Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Tomorrowland (2015)

(Watch out for spoilers!)

When I was just a student in kindergarten -- way back in 1975 and 1976 -- I read (or perhaps saw) an interview with Jimmy Carter, who was running for President at the time.

In this interview, he discussed the (distant) year 2000, and the possibility that no cars would be needed; that in the future we’d all be riding in monorails from destination to destination. 

The exact details are difficult to conjure today, but I’ve always remembered connecting (at least in my mind) Carter and futuristic mass transit. I imagined a future of glittering cities, zooming monorails, and spires that stretched to the heavens themselves.

At roughly the same time, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) also envisioned an amazing future with reusable spaceships called Eagles, and a fully-functional, self-sufficient moon base, named Alpha.

My younger self was certain, absolutely certain, that the near future was -- to coin a phrase -- going to be fantastic.

Looking back, perhaps it has been fantastic, in a way, with the development of the Internet, iPhones, and so on. 

But the “real future” simply hasn’t been the Space Age Wonder that I imagined as a kid, either. Not even close.

The span encompassing the mid-1970s-through-today hasn’t been some glorious ascent into that Tomorrow, but rather a period embodied by series of crises, storms, sputters, and hiccups. 

Three Mile Island.

The Challenger Disaster.

The Gulf War.

The Impeachment of a President.

September 11th.  

The Second Iraq War

Hurricane Katrina.

The Great Recession.

On and on it goes: a depressing litany of disasters and set-backs.

Meanwhile, our politicians endlessly pander to the lowest common denominator and score “gotcha” points wherever they can rather than taking steps to actually invest in a better tomorrow. The politicians investigate each other, and they launch ad hominem attacks on their opponents…and the result?

That future of monorails and moon bases looks further distant now -- in 2015 -- than it did when I was six years old. So I bequeath to my nine year old son, Joel, a future that looks more hopeless, more dangerous, than the one I grew up in.

Heckuva job, humanity.  Heckuva job.

To my delight, the Brad Bird science fiction movie Tomorrowland (2015) is all about the malaise or dissatisfaction that many of my generation feel with the “future” that we’ve endured since we were kids.  

In fact, Tomorrowland speaks trenchantly to two generations about this idea of the future, and what it can still be, if only we help it to bloom.

The first is the generation that is young now.

The film reminds young kids of today (like my son), to keep dreaming good, bold dreams, because before that future can become real, someone must first envision it.

In ways captivating and energetic, Tomorrowland is about recruiting the architects of tomorrow in the realms of both science and art, and allowing them a space to let their dreams take flight.

And the second focus of the picture is my generation, which -- let’s face it -- is largely disillusioned by modern mankind’s lack of progress since we set foot on the moon for the first time, in 1969.  

George Clooney plays a character in the film named Frank Walker who was a kid in the sixties (a decade or so before I came up…), and imagined a Space Age Tomorrow.

But he saw those idealistic dreams wiped away by a dark reality, replaced by the promise of impending doomsday. He has lost faith in the possibilities of tomorrow.

In Tomorrowland, the character representing my generation, Frank, must finally get over his disappointments and failures so that he can perform one crucial act: gift a better future to the first generation I described above, my son’s. 

But Frank is cynical, caustic, and guarded -- at least at first -- unwilling to believe in the dream again, until the right dreamer awakens those old, buried feelings of hope within his psyche.

This person, Casey Newton (Britt Richardson) also reminds him that he’s done what -- as a child -- he would have considered unforgivable: he’s given up.

In calling-out the hopeless feelings of my generation -- while simultaneously tasking it to care-take the next generation -- Tomorrowland weaves an optimistic tale about what, even now, can still be our reality: a better future than the one we see routinely promised in the dystopian fiction and visual entertainments of the 2010s. 

Tomorrowland reminds us that we don’t have to resign ourselves to a future like the one in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), or to an endless series of “Hunger Games.” 

Instead, Tomorrowland is that rare bird: an inspiring science fiction film that is joyous, so alive with the possibilities of the future that it refills the half-empty well of your hopes and dreams, and reminds audiences that the world is still worth saving. If not for your own personal future, then at least for those who come after you. 

By my reckoning, we need a film like Tomorrowland at least once in a while to remind people that fixing the world’s problems is just one dream -- or one invention -- away. 

In the film’s lingo, we just need to feed the right wolf; not the one representing despair and destruction, but the one representing hope and light.

On a much more grounded scale, Tomorrowland is also fascinating as a kind of summation or Master’s thesis on Walt Disney science fiction movie history, featuring clever nods to The Black Hole (1979) and The Rocketeer (1991), among other films. So this is movie that not only imagines what the future could be, but remembers, faithfully, our past dreams of the future too.

Those old movies provide us a kind of continuity, in a way. They remind us that we, as a species, must always dream about the next tomorrow (land). Those older dreams may fade, or be exposed as silly, but the act of dreaming about a better tomorrow must remain a constant.

“The world is ending. It is certain. It is unavoidable.”

After being arrested for trying to prevent the demolition of Cape Canaveral, American teenager Casey Newton (Britt Richardson) is gifted with a mysterious pin, one apparently given out only at the World’s Fair in 1964. The pin is emblazoned with the letter “T” for the attraction, Tomorrowland.

Casey learns that when she touches the pin, she travels, at least momentarily, to an alternate world where the problems of population, technology, starvation, obesity, and even star travel have been resolved.  Trains fly around Tomorrowland, as do commuters…on rocket packs.

Casey investigates the history of the Tomorrowland pin at a nostalgia store called “Blast from the Past,” and is attacked by two robots in human form there.  She is unexpectedly rescued by Tomorrowland’s recruiter, Athena (Rafey Cassidy), a robot in the form of a little girl.

Athena takes Casey to meet disillusioned Frank Walker (Clooney), a man who has given up on the positive vision of Tomorrowland because of prediction that the world will be destroyed in 58 days. 

After meeting Casey, Frank believes that she may be the one to “fix” the world, and sets about getting her to Tomorrowland in a new way, since her pin is no longer operative.

That new way to Tomorrowland, however, involves a rocket embedded in the Eiffel Tower, one dreamed up by Eiffel, Tesla, Edison and Jules Verne…

“It’s hard to have ideas. It’s easy to give up.”

There’s an intriguing scene, early in Tomorrowland, wherein Casey and Athena visit a sci-fi collectible/comic-book store called Blast from the Past. 

There, we see toy robots from yesteryear such as Tomy’s Omnibot, toy spaceships such as The U.S.S. Enterprise and Kenner’s Millennium Falcon, as well as posters for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and even a Planet of the Apes board game. 

The sound-track for The Black Hole (1979) -- with artwork featuring the robots V.I.N.Cent and Maximillian -- is also visible in several shots, placed prominently on a counter. 

The Black Hole, as readers may remember, was Walt Disney’s first PG science fiction film, and Tomorrowland mirrors it with two intriguing allusions. The first involves a giant robot which, like Maximillian in The Black Hole, possesses propellers for hands. 

In the second case, Tomorrowland’s key nemesis, Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie), suffers the same accident as the earlier film’s villain: Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell). Specifically, a wall-sized control panel of sorts falls on him, pinning him down.  Two different eras; two villains aided by propeller-wielding robots and almost killed by the technology that they covet. That must be more than coincidence.

Another scene, set in the miraculous Tomorrowland, features a character flying about on a kind of fly-by-night rocket or jet pack, and the soaring imagery will remind any genre fan of Disney’s ill-fated (but delightful) entry in the superhero cinema sweepstakes of yesteryear: The Rocketeer (1991).

Why bring up, or reference, two films that are not regarded as hits (and yet are beloved)?  

Perhaps to remind us, at least a little that not all visions of the future -- visions of sentient robots or high-flying superheroes -- succeed, prove popular, or can even be considered prophetic.

Nonetheless, we don’t stop dreaming about those futures, or the possibilities suggested by such films.  Indeed, Tomorrowland -- a commercial failure -- likely finds itself in the same boat as those aforementioned Disney films. It is a film, like those, that seems out of step with other visions of “tomorrow,” but which, like The Black Hole and The Rocketeer will come to be appreciated, in years to come, as a film that is beloved by science fiction fans and may even inspire the next generation of inventors and engineers.

In terms of real, not imagined history, Tomorrowland also gives the end of hope -- embodied in the villain, -- a name: Nix. 

I submit that this name, Nix not only means to veto or forbid, describing the governor’s function in the film, and his refusal to save the Earth for the future. 

The name is also an abbreviation, of sorts, for a former American leader: Nixon.  No discredit or antagonism is intended towards the man, or the President, but I would suggest that it was during his presidency that the tide of public opinion turned away from the Space Age. We landed on the moon in 1969, only months after he took office. But from there, the downhill slide began. We were locked in Vietnam. We had oil shocks due to OPEC rationing. And Watergate made so many of our fellow citizens lose faith in government as a force for good in the world.

Nix in Tomorrowland is a leader who similarly takes the dimension of creativity and wonder from its zenith or apex -- in 1964 -- to its abandonment and ruin in 2015. He’s a figure who shepherds over the collapse of idealism and dreams.

I have read that some people wish Tomorrowland featured more time in that dimension of creativity (a dimension that is away from politics, greed, and bureaucracy, where dreamers can dream without limits) Yet I would argue that the film’s judicious use of that space is just right.  Dreamers can’t access the future on a regular or consistent basis, in real life, either. They can do it in the imagination, and in dreams, and I feel we would lose some of Tomorrowland’s wonder if the whole film took place there.  As it is now, Tomorrowland is a destination, a place that is attainable, but not always or continuously accessible.  I submit Tomorrowland would lose its sense of wonder and majesty if the film was entirely set there, as some critics apparently demanded or desired.  Then the movie would be Fantasyland, not Tomorrowland.

I write frequently here about the social meaning of films, and even their political leanings.  I realize this angers and alienates some readers.  That is not my intent or desire, but I find it impossible to consider a film fully outside its social or political context. Films are created, after all, in a specific time and place, with specific influences. 

And so I do believe that Tomorrowland is about today, 2015, and the fact that our politics have grown so small, so unimportant, even though major challenges loom around every corner. 

And I do believe that a future like Tomorrowland -- like the one I dreamed of, with so many countless others, in my childhood -- is within reach, but that it will cost a lot of money. We have to do controversial, expensive things right now, like invest money in NASA, in education, in research projects, even in local or community libraries. 

But many modern politicians want to do exactly the opposite, cutting back everything -- including school art programs -- until our society is entirely hollowed out, gutted. But we can’t get to Tomorrowland on the cheap, with gutted infrastructure.  If that’s the future we want, we have to start paying for it, and soon.

And that too is one of Tomorrowland’s messages.

The film notes that a future of doomsday, dystopia and apocalypse requires nothing of us today.  We don’t have to change our behaviors, our predilections, or put up money for it to happen.  So, in a sense, that’s the easy path: dystopia. 

To build Tomorrowland, we must change our behaviors now; we have to invest in a better tomorrow starting, approximately, this minute. 

I also believe this sentiment to be true.  It is easy to complain about how bad things are right now -- how our politicians suck eggs -- but such disillusionment, ultimately, gets us nowhere. We can’t change the present, but we can make the future better if we choose to invest in its creation.  Too many of us live in a world where we think we can’t change anything for the better.  But what if Casey is right, and even “the tiniest of actions can change the future” for the better?  I believe this message is directed right at me and my generation, right where I live in breathe.  It’s a reminder to me every time I lament that the world isn’t where I want it to be.  Well, why don’t I act?

Tomorrowland will make you consider all of these ideas and leave you breathless, entertained and engaged at the same time.  The film shows us a golden age of endless wheat fields and monorails and spires, and reminds us that such a world need not be a fantasy (or even an alternate dimension). Instead it’s the logical result of action taken right now, right here, to improve our lot on this Earth, and in the universe at large.

It’s a crying shame that Tomorrowland failed to connect with audiences at the box office, but the ideas it puts forward possess great currency, and can have great impact, even if that impact is created one viewer – one dreamer – at a time.

The future begins with you.


  1. Awesome review John. as always!.

    I too really enjoyed "Tommorrowland", especially for its optimistic, hopeful message and just overall cheerful attitude. Yes! It really brought to mind "The Rocketeer" for me too.

    Sadly, audiences just are too cynical to be bothered with a sincerely made (and beautifully crafted) feel good optimistic movie like this.

    Even more sad is the fact that today we live in a world that is in many ways even more dystopian than the dystopias we grew up with such as "Robocop". Think about it. We are living on an increasingly overcrowded, polluted, meteorologically unstable planet filled will polarizing ideologies; a planet that will be all but uninhabitable in the near future given the current trajectory. And not only have we not got to Mars yet, that Moonbase in Space 1999 now seems like a preposterous fantasy instead of an intelligent extrapolation of then current technology.

    When running water was discovered on Mars, what should have been elation was actually depressing. We are never going to get to Mars. Hell, we can't even get our crumbling roads and airports and collapsing bridges repaired,

    Ugggg. I think I'll go watch "Tommorrowland" again.

  2. Excellent review. I missed this film in the theaters, but it sounds like one I'll need to seek out for home viewing. Bird is really an excellent director and has a great visual sense to his films. I did pick up the excellent score by Michael Giacchino. HIs themes are uplifting and fun. He actually picks up on the vibe James Horner created for "The Rocketeer" and just goes from there. One of my favorite film scores of this year.

  3. We see eye to eye on this film, it moved me, even brought me to tears at one point because it comes from a very real desire, that idea that deep down inside we all know this world could be better for everyone if we only united in one great purpose, the idea that this could some day come true makes me wish so much effort wasn't put in making people think the other way around...turning the masses into hopeless thinkers, seeing themselves in a world beyond help, which is simply not true. There's enough of us out there with imaginations and hearts big enough to change the world, we have to simply converge and unite with one common goal. I, and obviously the makers of Tomorrowland want that idea to be more than just wishful thinking. It feels good to see big movies supporting these ideas. Great review for a great movie.

  4. John, having just seen this film (in Dec 2016) it provided a welcome, almost forgotten shot of wonder and light in the gloom following last month's General Elections. I love this film, and I want to see Tomorrowland...for real!