"When I was younger, the future was... different." So says Frank Walker (George Clooney), one of the heroes of Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, in the opening narration that acts as a frame for the film's story. It probably says everything you need to know about this movie that Frank--and the film itself--seem entirely unaware of the irony and self-contradiction inherent in a statement like this, and in case you were still in any doubt, the movie immediately flashes back to the 1964 World's Fair, where an 11-year-old Frank (Thomas Robinson) has arrived to submit his entry in a young inventors' competition--a jetpack. When questioned about the utility of such a creation, Frank thinks for a moment, and then explains that if he were walking down the street and saw someone flying above him with a jetpack, he'd be inspired to believe that anything was possible: "Doesn't that make the world a better place?"
Bird is probably best known for directing Pixar's The Incredibles, still the best superhero film ever made despite--or perhaps even because--of its deeply uncomfortable political subtext. Tomorrowland shares The Incredibles's retro-futuristic aesthetic (which, to be honest, probably looks better in animation than in live action--there's a rather pronounced uncanny valley effect that speaks very loudly to the problems with how people in the 60s imagined the cities of the future), and its overt politics, but it does not manage the earlier film's flawless amalgam of message and story. The Incredibles is a troubling work because its story is so compelling and so well-constructed that it all but forces you to buy into its quasi-fascist worldview, without ever truly coming out and stating it. Tomorrowland is a clunkier piece of storytelling, at points so loaded with infodumps, and so fond of the genre trope in which the protagonist is launched (quite literally) into a new world, that I found myself thinking of it more like a two-hour pilot for a TV series than a feature film--the whole thing feels more like setup for a story than the story itself. It's also a lot more blatant about its message, which is delivered in canned speeches at several points throughout the movie. If, like myself, you find that message questionable (or at least founded on questionable assumptions) then the film's baldness can be taken as a point in its favor, since it makes it easier to argue with. But it's hard not to regret The Incredibles-level work that we might have had with a more canny writer (Tomorrowland's script is credited to Bird, Damon Lindelof, and Jeff Jensen) at the helm.
After a rather protracted opening segment in 1964, in which young Frank is given a pass to the titular Tomorrowland--a place of technological wonders and flawless urban planning--by a mysterious little girl called Athena (Raffey Cassidy), the action flashes forward to the present, where our heroine is the effervescent, scientifically-minded teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson). The daughter of a NASA engineer who still dreams of going into space, Casey spends her nights trying to sabotage the deconstruction of a local launch platform, and her days frustrated by the litany of hopelessness--political, environmental, and cultural--fed to her at school. "How can we fix it?" she demands of her flustered teachers. When she's given a glimpse of Tomorrowland, she becomes obsessed with reaching it, which puts her in the path of the grown-up Frank and of Athena, who turns out to be childlike robot (this means, among other things, that the main romantic plotline in the film is between Clooney and a ten-year-old girl; in fairness to Tomorrowland, the handling of this is less weird than it might have been--largely because Cassidy is great and consistently steals the show out from under her two co-stars--but still pretty weird).
To actually describe the progress of the plot from the moment our three heroes are brought together--which involves being pursued by homicidal androids and lots of bouncing from one point on the globe to another--is to draw attention to how inessential most of it is. The point seems to be mainly to provide excuses for kinetic action setpieces (which are well done but eventually a little repetitive--there are only so many times Frank can bundle Casey up into something that isn't supposed to function as a vehicle only to reveal that that's what it is), and for the cynical Frank to bounce off the optimistic Casey. At some point, the end of the world comes into play--the people of Tomorrowland built a machine that shows the future, which revealed that the Earth is doomed. When they tried to warn humanity, they instead discovered that the subliminal images of apocalypse they transmitted were being embraced, used as fodder for pop culture and an excuse to do nothing about the world's problems. In disgust, they shut themselves away from the world, but Frank insists that there is still hope--that people like Casey, with their boundless capacity for optimism, are capable of changing the future, and that it is in fact the narrative of hopelessness being fed to the world that is creating that hopeless outcome. If Tomorrowland provides the world with an image of hope and a better tomorrow, Frank and Casey insist, it will inspire people to create it.
There's a certain class of science fiction fan who will eat up Tomorrowland and its message with a spoon, and it should be said that there's a lot worth celebrating in the film. Simplistic as it is, the message that it's important to believe in the possibility of change is a worthwhile one, and the fact that it's placed in the mouth of a girl, and a technically-minded one at that, is refreshing and laudable. But if you're like me, you'll probably also find Tomorrowland unbearably hectoring, and it's worth examining why. To me, it all comes down to Frank's thoughtless assertion about how he had a better class of future back in 1964. You need to be pretty damn arrogant to expect that fifty years on, people should still desire the same future you dreamed of as a child, and pretty damn ignorant too--jetpacks are actually a really bad idea, and people in 1964 could not have imagined the microchip and telecommunications revolutions that have made such incredible changes in the world (allowing, for example, a woman in Israel to speak to people all over the planet at the speed of light).
Tomorrowland's argument is that the future that we in the present imagine is inherently worse than the one that golden age SF imagined. To my mind this is stretching the point quite a bit--I refuse to believe that no one was writing post-apocalypse in the 1960s, and as popular as the genre is today it doesn't hold a candle to the popularity of the inherently hopeful superhero genre. But even if we accept the film's premise, to argue that this shift comes down to nothing but a personal failure of the present generation is to ignore some very important political realities. Frank is a baby boomer, a member of a generation who enjoyed unprecedented government protection of their rights and safety, a social safety net, and huge public works projects, and who then turned around and pulled the ladder up after them; there's a reason why young people today, facing a future of debt, inequality, and environmental collapse, don't feel like imagining a rosy tomorrow. Setting the film's backstory in 1964 also puts it just on the cusp of immense social upheaval that would, quite reasonably, have changed the way that we imagine our future in ways that the movie for the most part doesn't acknowledge--though the final scene shows Frank and Casey recruiting people of many different ethnicities from all over the world, in the body of the movie the cast is entirely white (with the exception of an evil robot played--impeccably, of course--by Keegan-Michael Key). Most importantly, Tomorrowland seems to take it as a given that the imagined future of 1964--that secret world of jetpacks, monorails, and shining concrete-and-glass skyscrapers--is inherently good, and I don't think the film earns that assumption.
At their worst, dystopia and utopia have exactly the same problem. They are both stories about an elite. When Frank arrives in Tomorrowland, he's told that it's a place where the bright and energetic can build a better tomorrow without "politics and bureaucracy" getting in the way. This is, of course, exactly what you get when half a dozen bright people who can't imagine that there's anything they don't understand get together and decide that no one in the history of humanity has had the idea they're having right now (as usual, XKCD already has this dynamic pinned down). When you actually get out in the real world, however, with its seven billion inhabitants, politics and bureaucracy become, not impediments, but necessary tools for getting anything done. Often, the ideas that seemed so brilliant on paper turn out to be unworkable when you have to apply them to actual human beings, who aren't willing to let you overturn their lives for the sake of an experiment. There's a certain type of science fiction writer who seems to find this terribly depressing, and who instead of trying to write about human society in its full, dizzying complexity, decides that they can tell their readers something meaningful about the world by removing all but a tiny fraction of a percent of the people who live on it, whether by positing an apocalypse, or, as Tomorrowland does, by whisking its heroes off to a magic world where only the smart, special people get to go.
When you actually put that world on screen, however, it becomes clear just how unreal this vision is. The Tomorrowland that Frank and Casey see never looks like a real city. It's too designed, too homogenous, too clean. Real cities grow in patchwork. They develop in response to the needs of their inhabitants (if we're lucky, that is). It's completely unsurprising when Casey arrives at the real Tomorrowland and finds it abandoned, unmaintained, full of broken glass and crumbling concrete. This is what happened to the grandiose urban planning projects of the 60s, the ones that thought they could design new humans to live in them--all that's missing is the graffiti. So it's more than a little unbelievable that the movie ends with Frank and Casey restarting the Tomorrowland project, planning to bring people to that city of the future that now looks like a forgotten, overgrown past.
I found myself comparing Tomorrowland to another recent kids' film, Big Hero 6. Though technically a superhero movie, it shares many qualities and preoccupations with Tomorrowland. Like it, it's a story about the struggle between despair and hopefulness (albeit on a personal level, with the hero struggling to find a way to overcome his grief over the death of his brother, and the villain having succumbed to despair after losing his daughter), and also like Tomorrowland, it is a story about inventors, about young people who believe they can change the world through the force of their intelligence and ingenuity. But where Tomorrowland imagines that the only way to achieve this is to whisk its dreamers away from the mundane, troublesome world that is holding back their brilliance, Big Hero 6 is determined to stay connected to it. Its imaginary setting of San Fransokyo is everything that Tomorrowland wants to be but isn't--a vibrant, multicultural, livable city where people of all classes and backgrounds meet. Its inventor characters aren't cut off from the world, but working in the middle of it and responding to it, creating things that people around them might find helpful and useful.
Of course, San Fransokyo is a fantasy (and a particularly saddening one, given that in our world San Francisco is increasingly becoming a city for the rich) but it's important to note what kind of fantasy it is. Big Hero 6's protagonist, Hiro, can become a hero because he has the infrastructure around him that allows him to--a city where he can live and move around and experience many different walks of life, a university where he can be challenged and given tools to develop his skills, a legal system that doesn't criminalize him when he acts out after experiencing terrible loss, and which prioritizes his rights over those of corporations. If you want an optimistic vision of the future that I'd like to sign on to, this would be it, far more than Tomorrowland's sterile playground of the elite.