Brad Bird’s ‘Tomorrowland’ asks viewers to rally behind an optimistic, simplistic utopian concept

May 25, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 25, 2015

Brad Bird’s entertaining new movie, Tomorrowland, pits optimism vs. cynicism. Guess which wins?

Tomorrowland is a Hollywood movie, so the answer shouldn’t surprise you much. More specifically, it’s a Disney Studios movie based on a Disney theme park area, so the answer really shouldn’t surprise you.

When Frank Marshall (Thomas Robinson) was a child, a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) spotted him at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York. Athena handed Marshall a pin and told him to covertly follow her and her sourpuss adult associate, Nix (Hugh Laurie), into the It’s a Small World ride. He did so and was transported into a fantastic futuristic city…

…which the audience won’t get to revisit at length until the end of the movie. In the meantime, we’re introduced to Casey Newton, an optimistic present-day Florida teenager (Britt Robinson, playing about a decade younger than her 25 years). Her dad, Eddie Newton (Tim McGraw) is a NASA engineer who’s helping to dismantle launch pads. (Mom is out of the picture, although it’s never specified whether this is due to divorce, death or something else; her younger brother, Nate, is played by Pierce Gagnon, who has a chubby-cheeked visage that, confusingly, resembles Robinson’s.) Casey is a brilliant budding engineer in her own right who has hoped to travel to space since she was a very young child. She’s single-handedly determined to try to delay the demolition project until society gets its priorities straight.

Society, of course, has other ideas — but after Newton is arrested, her real adventure is poised to begin. When collects her belongings from the jail property clerk, she finds a pin exactly like the one Athena handed to Marshall 50-odd years ago. Upon touching it, Newton is transported to a magical, sunny metropolis filled with amazing sights and sounds.

Newton recognizes that the pin is some kind of virtual-reality device, but its capabilities are astoundingly advanced. When the pin’s batteries fail, just as Newton is on the verge of taking a rocket ship into space, she becomes determined to learn more about the object. That leads to an encounter with a pair of bizarre, menacing novelty-shop proprietors (Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn). Soon thereafter, Newton meets Athena, who encourages her to try to charm a cynical adult Marshall (George Clooney, grizzled but still charismatic) into fixing what ails the futuristic paradise.

On one level, the script, co-written by director Brad Bird and Damon Lindeloff, with story input from Jeff Jensen, works well. All the pieces fit together; there are more or less satisfying emotional arcs for Newton, Marshall and Athena; the stakes escalate throughout the movie, as do the visual spectacles.

But on another level, Tomorrowland is packed with story points that I found discomfiting. Let’s take the titular utopia. (Oddly, I can’t remember if anyone in the movie actually calls it Tomorrowland or not.) This marvelous metropolis is described as a place where creative types can invent whatever they want, unhindered by politics or bureaucracy.

Which sounds great, until you scratch the surface. I recently began reading the nonfiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which concerns tissue that was removed without permission from a cancer patient. Unbeknownst to the patient or her family, the sample cells grew prolifically and became the basis for innumerable scientific advances — and, not incidentally, business transactions. That’s the kind of behavior that, in a mature and just society, political bodies and bureaucracies tend to discourage; so too malicious studies such as the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Sometimes, controls and obstacles are imposed with good reason.

I also question the wisdom of divorcing science and art from society, which Tomorrowland seems to posit as a boon. Many of the things that people do are meaningful because they help or hurt other people; many of our most admirable actions have that quality because they aid others. How can the denizens of Tomorrowland’s artificial Mount Olympus assist mortals if they’re wholly unaware of Earthly suffering and its causes?

I’m also skeptical about fictional narratives in which amazing technologies have been discovered but somehow forgotten. These kinds of machines play a key role throughout Tomorrowland — one of the characters has created, or has managed to duplicate, a variety of clever devices, including a thoroughly convincing hologram that appears solid even in daylight and an invisible repulsion field that, as seen in the movie’s promotional material, can send people flying through the air.

Now, this particular character is embittered, so I suppose the individual has a reason for not propagating devices that could easily make an inventor immensely wealthy. But we also get to see a rocket ship that was covertly built more than a century ago; the ship functions perfectly despite decades of neglect, and its automated pilot is capable not only of entering orbit but of traveling to another dimension with essentially no human guidance. And even when Marshall was a child, Tomorrowland had immense agile robots with great practical knowledge of electronics and physics. It just doesn’t make sense that these devices would exist in isolation.

In more specific nitpicking, the virtual-reality pin struck me as incredibly dangerous to untutored users. (Perhaps it’s designed to weed out the unwary?) Movement in the virtual reality space corresponds to movement in the real world, and vice versa. But while in virtual reality, it’s all but impossible to sense one’s actual surroundings. Newton was lucky not to brain herself falling down the stairs while attempting to traipse through Tomorrowland; how other, less intellectually nimble pin-holders might avoid death by inadvertently wandering into traffic eludes me.

I was also troubled by the relationship between Marshall and another character; his fixation seemed unhealthy and incredibly childish, and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes as the movie brought it to closure in the picture-perfect way that only Hollywood does. Curiously, my parent wasn’t bothered by this but instead questioned the relationship Marshall had with one of the other main characters. While nothing inappropriate happens on screen, or is even implied, there is something potentially creepy about a 54-year-old man fostering a close relationship with a pretty teenage girl who isn’t related to him.

I hate to be too negative about Tomorrowland; for the most part, it’s quite fun and clever, with an appealing visual aesthetic and two engaging leads. (I did find Cassidy to be somewhat off-putting, which I attribute to her role rather than the young actress herself.) Even better, the film celebrates Newton’s intelligence and optimism, and in Athena, it gives us a female character who is quite capable intellectually as well as physically.

But Tomorrowland is the cinematic equivalent of uplifting young-adult literature: It’s enjoyable, and it contains some valuable lessons for youngsters, but it just isn’t very deep.

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