It took some time, but I finally got around to seeing Brad Bird’s fascinating sci-fi film Tomorrowland, and this morning I am somewhat shocked to discover that, when I have a quick gaze across the internet on the subject, I’ve waded into yet another geek culture minefield. There have been two previous pieces here on Sequart on the subject, and while they disagree with each other, both seem to reflect the debate rather than a consideration of what a profound experience the film can be. There certainly seems to be something about the internet that thrives on nerds attacking other nerds over what defines their culture (folks: you define the culture, not a film). I frankly didn’t see very much about this film that was controversial or intended to give rise to the sort of vitriol that has been directed against it. But I’ll admit from the start a simple fact that reveals my bias: I loved it.
Tomorrowland is first and foremost a Disney film, in the tradition of their legendary run of live-action films from the 1970s and the 1980s, some of which are cult classics (The Black Hole, Flight of the Navigator, Escape to Witch Mountain) and some of which are best forgotten. But it’s important to remember the context, and the genre, in any discussion of Tomorrowland because that seems like the best way to understand its ethics and its style. The film is deeply meta-textual, referencing everything from Westworld to Aliens, not in a lazy cuisinart-scripted way like Star Trek Into Darkness, but out of a sense of joy, wonder and fun. The sort of person who isn’t into joy, wonder and fun probably won’t care for it. Which, ironically, is sort what the film is about.
I saw this film knowing essentially nothing about it, based on what Kevin Smith and Marc Bernardin said on Smith’s podcast Fat Man on Batman. Both gentlemen adored the film, particularly Smith, who effused that “Someday this is going to be a lot of people’s favourite movie,” and Bernardin agreeing, suggesting that, “If this had been released 25 years ago, it would have been The Princess Bride.” That was enough of a recommendation for me.
The film isn’t perfect, of course, most particularly in the jarring transitions between sequences in terms of tone. One minute, it’s hipster irony, the next it’s childhood wonder, the next it’s a dark action sequence, but as the film goes on, that becomes more of a successful storytelling device than a flaw. Tomorrowland, at its core, is about the tensions between what we say we want science fiction to be, and what we really want it to be. The bumpy tonal shifts in the first half perfectly reflect that basic conflict, giving us just about every kind of science fiction we could want, and then settling into a big, goofy Disney third act that more than pays off what came before.
For one thing, the film delivers on the promise of breathtaking visual sequences, and not many films in this modern CG age can really astound a 2015 audience in quite this way. The last time I was this impressed with special effects was 2013’s Pacific Rim, a very different sort of sci-fi film but enjoyable for many of the same reasons. I have a difficult time understanding how someone who grew up watching Star Wars and following the space program, and reading all those classic sci fi books from Verne and Wells could fail to be impressed, in particular, by the sequence set in Paris involving the Eiffel Tower. It literally took my breath away, and I found myself with a foolish grin, not really wondering about logic or FX work or staging or what comes next in the story, but purely wrapped up in a warm blanket of future nostalgia. That oxymoron perfectly sums up the film, in some ways: “When I was a kid, the future was different,” George Clooney’s character says at the top of the film, and the next two hours are spent showing us why.
Given how the film was marketed, one could be excused for thinking that Clooney is the protagonist of the story, and his character is certainly a central one, with Hugh Laurie more than capably filling the boots of the British Bad Guy. But the film really belongs to two young women: Britt Robertson (who plays Casey Newton, the scruffy teenage girl hero) and Raffey Cassidy (in an astonishing turn as Athena, who is described simply as “the future”). It’s a Disney movie, so it will be ultimately about kids going on some sort of elaborate adventure where they are smarter than the grown-ups and teach them the wisdom they forgot along the way. Casey is a smart troublemaker, always wandering too far from her down-on-his-luck father. She is wrapped up in an adventure beyond her imagination and plays out all the familiar Disney sci-fi beats, including the long car chase sequence, opportunities to fight bad guys and serve as the key to the future. Athena, on the other hand, is a mysterious character from the very start who journeys from odd traveller to essentially playing a very effective romantic lead opposite Clooney: and given that she was 13 years old when this movie was made, that’s an astonishing feat. As with most great actors, with Cassidy it’s all in the eyes. Without revealing too much plot, one look in those eyes was enough to convince me that this was an ancient soul in a young body, and I wasn’t surprised (but I was still delighted) to be proven correct.
Some films are predictable from the start – perhaps most films. In the case of Tomorrowland, nothing is predictable, especially from the start, due to the strange and complex structure of the story. Cloud Atlas (another unpopular film I liked) has nothing on the various twists and turns presented here, and kudos to Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird for never steering me wrong or confusing the situation with needless contrivance. All the contrivances here are perfectly justified. The term “roller coaster ride” for a film is sadly overused, and has become equated with non-stop mind-numbing action spectacle. But here, the twists and sequences, at least to my mind, were simply enjoyable and fully justified by the story the filmmakers were telling. Yes, there are big action sequences, but they were tense, with Bird building in a real sense of jeopardy.
Brad Bird, as we know, comes originally from Pixar, and made one of the greatest films in their stable, The Incredibles, before moving into live-action with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a film similarly blessed with action sequences that rose above cliche. Bird is clearly a filmmaker with both a heart and a sense of film history. The homage to the Alien Queen vs Power-loader fight in Aliens, for example, is almost tossed off quite early in the film, but that was more than enough for me to realize that this was a film made not only by someone with the same knowledge of film history as me, but someone who treated me, the viewer, as an equal. It isn’t, “Hey look – you liked this when it was in another movie, so like it now!”, but more a sense of, “We both know what this is, and isn’t it cool?” It’s more than a bit like the feeling I get watching the new Star Wars The Force Awakens trailers. A later nod to the finale of The Black Hole also warmed my heart, as someone who always loved that much-maligned Star Wars cash-in from 1979.
Now that we’ve defined what the film actually is, we can briefly address this odd controversy surrounding it. From my reading, the main premise (and plot twist) of the film is this: people seem to gobble up dark, depressing, dystopian futures so much that it leaves them feeling helpless and defeated by thoughts of the future. What if that wasn’t an accident? What if someone actually wanted to hasten the apocalypse by pumping us full of so many zombie shows and dark futures that we forget a time when we dreamed of something better? I’ve always been on the anti-dystopian side of things in popular culture, so picking sides here is easy for me. Tomorrowland vs Zack Snyder-land? No contest at all. I frankly have found it disturbing for years that our popular culture is so obsessed with how technology will go wrong and how our civilization is destroying the earth and how we’re all screwed. (I have a slightly different explanation for that sentiment: anti-westernism and post-colonial guilt, but the end result is the same.) People genuinely seem nostalgic for eras in which infant mortality was high, there were no antibiotics and days were filled with back-breaking physical labour, and I frankly don’t get it. In addition to that primitivism, all-too-rampant on the progressive left, there’s the future dystopianism, perfectly crystallized in the zombie movie craze. It’s all fine and good to like those sorts of stories, but a little less enthusiasm, please, for the fall of western civilization. (Notice how audiences don’t really root for the fall of any other civilization; just the west.) That was my single biggest problem with Snowpiercer, for example, a film flawed by the most bleak and desolate ending I have seen in recent history, but somehow played as triumphant. (“All of humanity is doomed, but hey – the polar bears are okay!”) Tomorrowland is literally the antidote to that anti-western cynicism.
Perhaps one of the reasons Tomorrowland has been so viciously attacked is because it dares to call our geek culture out on that cynicism. It’s as optimistic as The Walking Dead is cynical, but we don’t like being reminded of that. As Hugh Laurie’s character says in his “big speech” at the end, apocalyptic scenarios are comforting because they ask nothing of you now. To build a better future requires getting up off the couch and doing it. Yes, I think critics are right to point out some of the dangerous implications of the film’s message, one of which is that the public at large is generally dumb, lazy and self-interested and needs to be led by true dreamers. But in defense of that hypothesis, when one looks long and hard at the facts (just take American politics right now, for one example), it’s difficult to disprove. We’d like to think that the public, at large (not people in particular, as all the on-line trolls start lighting up their flame-throwers) is wise and good-hearted, I see little evidence in support of that, and much to the contrary. That’s the right kind of cynicism: the kind based on data. Climate change, for example, is the single most important issue facing the world today, and in the recent Canadian federal election, and in the upcoming US election, it’s barely discussed, let alone acted upon, because of the need to tell the public what they want to hear, rather than reality.
Scientific innovation is about inspiring wonder, and yet most “scientific innovation” today is code for “designing better consumer technology and making more profits for tech corporations”. It wasn’t always so. The first scene of Tomorrowland, in which a young boy shows off the jet pack he built himself, recalls an older, better time. “If saw a guy flying a jetpack, I’d believe anything was possible.” A generation ago, we saw a man walk on the moon and believed the same thing. Now, the public is so cynical, so out of love with themselves, that many don’t even believe the moon landings ever took place. That alone sums up why we need films like Tomorrowland.
I’ve deliberately tried to not spoil the plot of this magical film in the hopes that someone else out there who, like me, knew nothing of the film picks it up tonight and watches it with the same goofy smile plastered over my face last night. And to borrow Stephen King’s line, maybe that’s the best thing to come out of my experience with Tomorrowland: I hope.