There’s a moment in “Tomorrowland” where grown-up cynic Frank Walker (George Clooney) pops the optimistic bubble of his spunky sidekick Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) by explaining that the virtual reality simulation of a utopian techno-future she witnessed is actually just a commercial — it’s a sanitized version of the much grittier real thing. It’s a meta statement that could just as easily apply to the movie itself.
At heart, director Brad Bird wants you to know that somewhere along the way Americans stopped dreaming. The central conceit of the film was inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “We Stopped Dreaming.” Tyson’s argument is that the defunding of NASA is the destruction of our dreams, paralleled in the film by Casey’s battle to keep her Cape Canaveral from being taken apart by sabotaging the cranes.
The film educates us on how Disneyland and Disney World’s are descendants of World’s Fairs — both “It’s a Small World” and the “Carousel of Progress” debuted at the 1960s World’s Fair first, with Epcot being perhaps the best realization of the Fairs’ dreams of international peace. In a flashback that kicks of the film with a bang, a younger more idealistic Frank (Thomas Robinson) lugs his homemade jetpack to an inventor competition at the “Carousel of Progress.” Frank is sharply rejected by David Nix (Hugh Laurie), but then a perky British pixie named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) gives Frank a pin that turns the “It’s a Small World” ride into a dimension hopping gate to Tomorrowland itself.
Daniel H. Wilson’s book, Where’s My Jetpack? perfectly sums up the disappointment so many of us have in the future we were promised but was never realized, and “Tomorrowland” dives right into the topic by having young Frank’s jetpack be the key to his future survival. But there’s a darker plot here that lurks in the background: who, exactly, promised us this future?
It was NASA and the press, bolstered by a public willing to believe. The Astronaut’s Wives Club by Lily Koppel (soon to be a TV show on ABC) demonstrates how the press lapped up everything NASA gave them and in turn covered up all the flaws that made astronauts human beings — including their wives. To justify the enormous cost of NASA’s space race against the Russians, the technology had to be literally brought down to Earth. So jet packs weren’t just for astronauts, they were for businessmen trying to get to work. Convenient food dispensers weren’t just for astronauts, the harried housewife could use it to make her dinner in no time flat. Your tax dollars at work!
Bird and co-writer Damon Lindedlof try to play the idealism straight, but their adult cynicism can’t resist turning the plot into something ripped from a Terminator movie in which androids tear each other’s heads off and vaporize police officers. If you’re bringing young children, be warned — “Tomorrowland” harbors kids’ ideas in a decidedly adult film.
SPOILERLAND: This dichotomy is best summed up in Frank and Athena’s relationship, .which is pure when they’re kids and borderline squicky when it’s an adult Frank trying desperately to not talk about the fact he’s in love with a preteen girl robot. “Tomorrowland” spirals from there into Illuminati-style cabals, the Eiffel Tower, dubious science (drinking a Coke restores blood sugar you guys!), and more bad guy murdering. This has to be the most muderer-iest Disney movie about idealism to date.
My kids weren’t phased by the violence; my son was more concerned about how much trouble Casey would get into with her soon-to-be-laid-off NASA engineer dad (Tim McGraw). Tomorrowland‘s argument amounts to a Tinkerbell-style “we just all need to believe” argument cloaked in science and wonder, which left me feeling a little flat. As GE’s “Invention Donkey” commercial explains when a millennial makes a wish to power the planet:
First, start planning this years ago. Build a massive network of think tanks, research and testing facilities. Hire brilliant people from all different arts and sciences. Pile on the PhDs. Turn garbage into power. Run cities on jet engine technology. And oh yeah, create data-crunching windmills from the future. And then…POOF! It’s done!
As the donkey says, it ain’t that simple folks.
”Tomorrowland” threatens the apocalypse if we don’ figure it out. And yet despite the reductive argument the last few minutes of the movie are the very best. Finally we get a glimpse of the future as it is: practical applications, not world-spanning; implemented by the will of the people, not the government selling us on it; happening now, not futuristic promises decades hence. It’s almost enough to make you believe there’s hope for the future…but not enough to make up for the torturous path “Tomorrowland” takes to get us there.