Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, visually speaking, is a corker. The retro-futuristic, Art Deco, back-of-the-cereal-box science fiction designs are a true marvel to behold, and Bird (the director of another Art Deco sci-fi film, the excellent The Iron Giant, as well as The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) has created – through some of the film’s more energetic sequences – created something that is slickly digitally dazzling, yet still taps into the cool old-world view of the future as seen in the early 1960s. A lot of the film’s visuals feel weirdly familiar and undeniably comforting. Jet packs, laser blasts, gleaming spires. It all looks like… well, it looks like Tomorrowland at Disneyland.
Beyond its visuals, however, Tomorrowland has a rather upsetting worldview that seems jumbled at best and strangely fascistic at worst. There is a dark undercurrent of selfish objectivist exceptionalism that seems to lurk under both this film and The Incredibles, leading one to wonder if Bird might not be a closet Randian. Perhaps if he had directed the Atlas Shrugged movies, they wouldn’t have been as unwatchable. Although their messages would have been just as preachy.
Oh yes, and Tomorrowland is plenty preachy as well. Rather than have a subtle undercurrent of optimism – as a more graceful film would – Tomorrowland feels totally at home yelling its postcard-perfect messages of hope from a soapbox. This is a film that includes a machine that can not only predict the future, but measures hope as something quantifiable in scientific units. This is a film that positions “dreamers” as a superior class of human who are in the unique position to leave Earth and join an extra-dimensional enclave of the planet’s elite to build a utopia that, well, I guess the rest of Earth’s non-dreamers are not allowed to join (only “dreamers” are issued invitations). The parallels between Tomorrowland and Atlas Shrugged are numerable.
The film follows a pair of “dreamers” at both ends of the hope spectrum. The young, idealistic Casey (Britt Robertson) and the grizzled, now-cynical Frank Walker (George Clooney, who, with his natural, affable charm, doesn’t play “cynical” very well). Casey, a young woman who dreams of space travel, has been mysterious issued a high tech pin that allows her to see (but not physically inhabit) a parallel universe city called Tomorrowland. Pins are issued to engineers who dream of space travel. She is also being followed by a mysterious 11-year-old girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who is somehow connected to Frank from decades ago. When the two dreamers unite, they strive to return to Tomorrowland at all costs.
Hugh Laurie stands in as the film’s villain, a lost mayor of Tomorrowland whose doomsday speech – a screed about scaring people straight – actually makes more logical sense to me than the film’s opposing viewpoint of vague hopefulness. When the villain is the coolest, most logical, most action-oriented character in your film, something has gone wrong.
I’m also a little unsure as to where Tomorrowland stands on the lionization of tech. It clearly – as in sci-fi stories of old; think Star Trek – feels that new technology and ever-mounting human intuition can spell out our salvation. But the film also seems to take a dim view of the technology we have now, seeing smartphones and TVs as a way of perpetuating despair. This message becomes especially muddled in a final montage which resembles an Apple ad more than some Apple ads. So are we to abandon microtechnology and go through a macro-technology boom? As someone who gets more excited about NASA news than Apple releases, I suppose I can get behind that.
Ultimately, Tomorrowland is a treatise on, well, Disney itself. Like Saving Mr. Banks before it, this is a film Disney has made to congratulate itself on its own branding. It’s a corporate pat-yourself-on-the-back. The optimistic view of the future that Disney is putting forth is a very particular brand of tech optimism that can only be found at their own theme park. That Disneyland appears in the film is the biggest clue.
Tomorrowland‘s vision of the future is bleak indeed: The corporation will create your future. And if you’re not one of the Imagineers, off to Hell with you.