For Disney to make a movie called Tomorrowland in 2015 begs the question of how the Walt Disney who built Disneyland’s optimistic vision of the future would react to the actual future in which we now live—a future when calamitous climate change is basically a done deal, when nuclear weapons continue to terrify humanity, and when trains are actually slowing down. Tomorrowland provides an entirely credible answer: he’d sputter, “But…people movers! And wind power! And jetpacks!”
The film takes a bold step in connecting Disney’s master theme of redemption through recovered innocence to a narrative of human progress that it seeks to reclaim—but just as Disney’s original Tomorrowland dismissed the ominous implications of Hiroshima, today’s Tomorrowland seems to suggest that Jiminy Cricket could somehow tell us how to scrub all that excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere if we’d only just shut up and listen.
That may seem like I’m reading too much into a fluffy summer film about a couple of kids who have a big adventure—but let me assure you, I’m not. Director/co-writer Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) is as explicit as he can be without actually saying the words “Hunger Games” that he sees Tomorrowland as Disney’s riposte to the rising tide of dystopic entertainment for young people.
One of the reasons we’re left with so little ambiguity about this is that Tomorrowland has an incredibly—almost bizarrely—complicated plot, and since that plot hinges on the future of the Earth and humanity’s attitude towards it, scene after scene is filled with elaborate exposition detailing how, precisely, the flicker of hope in a child’s eyes can be quantified by a transdimensional instrument via the progress of a seemingly negotiable doomsday clock.
Well, she’s not exactly a child—Tomorrowland lead Britt Robertson, though her character is a teenager, is actually a few months older than Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence. She’s young enough to dream, though, as we see in a montage of scenes where she spunkily challenges teachers who darkly lecture on global warming and social unrest. The idea that we all need to shake off the dour defeatists (or as George W. Bush calls them, “the reality-based community”) and dream of a better world gets slammed home in the movie’s unintentionally hilarious final scene…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back to the story: Robertson’s character Casey Newton (see what they did there?) finds herself in possession of a mysterious token that, when fingered, presents her with an immersive vision of a glorious future city with towering spires, faster-than-light flight departures, and innumerable jetpacks. After some needless confusion involving Keegan-Michael Key as a Star Wars memorabilia collector (natch) named Hugo Gernsback (see what they did there?), Casey finally meets an eerily serene little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who hops behind the wheel of a pickup and drives the two out to meet Frank (George Clooney), a discouraged old codger who holds the key to Tomorrowland.
That’s just the bare-bones setup, and I’ve already left a lot of stuff out. Explaining what happens in the rest of Tomorrowland would require not so much a spoiler alert as a proseminar on pseudoscience. Suffice it to say that saving humanity from its own despair turns out to require some teleportation and dimension-hopping; various portals and outsize antennae; firefights in which Disney shows off their new guns that kill bloodlessly by causing victims to simply evaporate; and, sorry, did I mention jetpacks?
On paper, this all sounds like a blast—but though there are some light moments (mostly involving that weird little truck-driving messenger girl), the notionally optimistic Tomorrowland is, ironically, suffused with an unmistakable sense of anger and disillusionment. Clooney, who’s allowed to look his age for once, spends most of the film scowling and barking at his would-be redeemer; it’s hard to blame him, given that his youthful dreams of a bright future have been crushed, and, apparently, it’s going to take a lot of violent confrontations to regain that sense of possibility. Even an awesome jetpack can only make up for so much.
It’s surprising, and in its way impressive, how baldly the filmmakers and their studio use this movie to connect Walt Disney’s deeply conservative worldview with the Fox News perspective on the epochal challenges facing humanity today. In the view of Tomorrowland, we all need to stop rioting and invent a better world; and we need to stop gaping at footage of collapsing glaciers so as to invent…more wind farms, apparently. Bird blithely peddles the notion that we can simply invent our way out of any trouble that confronts us, as long as we stop paying attention to the harbingers of devastation who wallow in mopey acknowledgement of mounting global inequality and irreversible climate change.
The film’s final scene showcases a series of “dreamers” (immigration status undisclosed), who include a sidewalk guitar busker, a guy sketching elephants in the savannah, someone printing a 3D car, and a ballerina. In the view of Tomorrowland, it’s this random assortment of vaguely admirable folks who hold the key to a brighter future. For Disney, the fact that our real heroes may be the ones who think we need to know more, not less, about the harsh realities we’re facing—the fact that they might be people like Al Gore and Marilyn J. Mosby, and that solutions might need to be political rather than purely technological—is apparently an inconvenient truth.
I’ll be curious to see how young people react to this film. I’m trying to imagine how I’d feel if, say, I was a teenager and The Hunger Games resonated with me in part because older generations have left a dirty, decaying, war-torn world for me to inherit. Then, let’s say, I saw a Disney film in which those same older generations tell me to quit complaining and…invent a jetpack? Yeah, I’d be pretty fucking pissed.