Lots of movies have a wonderful first half, followed by a blah second half. Setup is often easier than follow-through. But Tomorrowland, out today, might become the clearest example of this syndrome. And the reason Tomorrowland falls apart halfway through is because it sinks into Baby Boomer angst. Spoilers ahead...
Tomorrowland wears its Boomer wishful thinking on its sleeve. Pretty much the first proper scene, after a framing sequence, takes place at the 1964 World’s Fair. There, young Frank Walker (played by George Clooney as an adult), arrives in the midst of the retrofuturistic fins and swooshes, carrying a prototype jetpack he’s built. Frank doesn’t win the inventor contest he’s entering, but instead he gets a secret invite to a magical place: Tomorrowland.
And then, we wind up in the present day, where a young dreamer named Casey (Under the Dome’s Britt Robertson) is sneaking around and trying to prevent NASA from dismantling a launch facility through sabotage, because she’s upset that we no longer reach for the stars. And she, too, gets the pin that provides an invite to Tomorrowland.
Soon enough, Casey and the grown-up Frank are on the run from killer robots, who want to stop them from getting to Tomorrowland and setting right what’s gone wrong.
And without giving too much, the plot of Tomorrowland is pretty much all about the lost Space Age optimism and Jetsons sparkle that was the official vision of the future when the Boomers were young. The 1950s/1960s vision of cool rockets and flying robots and space colonies — and what happened to that vision in the intervening decades. Why, the film asks, did we give up on that kind of can-do, sleeve-up-rolling optimism? Why are we instead fixated on apocalypses and dystopias? What’s wrong with us?
I’m personally very sympathetic to this film’s message — I’ve written a lot about wishing that Space Age optimism (and actual space travel) would make a comeback, and about the ways that post-apocalyptic stories are a form of lazy wish-fulfillment. At the same time, this film is so unsubtle, it’s like being hit on the head with a ginormous mallet for an hour. And worse yet, the more preachy and pious the film becomes, the more muddled and unexciting it starts to feel. By the time you get to the rousing climax, all of the life has been drained out of the story.
It’s actually kind of funny that a movie whose over-arching message is about youthful optimism winds up feeling so much like you’re listening to a cranky rant about how things were so much better 50 years ago. This is somewhat counterbalanced by having the young Casey be the voice of optimism in the film, but it still feels very much as though the film itself is ranting long-windedly at you — and a lot of this, in the second half, comes via the character of Nix (Hugh Laurie).
Add to that the not-terribly-subtle Ayn Rand message in this film. It’s very common for people to ascribe an Objectivist message to Bird’s classic animated superhero film The Incredibles — but Tomorrowland is much more blatantly a John Galt fantasy, despite some muddled attempts to complicate the metaphor late in the game.
On the plus side, the cast is pretty much terrific. Clooney is at his most likable, Robertson is brilliant and nearly carries large chunks of the movie by herself, and Raffey Cassidy, as the mysterious Athena, is a lot of fun. Also, the visuals are unbelievable, as you’ve probably already seen from the trailers — this film is a design marvel, and Bird’s famous eye for huge widescreen imagery is on full display here. And as I mentioned before, the first half of the movie is pretty great, overall.
Bird already proved he could take a mediocre script and produce a fantastic movie, with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. But this time around, he’s telling his own story, with the help of Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen, and he’s not content to give us a formulaic action movie — but unfortunately, the second half of the film relies to an increasing extent on action-movie cliches, while also getting more high-concept and abstract in its fervency to get its message across.
I would have loved a film that grapples, honestly, with the question of why we’re less optimistic than we were in the Kennedy era. Or a film that attempts to recharge our optimism, by showing how we really can build that future we dreamed about in the two decades following World War II. Tomorrowland is neither of those things, though. Instead, it presents us with simplistic answers, and tries to shame its own audience for liking post-apocalyptic stories. (Did you like Mad Max: Fury Road? Then Tomorrowland wants you to sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.)
In a way, Tomorrowland feels like a companion to Interstellar: another film that yearns for the optimistic reach-for-the-stars vision as a counterpoint to the prospect of ecological collapse and apocalyptic malaise. This is obviously something that film-makers are grappling with, in the midst of a pop-cultural obsession with global worst-case scenarios, but we haven’t yet found a way to tell stories about this issue — at least, except in books, where authors like Kim Stanley Robinson have been doing it all along.
As it is, Tomorrowland starts out as a fun escapist fantasy, and serves up plenty of great eye-candy and fun set pieces, before it starts to collapse under its own weight. It’ll probably be a pretty good late-night Netflix movie, but the amazing visuals aren’t enough to make it worth seeing in theaters.
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