, rocket-buses to the moon departed on an hourly basis, and so on – a Jules Verne, Arthur C Clarke, Gerry Anderson vision of benevolent technocracy. But these days, of course, think of the future and your mind fills with images of urban decay, environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, viral apocalypse, and the general collapse of civilisation as we know it. What happened? When did everyone decide the world was inevitably just going to get worse and worse?
Tomorrowland comes up with a fictional answer to this question. This film has managed to make it to UK screens with a minimum of advance publicity, possibly because it's one of the few major releases this summer that isn't a sequel, remake, or reboot (or it may just be that all the coverage has been in those news programmes I've stopped watching), and I found that going in relatively ignorant of what to expect added somewhat to the experience. In any case, this is a ferociously intelligent film which handles a complex story with great confidence and skill, and it doesn't necessarily lend itself to an easy capsule review.
In the movie, Tomorrowland is the place where the future is made, a colony of scientists, artists, and other great thinkers. It is the kind of glittering metropolis, filled with monorails, jet-packers and robots, that has been part of our collective consciousness since the movie of the same name, and the nature of its relationship to the 'real' world of the movie is something I am not inclined to spoil. However, something is rotten in the state of the future, and it has grave implications for the real world as well.
Discovering all this is Casey (Britt Robertson), a bright teenage girl who spends her time trying to sabotage the demolition of old NASA launch platforms. She discovers a mysterious pin-badge which gives her visions of Tomorrowland, and it eventually leads her to reclusive mad scientist Frank Walker (George Clooney), an exile from the place who knows its dark secret. Together they set out on a journey that will take them back into Tomorrowland and lead to a confrontation with its governor, Nix (Hugh Laurie)...
Well, let's get the mouse in the room out of the way first: yes, Tomorrowland is an element of the Disneyland theme park, and yes, the Tomorrowland of the movie does bear something of a resemblance to it – but, thankfully, this doesn't really come across as an extended commercial for the Disney corporation's holiday resorts. (In fact, references to Disney's ownership of the Star Wars IP seem much more obtrusive – there's an action sequence in a comic store where Star Wars collectibles are just a bit too prominent.)
This film is too angry to be a commercial, anyway. Well, perhaps angry isn't quite the right word. Possibly 'committed' is better, or 'passionate'. On one level the film tells a fairly familiar story, that of a 'gifted' person who makes the breakthrough from the 'real' world into a hidden one of mystery and adventure – think of the first Men in Black or The Matrix – the difference here being that the hidden world draws most of its cues from classic Golden Age science fiction. There are ray guns, jet packs, rocket ships and androids galore, not to mention a minor character named after Hugo Gernsback (the inventor of the name 'science fiction', amongst many other significant achievements).
All of this is basically just eye candy, however, surrounding the film's central thesis, which concerns our expectations of the future and responsibility towards it. I hesitate to say that Tomorrowland is, on some level, Interstellar for a family audience, but the two films both treat the manned space programme as a totemic symbol of human ambition and optimism, and its decline as a damning indictment of society's lack of self-belief. Tomorrowland is certainly scathing in its analysis of what's gone wrong: giving in to despair is easier than taking responsibility for making something better. (At this point I found myself in the odd position of agreeing with the film even as it felt like it was having a go at me personally.) You can't fault Tomorrowland's idealism, optimism, or commitment to its ideas.
Unfortunately, great ideas don't necessarily make for a great movie, even when coupled to visuals as lavish and inventive as Bird has come up with here. The key question one has to ask is this: who is this film made for? Because I fear it will struggle to find an audience: for all that the script and performances are filled with wit and intelligence, it still feels a bit too dry and preachy to really appeal to a young audience, while adults may find it a bit, well, juvenile. Those in between will probably conclude that it's just not cool to care any more. Too often Tomorrowland feels like it's been written to service a theme, rather than characters or story – it's a slightly too obvious parable, rather than a piece of entertainment with a message.
This is the main problem, next to which a few minor ones are less significant: the structure feels odd, with the actual breakthrough into the hidden world not really happening in earnest until the final act, while there is at least one major special-effects set piece that feels crowbarred in – and, more seriously, it's strangely joyless when it should be enchanting and stirring.
Then again, that's probably Tomorrowland in a nutshell – it's so concerned with imploring the audience to be more hopeful and positive that it ends up being a lot less fun than it could have been. I rather imagine this is one of those films that won't make much of an impact on the box office on its original release, but will be rediscovered and hailed as a laudable, flawed masterpiece in a few years time. There's certainly very little wrong with its technical achievement, nor with its intentions. It's just that the actual story isn't quite up to the same standard as either, and in the end the story is the most important thing.