Review: Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland. Movie 2015.

In 2007 Disney released ‘Meet the Robinsons’, an attempt by Disney to do Pixar style animation that got overtaken by events when Disney acquirred Pixar prior to it being finished. In the end Pixar’s John Lasseter mad substantial changes to the film prior to release and thus created a movie that is OK but has a weird tone as if it came from neither DIsney nor Pixar.

The supposed ‘Disney’ element of the film was its optimistic view of technological progress. A boy finds himself whisked away to a fun futuristic world in which technology and creativity are celebrated and hence society is bright and happy and full of cool gadgets. Because of shenanigans this world is then threatened by the potential of its obverse: a machine driven industrial dystopia. Everything works out fine in the end – naturally :).

The Disney connection thematically was not so much Disney’s animated films but more the 1950s technological optimism of the Walt DIsney himself and, of course, the theme parks. Meet the Robinsons is an OK film with some good bits but as a stirring story about the power of human invention it falls flat.

Tomorrowland feels like a second attempt by Disney to capture the essence of 1950s technological optimism – the gee-whiz of jet-packs and monorails and futuristic buildings. The worst thing I can say about it is that Meet the Robinsons is a better film.

Tying into the Tomorrowland attractions at Disney’s theme parks. Director and co-writer Brad Bird often makes effective use of themes about individuals who excel who have to struggle against mediocrity and does this in a way that doesn’t feel like Ayn-Rand-lite or Nietzche for the multiplex. In Tomorrowland the message just ends up confused and flat.

The premise of the film is this – at some point in the past (an Eiffel Tower sequence suggests the late 19th century) groups of inventors and clever people found their way to an alternate parallel Earth. There they built a futuristic world that advanced technologically far quicker than our world. From time to time the people of this ‘Tomorrowland’ would head back to regular Earth and recruit extra clever people.

As a young teenager Frank Walker (George Clooney in later adult form) finds a way to Tomorrowland at the World’s Fair and yet it all goes wrong for him when he builds a device that can see into the future. In the present Walker (Clooney) is stuck on our world awaiting the eventual destruction of everything that his future-predicting device has shown. To cut a long story short it is actually Clooney’s future predicting device that is inadvertently broadcasting doom and gloom back to our world and somehow making it inevitable. Fights with robots and ray guns follow. Hugh Laurie is a sort of baddy and it all gets sorted out at the end.

The overall message is that we should just invent stuff. The premise, though, is awful. The Tomorrowland idea is never critically examined (e.g. it is a massive brain drain on our world and hence would cause our technological advancement to slow) and just pretends that social problems don’t exist. Of course this is an apt metaphor for the 1950s futurist optimism that simply ignored the deep inequalities and injustices of the society at the time. Tomorrowland as a broad picture is shown as multi-racial and yet the film manages only two non-white characters: a woman of Indian descent who is an astronaut in a promotional hologram, and an evil robot (Keegan-Michael Key) who runs a SF memorabilia store as part of a front for Tomorrowland’s agents in the modern day. The evil robot is called ‘Hugo Gernsback’ and the whole section feels oddly anti-SF, as if the whole shop sequence is meant to be a way of saying SF is a distraction to the imagination.

The shame here is a deeper film could have been a more fun film. Brad Bird probably sounded like a good fit to the film’s themes but Bird’s views work better as a critique of our world in which ‘tall poppy syndrome’ can stifle inventive people. It fails here because Bird has nothing interesting to say about the Tomorrowland vision – because that notion of ‘fixing things’ heads off into a place that Disney and probably Bird probably wouldn’t like when it comes to complex social problems or ingrained inequities.

Positive points – a decent robot character. OK performances by the actors. Some nice visuals.