I have always been fascinated with Disney’s theme park attraction called Tomorrowland. I’ve never actually been to a Disney theme park, but I got my first glimpse of the beautiful, futuristic world in old filmstrip reels in elementary school. I don’t even remember why we were being shown these ancient filmstrips (it was, after all, the 80s and these were made in the 50s,) but none of that mattered, really. I was dazzled by this world of the future where everything was bright, better, and hopeful. Nothing quite defined the joy and brilliance of optimism for me than those reels and it settled in deep with young me.
Hope, optimism, and the need to strive for something good in the world is, ultimately, what Disney’s film Tomorrowland is all about. It borrows both its name and shine from the original park attraction and even in the visuals of the film, especially the world beyond ours that two of the main characters, Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) are privy to. This world is literally the embodiment of that old part: The best of human beings, artists, engineers, inventors, dreamers, the hopeful have gone to make a perfect and glittering world that isn’t part of our darker, clumsier, sadness obsessed one.
It’s that separation of the good from the dark that gives us the action of the film. Back in 1965, a young Frank goes to the New York World’s Fair with his invention of a jet-pack that he made out of an old vacuum cleaner. It doesn’t really work, but in the inventor’s pavilion, young Frank explains the use of his device is simply for fun because fun is its own thing and important. If people can have fun, they will let go and be inspired and that inspiration will propel good things. Something else happens at this World’s Fair: Frank meets a mysterious girl named Athena who gives him a pin that will take him to a place called Tomorrowland, that secret world, made by the greatest of us all to be a Utopia of awesome.
In the present we meet a girl named Casey who has similar pluck to young Frank. She is so plucky that she actually performs acts of sabotage at a NASA launch platform because she’s upset that we just aren’t exploring space anymore. This pluck attracts the mysterious Athena who wants to recruit her for a group called Plus Ultra, which happens to be that collective of minds behind Tomorrowland. This brings them to Frank, now an old man living in a secret house of weird and wonderful inventions. Casey has a pin, the key to Tomorrowland, but the world that was supposed to be the best of us has turned from being hopeful to something else: The semi-sinister Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie) has locked the world out because he is pretty sure the world is going to self-destruct and Tomorrowland is humanity’s last hope to preserve the best and brightest. However, Casey and Frank have other ideas: They want to restore the optimism of Tomorrowland to the world and save humanity from itself.
The movie is visually beautiful. It is every bit the way I imagined a “world of tomorrow.” Some of the effects are absolutely breathtaking. Yet, while I love the idea of a beautiful world and a film that is all about hope and creativity and the sheer plucky power of optimism, this movie is, narratively speaking, a disaster. There is so much that just doesn’t flow well or add up or work. Twisty mysteries are the film’s co-writer Damon Lindelof’s thing, but the story here is a bigger black hole of confusion than his television show Lost ever set out to be. Stack that against the literal argument in the film that dystopian fiction is destroying the world by poisoning hope and I found it really hard to move past. For a film whose beat-you-over-the-head message is creativity, the most important force of our progress it seems, is to really say that only the right creativity (good, happy, shiny, bright) counts for anything. Huh.
Tomorrowland is a film with big aims and big visuals and while it excels at those visuals, it fails to tell a cohesive story. The acting is passable, though Clooney and Laurie are really working with such minimal content that it’s not hard to see those roles as ones any actor could have filled. Robertson, however, does an excellent job but even her earnestness and ambition isn’t enough to keep the clunky story going. In the end the only thing that saves Tomorrowland is the incredible visuals of that futuristic city. The narrative will bore you to death, but if those images don’t stir you to want to create a better world then not much will.
Bottom line: Go see Tomorrowland on the big screen to get the full wonder of those incredible images, but catch a cheaper, daytime showing if you can. It’s just not worth full price admission.