Disney’s new live-action adventure Tomorrowland is being called science-fiction, but that’s almost a misnomer. The movie skimps on the exposition and technobabble typical of the genre, sidestepping thorough explanations and instead building its fantastic alternate reality on dream-logic, and throwing the characters into a story that’s a bit nonsensical and messy without bothering to explain itself. The film carries a self-awareness of this very aspect, and writer/director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) seems to even relish in it. At one point, one of the main characters asks, “Do I have to explain everything? Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” I spent the first half of the movie answering “no” to that second question. I was too aware that I was in what is essentially a Disneyland attraction packaged into a movie with some nice George Clooney wrapping paper. But as the film proceeded and as the characters and the story delved deeper into the spectacle, it won me over. If you indulge in the sentiments that drive the film’s main message—optimism and dreaming, wonderment for wonderment’s sake—then Tomorrowland’s flaws can mostly be overlooked and enjoyed as a fun, if a bit empty, cinematic experience.
The story involves teenage Casey (Britt Robertson), a spirited wonderer living in a world of cynicism, who is exposed to the eponymous Tomorrowland, an alternate universe created by the world’s best scientists and biggest dreamers to innovate and invent everything they could think up in a place “free of politics and bureaucracy.” It’s no accident that she was afforded a glimpse into this dazzling, Jetsons-like city; she was chosen by the sassy, young English girl Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a Tomorrowland recruiter. The story doesn’t get around to telling us exactly what Casey is being recruited for until late into the film, but I don’t think it would be a flooring spoiler for me to say that it involves the world in peril, with the only solution laying within Tomorrowland. Casey, Athena, and the aging, downtrodden inventor Frank (George Clooney) adventure their way through some wondrous set pieces, being pursued by the creepily smiling, suit-clad robot agents (think the Disney-fied version of Mr. Smith from The Matrix) bent on stopping them.
Again, the key to enjoying Tomorrowland is to not focus too much on the plotting. The story moves from place to place much like a Disneyland ride, such as “It’s a Small World”: it lingers for a bit in one place and lets you take in your surroundings, and then uses an impressive action sequence to shuffle you along to a new place in order to do a different variation of the same trick (and in a rather shameless move on Disney’s part, the film actually takes you into “It’s a Small World”). Some of the action sequences involve some truly wonderful choreography and physical humor, especially a thrilling scene involving Casey and Frank fending off robot agents in Frank’s booby-trapped home.
Interspersed among these sequences are conversations about the dichotomy between two types of attitudes in society: optimism and nay-saying—a can-do, fix-it attitude and apathetic resignation. The film insists upon the specialness of dreamers and doers to such an extent that, at times, it feels preachy and old-fashioned. But the very fact that such an attitude seems so out of fashion is exactly the film’s point. It criticizes the way in which modern mainstream society views the world’s largest problems—wars, climate change, and overpopulation—with defeatism. It tells us that the solution lies within us, in our heads and our hearts, and all that it takes is a little attitude change and some inspiration.
The humanistic salvation-through-imagination message seems a bit hollow coming from such a machine-like, corporate monolith like Disney. In the same year that Disney is set to make roughly a zillion dollars between the new Avengers and Star Wars movies, they give us Tomorrowland, which largely amounts to corporate branding as film. So, while the film promotes commendable values and does so in an enjoyably earnest and charming way, the commercialism and capitalism at play here gives it all a sense of irony. Tomorrowland wants us to know that the key to a brighter future is wonder, and finding this wonder begins with buying a ticket to Disneyland.