Fell in love with a girl robot
by Thom Yee
When I was a kid, by the time I was ten years old I had already been to Disneyland three times. And I don’t know why. For a kid from Edmonton, Canada, three times to Disneyland strikes me as a lot, almost like my parents were intentionally overloading the front half of our family vacations to prep me for future holidays that would never see us leave Canada again.
I liked Disneyland well enough, but I was a pretty cynical kid even during those pre-ten-year-old years, so most of my specific memories of Disneyland have more to do with the shock I felt at how much everything cost. Probably the most vivid memory I have of my Disneyland adventures was the time I accidentally ruined the day’s pictures by exposing the film in our old Pentax. That one’s on you, Mom and Dad, did you really expect me not to be curious about pulling that ‘open’ tab on the back of the camera?! You could have told me what would happen! You… you could have told me…
Despite all of that, I do remember things like the Tea Cups, those horrific animatronic robots, and how fun it was to terrorize the mascots, but what I don’t remember at all is Tomorrowland. I don’t remember going on any rides there or buying any merch there, I can’t recall anything of what it looked like or what iconography best represented it. For me, it exists as a mystery, behind a fog of possibility, distant memories that may never have ever been formed. That’s a really intriguing feeling, one that typifies much of the movie, Tomorrowland, both in its public perception and the best moments of the movie.
The movie-going public didn’t seem to like that same lack of clarity in its marketing, though, which is probably why I saw Tomorrowland last weekend and most of you, apparently, didn’t.
Young high-school student Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a lot of things. She’s an idealist. A scientist. A guerrilla terrorist. At night she sneaks into a protected former NASA launch site to sabotage the dismantling of the site’s launch pad in a broad (and largely metaphorical) protest of humanity’s declining sense of exploration. Eventually arrested by the police for her nighttime activities, Casey is nevertheless quickly released and finds a mysterious pin among her returned belongings. Every time Casey touches the pin she finds herself transported to a technologically advanced world, an almost idealized vision of the future, but when the pin eventually runs out of power, Casey is left not knowing what it all means. Approached by the mysterious Athena, seemingly an even younger girl who may have some of the answers to Casey’s questions, the two set off to find Frank Walker (George Clooney), a former citizen of this strange, futuristic land, and discover the secrets of Tomorrowland (which it’s never actually called in the movie).
Tomorrowland opens with young Frank’s submission of a half-functioning jetpack to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, an invention that winds up gaining him access to Tomorrowland, and it’s that jet pack that acts as a metaphor for everything that the movie is about. Though David Nix (Hugh Laurie), the Fair’s submissions judge and apparently an important figure in Tomorrowland, is initially unimpressed with the jetpack, young Frank points out that it’s close to working, that it could work, and that perhaps the pack’s true value is the inspiration it could provide to people rather than what it literally does. Which is all well and good, sugar and spice and everything nice, but it still won’t keep the theory of evolution out of our classrooms or guarantee us the right to choose whether or not our children are vaccinated or finally give us all the proof we need that Obama is a natural-born citizen of the United States.
By now director Brad Bird has earned himself a well-deserved fan following with his work as a writer and a director on films like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, and his time as a creative consultant during the first eight years of The Simpsons (a.k.a., the glory years), so hopes were high for Tomorrowland, particularly since it’s the movie he chose to direct over Star Wars Episode VII. Everything he’s been involved with to this point has been at least critically acclaimed, with most of his work also proving to be extremely commercially viable, and some expected Tomorrowland to be Disney’s next Pirates of the Carribean.
The good news is that Tomorrowland is basically a good movie, and if you focus on its best moments, it lives up to the expectations set forth in its trailers:
It may not be clear from that trailer, but Tomorrowland is a kid’s movie in the same sense that E.T. or The Princess Bride are kids movies. In fact, a lot of things aren’t clear from that trailer, but the one thing that should come through is tone. Tomorrowland is an adventure movie, taking us from an ordinary, uninspired point A through a dynamic series of circumstances and into an exciting, existentially realized point B. When it works, it works extremely well as a movie very much comprised of original ideas, astonishing imagery, technical brilliance, and hopeful inspiration.
It’s just too bad it’s not full of those things.
While watching Tomorrowland I felt compelled to chart Casey’s progress against the classic Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey as the movie invites obvious comparisons to Star Wars and The Matrix. In fact it practically screams for them as we watch Casey called to adventure, meet her mentor(s), cross thresholds, and so forth, but the one thing that really seemed to be missing is that Casey really didn’t change by the end of the movie, and because of that, neither are we.
The obvious message of Tomorrowland is the importance of not only finding hope for a better tomorrow, but the initiative to move forward toward that future, to be the change you want to see in the world and in so doing, to embody the necessary inspiration for others to also pick up that cause. Initially setting off with the image of a doomsday countdown clock, we’re soon immersed in a world very much like our own, one more concerned with obsessing over climate change, famine, obesity, and political stryfe rather than doing anything about those things. As a counterpoint, when Casey is presented with these problems, she immediately wants to fix them rather than accept them, each time introducing a sudden jolt of hope that sets the doomsday clock back a little further. She’s a perpetual ray of hope who never refuses the call and never considers temptation. Instead, most of those trials are left to Clooney’s Frank whose younger self grew up in and was eventually thrown out of Tomorrowland, and by the time we meet him, he’s still deep in the abyss between spiritual death and rebirth after essentially being rejected by the future. Splitting the hero’s journey up between the two is an approach that kind of works, but it also fractures the story beats to the point that the movie’s themes can fail to sink in.
As opposed to the mixed character messages going on with Casey and Frank, Athena, the ageless Audio-Animatronic girl who recruited Frank when he was a young boy, is a huge bright spot in the movie, and she really helps to bring the literal, figurative, and emotional elements of the movie together. The actor, Raffey Cassidy, brings an unusual maturity to her role as a character who’s externally youthful but technically older than either of our main protagonists, and, in a surprisingly great scene that rivals if not surpasses the house escape from the trailer, she also gives a really strong martial arts and acrobatics performance that had me utterly convinced she’d been training all her life rather than just for the three months before filming started.
Hugh Laurie’s David Nix certainly has enormous potential to be a compelling villain, but he’s never given much to do, particularly since he’s virtually absent from the movie until just before its climax. His ruminations on our modern media’s relentless negativity and society’s complacence towards epidemics and impending doom ring true, and the only thing that really makes him a bad guy is that he failed to move past the temptation phase of his own personal journey.
Even the world of Tomorrowland itself is only half explored, first through Casey’s introductory visitations via the pin (which turn out to be an over-idealized vision meant specifically to promote Tomorrowland from back when the founders intended to reveal it to the world at large), then through her encounters with the murderous robotic representatives keeping her out of Tomorrowland, and there when we finally get there our view of the world is limited to a minimum of locales and precisely no one from Tomorrowland that isn’t a bad guy. This futuristic world of tomorrow turns out to be unexpectedly bleak and dishearteningly desolate, making you wonder what happened to all the great scientists, artists, and philosophers who were supposed to make up this world.
At its heart, Tomorrowland is a movie about hope and, more importantly, the inertia to act on that hope, but any inspiration it generates comes only from the fact that it’s a reasonably decent movie with an agreeable message. It’s a testament to the quality of the journey to Tomorrowland that I only realized we hadn’t gotten there until about three-quarters into the movie, but by the time we do get there, all of the storytelling elements needed to really drive the movie home comes off as half-formed and almost empty. Rather than convince us of its message with a strong, resonant conclusion, it talks at us with themes that feel heavy-handed, unconvincing, and even a little preachy.
Tomorrowland feels like it should be a good movie. It’s intriguing and mysterious, intentive and original, and compelling throughout much of its run time, but it’s a movie that feels unfinished, like the creators gave a one hundred percent effort to the first eighty percent of the movie, but only had seventy percent left to give to the remaining twenty, the portion that, unfortunately, is charged with bringing everything together. It’s the kind of movie you’ll pop in or load up again and again because you liked a lot of the scenes and a lot of the general vibe, but you’ll probably rarely sit through the whole thing.
Tomorrowland final score: 7
On the Edge
- It’s funny that Tomorrowland, this movie about avoiding a dystopic future, features a young actor playing Casey’s younger brother who was also responsible for a dystopic future in a different movie, Looper.
- What does it say about humanity that in this imagined utopian world of perfect art, science, and culture the people still saw the need for developing futuristic hand guns?
- For a kid’s movie, Tomorrowland is surprisingly comfortable with casual murder. Throughout the course of the movie, at least three police officers and a bunch of innocent-bystander-types are killed outright by the film’s robotic antagonists.