I hoped to like Tomorrowland a lot more than I actually did.
I love Brad Bird. Iron Giant and The Incredibles are both two of the finest animated films ever created. When he announced that he was directing a secret Disney project, I was intrigued. When we found out that it was going to be called “Tomorrowland”, I was thrilled. When I saw the first trailer, I had no reason to doubt that this would be an exciting and original piece of Asimovian science fiction. And parts of the movie are definitely that.
Without spoiling anything, here’s the set-up:
A brilliant, optimistic, yet rebellious young adult, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), is given a mysterious pin which transports her mind to a fantastical futuristic utopia (“Tomorrowland”) where anything is seemingly possible. When the pin stops working, she goes on a mission to discover where it came from and find out how she can get back to the place she saw.
At first she heads to a novelty shop in Texas, where her questions about the pin’s origin wind up getting her attacked by androids with laser guns. She’s rescued by a 12-year-old girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and ultimately dropped at the doorstep of Frank Walker (George Clooney), an exile from Tomorrowland with a clock counting down the end of the world.
According to Frank, in just 58 days, humanity is mysteriously doomed (cause of like, the environment, and stuff… or something).
But when Casey asks him what people are actually trying to do to stop the world’s eminent demise, Frank’s probability meter blips from 100% to 99.994% – suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Casey’s hopeful optimism can save the world.
Then they’re attacked by robots again.
But that’s ok, because once Frank has to abandon his self-destructing house he has no choice but to agree to take Casey & Athena back to Tomorrowland and try to save the world.
Watch the trailer:
Seems exciting, right?
We have a pretty good set up, and the characters seem distinctive and deep. Plus, Tomorrowland is visually stunning. Particularly when we get to see it in its prime, it really is what I’ve always wanted the future to look like.
The casting is also excellent, especially Raffey Cassidy, who turns in one of the most exceptional performances I’ve seen from any child actor. Her character is a little bit tragic, complex, in some ways uncomfortably adult, and Cassidy’s emotionally rich portrayal might just be the biggest highlight of the film.
So there’s a lot to like on the surface, but once we look a little deeper, Tomorrow land is… well… just not very good.
Honestly, I would love to just give Brad Bird a pass here and blame everything on co-writer/producer Damon Lindelof. Linedlof has a history of sucking all of the intelligence out of a screenplay, and as a result he’s left us with some incomprehensibly dumb movies like “Star Trek Into Darkness“, “Prometheus“, and “World War Z“. Plus he and his cohort JJ Abrams blatantly duped people for years into believing they were brilliant masterminds with “Lost”, when in reality they clearly had absolutely no clue where they were going with it, and we all ended up with one of the laziest and most irritating conclusions to a TV series ever written.
The biggest problems with Tomorrowland are embedded into the story and the film’s intellectual underpinning, and while I’d love to just blame Lindelof for that, the buck has to stop with the director.
So, for the first time ever, I think Brad Bird has actually let me down.
One problem is that there just aren’t enough reasons to really care about the characters. Casey is established as a very smart girl, but she’s also kind of a jerk. She sneaks out at night to try to sabotage the dismantling of a NASA launchpad because once it’s torn down, her dad – a shuttle engineer – would ostensibly be out of work. [Sidenote: The movie makes it seem like SpaceX and other private space exploration companies don’t exist, as if hope for human space travel is dying as opposed to entering a golden age of innovation.]
Later, she basically breaks into Frank’s house and locks him out, then proceeds to mess with his stuff and invade his privacy. Rude.
The most interesting character is Athena, but her deep relationship to Frank is hinted at more than developed, which makes what happens with her a lot less meaningful than it should be.
Another big problem is that while the stakes of the film are technically the fate of the world, the specific challenge the protagonists must overcome to save it is pretty weak. Consequently, the third act is really flat and lacks the kind of excitement I would have hoped for.
And while we’re on the subject of “challenges”, Tomorrowland is very confused as to who its bad guy is.
Presumably, the antagonist is Hugh Laurie’s character, David Nix, but in its most preachy moments, the true villain of the film is apparently all of humanity, who are treated as apathetic and stupid, except for an elite intelligentsia who really “care” about the environment, human welfare, greed, etc.
It’s that idea that really trouble me.
Tomorrowland’s major theme is about the value of optimism. “There are two wolves”, Casey says (paraphrasing a popular internet meme built off of a Native American fable). One wolf is negativity and despair, while the other is hope and success. She asks, which wolf gets stronger? And the answer is, of course, “the one you feed”. This is a great message, and if that had been the only one present in the movie, I’d be cheering it on wholeheartedly.
Unfortunately, there’s another major theme that is pretty awful.
The other idea presented throughout Tomorrowland is that the way to “save the world” is by cloistering a hand-picked group of really smart people™ and get them to engineer solutions to all the world’s problems. The very idea behind Tomorrowland as a city is a glorification of central planning. It all but explicitly claims that if only all the best and brightest just got together, “free from politics and greed”, everything would be perfect.
This is nonsense. Actually, no. It’s dangerous nonsense.
Even at their most brilliant, the world’s elite scientists don’t – and can’t – unilaterally know what’s best for other people, or for “the world” in general. No cabal of geniuses even has access to, let alone is capable of quantifying and cataloging, all the relevant knowledge they need to solve most big human problems. In the real world these problems are extremely complex. Also in the real world, there are brilliant scientists and thinkers actively working against each other, generating different theories and thus different solutions to the same problem from the same data sets.
And not all of these solutions will work and not all of them will be worth the cost. Some will be downright faudulent. But scientists rarely need to worry about that.
This is why (again, in the real world) it is normally entrepreneurs – many of whom aren’t geniuses or even necessarily well-educated – and not scientists, who actually make people’s lives better. Unlike scientists, entrepreneurs necessarily operate in an environment where they gain high quality feedback about whether or not their solutions are valuable in relation to all the other possible uses of the same resources. Their incentives are geared toward finding increasingly affordable ways to improve people’s lives. Likewise, the more individuals get to choose for themselves what solutions work best for their needs based on their own unique values and available resources, the more the world gets cleaner, safer, and more awesome.
But of course, while entrepreneurs are actively building an amazing future in the real world, they seem to be completely missing from Tomorrowland’s utopia.
To think all it takes to make the world a better place is for “smart” people to have all the power is based on hubris, and that’s not actually very smart at all. When we let technocratic dictators have the power Tomorrowland seems to advocate, things have not generally gone very well. Yet that pretense of knowledge is not only the motivation for the antagonist Nix, it’s also the motivation for Casey and Frank. The only apparent difference is whether or not the people who want to rule the world are hopeful, or pessimistic.
Not a great lesson.
In the end, we’re left with a movie that’s really optimistic about the possibility of an amazing future (which I love), but also one that councils a very preachy, yet totally naive and in many ways downright stupid means of arriving at that future.