The film version of Tomorrowland comes from Brad Bird. Bird started out as an animator and gained attention with the hilarious Family Dog, which was the best episode of the Steven Spielberg-produced anthology series Amazing Stories (1985-7). After co-writing the script for the live-action Batteries Not Included (1987), Bird did work on animated series like The Simpsons (1989 ), The Critic (1994-5) and King of the Hill (1997-2010) and then a few years later made his directorial debut with the fine The Iron Giant (1999). Though it received critical plaudits, The Iron Giant was not a box-office success, nevertheless it subsequently had Bird employed at Pixar where he delivered The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007) to enormous success. This was enough to net Bird the opportunity to make his debut as a live-action director with Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (2011), which quickly became the best of Tom Cruises Mission: Impossible films.
Brad Bird clearly has a love of retro-futurism and old science-fiction from the 1930s-50s. Posters and homages appear in the background of The Iron Giant, while The Incredibles borrows the Streamline Moderne designs of 1960s futurism and Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol is filled with a love of super-scientific James Bond-styled hi-tech gadgetry. (Even aside from its gadgetry and inventions, Tomorrowland comes filled with a character named after pulp editor Hugo Gernsback who is regarded as the father of modern science-fiction, as well as a side-trip to Steampunk-styled diorama with figurines of inventors/visionaries like Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, Nikolai Tesla and Gustave Eiffel).
I had high hopes for Tomorrowland on the grounds that I have been impressed with everything that Brad Bird has directed ever since Family Dog. I must however say I was disappointed with Tomorrowland. The trailer of the film sets up an exciting promise the magical badge that transports Britt Robertson into the titular realm of wonder, scenes of she and George Clooney wielding an arsenal of rayguns and super-scientific devices. Beyond that, there is the idea of the Disneyland attraction Tomorrowland, which sets up the promise of a future of extraordinary technological wonder where anything seemed possible. The great disappointment of Tomorrowland the film is that just like the vision that Britt Robertson is given when she touches the badge (which we are told is a commercial) vs the ruined and rundown Tomorrowland she actually discovers when she arrives the trailer promises a far more wow-tastic vision than the rather glum and depressing film that we get.
Of all the amazing ideas that you imagined Tomorrowland would wheel out the promise of rayguns, rocketships, robots, shining cities of the future (which to Birds credit we do get some of) what you least expected was such a pessimistic film. At every opportunity, Britt Robertson is bombarded by teachers talking about or images of environmental collapse, potential nuclear war, news clips from international war zones. A big part of the plot during the early scenes is about her struggling to stop the efforts to dismantle a NASA launch site. While the film is on the side of her struggle in these scenes, the greater vision that this represents that the promise of all the possibilities of the Space Age that something like Tomorrowland heralded is now a dead and forgotten dream is something incredibly pessimistic. Even George Clooneys kid hero when we meet him again in mid-life, has turned into a burned-out and paranoid crazy who has given up on hoping for the future. Britt Robertsons arrival at a desolate and empty Tomorrowland is greeted by lines like This place has nothing to do with hope. It is the opposite of hope. Now, to be fair, the films latter third does have a plot about reversing the tide of pessimism and learning to hope again. However, you cannot help but wonder if the Tomorrowland that Disneyland offered would still be one of its top draws if it didnt include space and progress themed attractions but a message that first focused on all the grim and depressing things about the present and then tried to convince us that there is an amazing future out there. What I wanted Tomorrowland to be was something along the lines of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), which does a far better job of incarnating the sense of retro futurism that 1930s pulp adventures and the Space Age offered. Instead, it seems like we have a work of internalised angst about how we must fight an overwhelming tide of negativity. Moreover, the script kinds of shoots itself in the foot when its starts blaming all the negativity on violent videogames and post-holocaust films Im sure that everyone who enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) that opened the previous weekend will be pleased to know, they are contributing to the end of civilisation.
The other thing about this vision of dreaming is that is seems rather naive. When the film introduces Athena the recruiter and the secret world where all the people with ideas are free to invent, I couldnt help but think of John Galt and The Gulch in Ayn Rands Atlas Shrugged (1957) see the film version Atlas Shrugged III: Who is John Galt? (2014). Both The Gulch and Tomorrowland seems utopias that exist free of real world forces like questions of who among all these great minds does the menial jobs like sweeping the streets and cleaning the bathrooms? Even beyond that, the film seems to have the belief that ideas and innovation are good no matter what. While I am fully in favour of allowing creativity its free lack of restraint, it should be noted that all of the major technological innovations of the last decade and a bit Google, social media, the smartphone and various Apple products are ones that as soon as they get out of the design lab are heavily patented and corporate branded then heatedly fought over by competitors for dominance of the market. The probable and realistic vision of Tomorrowland would be that whenever someone rides the anti-gravity train they would be bombarded by advertising, the anti-grav pools would be demanding entry fees and the amazing architecture of the future would be interrupted by corporate logos. In other words, Brad Birds vision of the future is one that seems to exist in a bubble where the economic realities of capitalism and of labour force do not exist.
The other problem with the film is exactly what is Tomorrowland? The version that Britt Robertson enters into is some kind of glorified hologram as she is clearly physically in the real world while moving through the illusion. Later George Clooney dismisses this as merely a commercial. So the question then is what is the other Tomorrowland that the young Frank visits in 1964 and the ruined one that the older Frank and Britt Robertson travel to by rocketship during the latter sections of the film? We are told this is in another dimension but the film never makes clear how it got there, who the people that inhabit it are and why they are sending androids to Earth to influence the course of its future? You would think that explaining this would be a fairly big thing but it seems to be one that the films script entirely omits to an immense degree of frustration. Or for that matter how likely is there that an entire rocketship could be buried inside a major monument and tourist attraction like the Eiffel Tower without anybody having detected it before?
The problem here might be that Brad Bird co-writes with Damon Lindelof. Lindelof was one of the creators/producers/writers of tvs Lost (2004-10), which started as one of the most compulsively watchable tv series of the decade and ended in a muddled shaggy dog ending that was universally booed by audiences who had stayed the journey and clearly showed that nobody involved had any idea where the great mystery was going at the outset. Lindelof has moved onto cinema screens with other scripts that have been derided the universal disappointment of Prometheus (2012), which added Erich von Daniken woolly-headedness to the Alien mix, and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), which screwed over the character of Khan among other things and other works that vary between middling and okay such as Cowboys & Aliens (2011), World War Z (2013) and tvs The Leftovers (2014 ).
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Raffey Cassidy) at this sites Best of 2015 Awards).