In this cynical and jaded world in which we live in idealism and optimism are often mistakenly equated with naiveté or stupidity. This may explain why Tomorrowland (2015) tanked so spectacularly at the box office and was roasted over the coals by critics. Based on the Walt Disney theme land of the same name, the film champions dreamers and creativity. Hoping for a repeat of the successful adaptation of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a wildly popular movie franchise, the studio brought in director Brad Bird, fresh from the box office hit Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Prometheus), and cast George Clooney to anchor the film in a supporting role opposite Britt Robertson (The Longest Ride) as the young lead. The studio certainly had all the right elements in place but dropped the ball when it came to marketing Tomorrowland, which is staggering when one realizes how many millions of dollars were spent promoting it in a cryptic way that was completely unnecessary. After all the dust has settled and the post-mortems have been made, the question remains, is the film any good? Obviously, the answer is very subjective. I, for one, loved it.
The film starts in the past – the 1964 New York World’s Fair to be exact as young John Francis Walker (Thomas Robinson) gets off a bus lugging a track bag containing a jetpack he invented. Frank shows it to a man named David Nix (Hugh Laurie) with the hopes of winning $50 in a contest. Alas, Frank admits that his invention doesn’t exactly work. Nix asks him what its purpose is and how would it make the world a better place to which the young boy responds, “Can’t it just be fun? … Anything’s possible.” Nix doesn’t understand what that means and Frank tells him, “If I was walking down the street and I saw some kid with a jetpack flying over me I’d believe anything’s possible, I’d be inspired. Doesn’t that make the world a better place?”
Therein lies the film’s central theme and overriding message: anything is possible if you have the imagination to think of something and the perseverance to make it happen regardless of those that tell you no. Armed with this determination and a small pin with the Tomorrowland logo on it, given to him a by little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), Frank sneaks aboard the “It’s A Small World” ride and finds himself transported to a futuristic cityscape known as Tomorrowland. It’s a wondrous utopia that Bird takes us briefly through when Frank, with the help of a robot and a moment of well-timed clumsiness, gets his jetpack to work and flies around so that we (and he) can admire this shiny chrome and glass paradise.
After this brief teasing taste of this world, we are taken back to the present and meet Casey Newton (Robertson), a young woman that uses gadgets she assembled to delay the demolition of a NASA Launchpad thereby prolonging the inevitable loss of employment that will befall her father (Tim McGraw), an engineer. Casey is a dreamer that believes “the tiniest of actions could change the future,” as she tells her little brother Nate (Pierce Gagnon). She explains to him that it is hard to have ideas and it is easy to give up.
During the day, Casey endures classes taught by doom and gloom teachers and is surrounded by apathetic classmates. At night, she continues her one-person crusade to save her dad’s job until she’s finally caught in the act and arrested. Her father bails her out and among her possessions she finds a Tomorrowland pin. Touching it instantly transports her to the futuristic place; however, it only lasts for a few minutes and then no longer works. Naturally, she wants to experience more of this world and finds a store in Houston, Texas that claims to have a pin for sale. The store turns out to be a trap and Casey is rescued by Athena who looks like she hasn’t aged a day since 1964. She promises to take Casey back to Tomorrowland and save it, adding cryptically, “They built something they shouldn’t have.” In order to do so, they have to travel to Pittsfield, New York where Frank (Clooney), now all grown-up, lives like some crazed recluse, and has the ability to transport them to Tomorrowland. It won’t be that easy because Frank is no longer the optimist he once was; he’s now a bitter man existing on the fringes of society.
Britt Robertson plays the film’s protagonist and has the difficult challenge of portraying an irrepressible optimist surrounded by cynics without coming off as a caricature. She does this by instilling Casey with a passion for adventure fueled by curiosity and imagination. There is a sincerity to her performance that feels genuine while also having a knack for physical comedy, like when she figures out what the pin does through trial and error, and verbal comedy, like when Casey first meets Frank and they trade insults.
Not usually cast in summer blockbusters, George Clooney is excellent as a man who has given up hope and lost his idealism. His world-weary crabbiness acts in sharp contrast to Casey’s youthful optimism and their initial scenes together have an amusing tension as she isn’t sure if he can be trusted and vice versa. As the film progresses and they spend more time together, Casey begins to chip away at Frank’s cynicism.
Hugh Laurie plays the film’s antagonist, but wisely doesn’t portray him as such. Nix believes in what he’s doing is right and that’s what makes him dangerous. Laurie brings just the right amount of condescension to the role so that you want to see Casey and Frank defeat him. Raffey Cassidy plays quite the scene-stealer as Athena, with her posh British accent and direct way of talking. Her diminutive stature also makes her an unlikely action hero and yet she gets to jump around, beating up evil robots. Athena, Frank and Casey make for odd traveling companions as they go from Florida to New York to France.
Thanks to Claudio Miranda’s atmospheric cinematography and the best visual effects money can buy, Tomorrowland is a visually stunning film. Naturally, the Tomorrowland scenes, populated by people flying around in jetpacks, hovering trains and rockets, is the most impressive-looking, but a close second is Paris where Miranda bathes the Eiffel Tower in warm light as it is transformed into a massive Steampunk vehicle fueled by Nikola Tesla’s technology. When post-mortems were conducted on why Tomorrowland failed commercially and critically, one reason cited was that not enough time was spent in the titular place. This seems rather odd when we are given substantial teases early on and then the last 40 minutes takes place entirely in the futuristic city. There is something to be said for the less is more approach and the screen-time devoted to Tomorrowland is just right.
While most films are largely immune from film criticism these days, especially with the passing of Roger Ebert, writers just don’t have the influence they had many years ago, some reviewers foolishly attempted to argue that Brad Bird’s film, along with his others, espoused the beliefs of notorious conservative thinker and writer Ayn Rand. Other critics rose to the film’s defense and rightly pointed out that Bird wasn’t inspired by Rand but actually Walt Disney, which make much more sense.
If anything, Tomorrowland’s high profile commercial demise only confirms in the minds of Hollywood studio executives’ minds that to bankroll original films is folly and that they should go on cranking out reboots, remakes and sequels. One can already see this in Bird’s next gig – a return to the safe confines of Pixar to make a sequel to his beloved animated film The Incredibles (2004). It is also disheartening to see a film featuring a smart, resourceful female protagonist fail, especially in the current climate where Hollywood insiders scrutinize the success of every aspect of a film (or lack thereof) and analyze what it means.
That being said, Bird and his collaborators should be commended for getting this passion project made. Tomorrowland exists and will have the chance to outlive its detractors, where its box office failure will eventually mean little, and go on to inspired like-minded dreamers that find themselves identifying with Casey as opposed to the Nixs of the world. Bird’s film is a rare wakeup call against the negativity that permeates our culture, from the doom and gloom headlines that dominate any given news cycle to fashionable pessimism that permeates our culture.