“There’s a great big, beautiful tomorrow / Shining at the end of every day. / Oh, there’s a great, big beautiful tomorrow, / And tomorrow’s just a dream away.” These lyrics, taken from the song of Disney’s long-running Carousel of Progress theme park attraction, had to have been repeating like a loop in the mind of Brad Bird as he made Tomorrowland, a family-friendly science fiction film intended to instill within us the notion that the future is what we make it. Unfortunately, his optimistic message cannot be heard above the roar of an unmotivated, silly, enigmatic, and at times needlessly confusing screenplay. Here’s a film that knows what it wants to say, but lacks the necessary components to say it in a believable, satisfying way.
It’s a shame, too, because it gets off to a very promising start, during which the gee-whiz innocence of a 1930s serial space opera is cleverly mixed with the intrigue and imagery of a rip-roaring action adventure extravaganza. That’s also the most nostalgic section of the film; Disneyland fanatics – like myself, I have to admit – will feel a surge of excitement as they watch the sequence set at New York City’s 1964 World’s Fair, for they know that Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers set up several pavilions there, including the original incarnation of the now famous “It’s a Small World” boat ride. And in the titular land, obviously named after the themed area within all the world’s Disney parks, there’s no mistaking the sight of a building modeled after the Space Mountain attraction.
But as soon as all this passes, we find ourselves adrift in a story that lacks direction, focus, and to the limited degree it can apply to a visually stunning sci-fi fantasy, plausibility. It centers, as the title suggests, on Tomorrowland, a futuristic metropolis surrounded by wheat fields and hidden in another dimension. Assuming I paid close enough attention, it can only be accessed by (a) a portal created within Tomorrowland itself, (b) a steampunk rocket ship hidden beneath the Eiffel Tower for over a century, (c) a specialized capsule that, when activated, temporarily depletes blood sugar, and (d) a specialized pin emblazoned with a capital letter T. The details are a bit sketchy, but I think the city of Tomorrowland was intended to be a mecca for the best and brightest scientific thinkers – dreamers whose visions truly world make the world a better place.
Such a person was Frank Walker, who as a boy (Thomas Robinson) in 1964 traveled by bus to the New York World’s Fair to show off a jet pack he built entirely on his own. He was then transported to Tomorrowland with the help of a British-voiced robot girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), and he lived there until adulthood, when he was banished from the city. The reasons for this are left a little murky. All we know is that, as a middle-aged man (George Clooney), Frank lives in seclusion in a dilapidated New York State farmhouse, which has been fortified with satellite dishes, TV monitors, and all manner of imaginary futuristic contraptions, including a holographic dog that scares trespassers away.
In the present, we find another dreamer – a teenage electronics whiz from Cape Canaveral named Casey (Britt Robertson), introduced as she sabotages the dismantling of a rocket engine with the help of a drone. She does this repeatedly to keep her father, a NASA engineer (Tim McGraw), employed. Setting aside the likelihood of carrying out these actions with exquisite ease, let’s consider the scenes after she’s arrested, released on bail, and secretly slipped one of the Tomorrowland pins by none other than Athena, which provides visions of the city and its surrounding wheat fields when touched; without much regard for logistics such as money, distance, time, and parental involvement, Bird and co-screenwriter Damon Lindelof has Casey travel all the way to Texas, meet with Athena in a sci-fi-themed novelty store, and begin battling with unexplained and unneeded robotic assassins set from Tomorrowland. They then have the two girls steal a car, drive all the way up to New York, and enter the life of Frank, now embittered and pessimistic.
All boils down to a thinly developed voyage to Tomorrowland, where the intention, I think, is for Casey and Frank to disable a very elaborate time-scanning device that has been giving all of us in our dimension visions of a bleak future. If we’re to take the word of one of Tomorrowland’s curiously ageless overlords (Hugh Laurie, whose character cryptically attributes his agelessness to “chocolate-flavored shakes”, we here were supposed to have used those visions as a driving force for creating a bright future; instead, we embraced them, became complacent, and sealed our fates. Or have we? Is it possible, as Casey believes, to reprogram our thoughts about the future? One of the biggest issues of Tomorrowland is that it offers a lofty ideal without any real or easily understood strategy for reaching it. Much like the themed area its titled after, it’s wonderful to look at and fun to visit, but it doesn’t go to great lengths to edify or inspire us.