What Is The Frequency of Hope? Tomorrowland Never Quite Tells Us

Mad Max: Fury Road will remain firmly atop its pedestal as my favorite film of summer so far. Tomorrowland, despite all the hope and fairy dust, did not unseat it. And for anyone complaining that Fury Road had a “thin” plot… well, Tomorrowland’s plot is essentially: Hope is great! We should all have it! This is not to say it’s a bad film, but it is a simple one, and I am not its target audience. This is the kind of optimistic, gee whiz kids movie that the ’80s were particularly good at, and if you have a human under 14 in your home, you might want to drop it off at the theater and pick it up after.

The Basics

Casey Newton is an optimistic Florida high school student, the daughter of a NASA engineer dad and, this being a Disney film, a presumably deceased mom. NASA is shutting down the launchpad, because no one believes in the future anymore, and since Casey believes in the future she uses drones to sneak in and pull a bunch of wires to slow the demolition process. As character introductions go, it’s pretty great, and firmly establishes us in an Interstellar-style pro-space movie. When she finds a techno-magical pin that shows her visions of the ecstatic, jetpunk future she’s always wanted, she starts off on a quest to figure out (a)if that future is possible or just a hallucination, and (b) if there’s a way she can make it happen in our reality. Along the way she meets Athena, a girl who claims to be from the future, and Frank Walker, a man who is George Clooney. Shenanigans ensue, but be aware that this is much more of a message movie than a plot movie.

Clooney

…gets to do a world-weary spin on his usual twinkly charm. And it’s great! He’s gruff and damaged and he invents a ton of stuff to protect his deceptively ramshackle house! Is there still a kernel of belief in under that cynical exterior? Will Casey reignite that kernel into fully-popped belief-in-the-future popcorn? The other actors more than match Clooney, with Britt Robertson imbuing Casey with far more depth than the underwritten script should allow. Plus Raffey Cassidy is fun as Athena, and Hugh Laurie is at maximum polite-yet-snotty Hugh Laurie-ness.

This is Basically an Ibsen Play Wearing a Jetpack

Brad Bird and Damon Lindelof have noticed that our current reality is slowly turning into the dystopia we’ve all been warned about, and they DO NOT APPROVE. This movie is not so much a hero’s quest, or even a bildungsroman, as much as it’s a call to action for the audience. Bird and Lindelof are offering summer moviegoers a corrective to all the death and despair we’ve seen on TV and in theaters over the last few years, and offer us the crazy idea that using optimism and creativity might actually help things get better. I canvassed for the Obama campaign, but I have never heard the words “hope” and “change” more often in a two-hour period. However, I don’t think they built enough of a structure beneath all of their dazzling visuals. There’s also much too much reliance on one of Brad Bird’s particular tropes.

The Special is Special

Casey is simply good at things. We have a situation in this movie where multiple intelligent people tell Casey (and us) that she’s Special. But other than her extreme pluckiness we never see her do anything special. She runs off on her quest like she’s been waiting for the call to adventure her whole life, and she just crushes all in her path with unbeatable optimism. While we want to root for her, she’s kind of a cipher—we don’t meet any of her friends, there’s no mention of her lost mom, she seemingly has an absurdly perfect relationship with her perfect little moppet brother, and a relationship with her dad that makes Coop and Murph’s look aloof. It’s like Brad Bird made a clone of a Spielberg movie and left all the spikiness out. And when we finally get to the big culminating moments in the film, Casey seems to figure things out purely from intuition. We don’t see her build drones, fix robots, study science after school, or take any particular tests, tinkering… she just knows how things work. Iron Man has more credibility as a mechanic than this kid. The students in Big Hero 6 were shown actively learning. In Bird’s own Ratatouille, Remy was naturally good at cooking, and had a refined palate, but he still needed to practice and learn how to work with the rest of the cooks in the kitchen before he could become truly successful. Casey just moves wires around and suddenly she’s showing up her NASA engineer dad. In other words…

You Need More Science in Your Pro-Science Movie

On the surface, this movie is all about using learning and science to build a better tomorrow today. However, we never see anyone except Casey’s dad actually doing science. There is no backing for any of the inventions in the film, things just, I don’t know, work. Because optimism. Or, in a few cases, because robots. But even there, we don’t see anyone build the robots! By the time we get around to a rousing discussion of tachyons, it’s already become clear that this is a science fantasy, and that we shouldn’t ask for more than pixie dust. Couldn’t Casey have been in teen science competitions? Or at least be seen reading a science book? Or making her own drones? The film takes the step to make our protagonist an intelligent girl, but then doesn’t show us her intelligence. This is despite ample opportunity because of…

Free-Range Parenting

Tomorrowland I can buy. Robots? Sure. Optimism being an actual force for change? …I guess I’ll allow it. High school student Casey Newton going on all these adventures without Child Protective Services taking her and her brother away? That’s where you lose me, movie. There is no way Casey would have been able to go on even the first leg of her quest in the U.S. in 2015. Now having gotten common sense and snark out of the way, I loved that she just went for the adventure. For it’s first half, at least, Tomorrowland gives us an intelligent, resourceful young woman who doesn’t accept the world she’s being given, and goes out to actively change it. There’s no bullying or sexual threats or condescension—she’s treated with respect by all the major characters, and this film is completely free of skeeviness. (There is a hint of romance, but it doesn’t involve Casey.) If the small human who lives with you is a girl, you can put this up next to her Miyazaki movies, and trust that she’ll be inspired. But…

Female Protagonist Yay?

Even though Casey’s the protagonist, Frank Walker does most of the heavy lifting—sometimes literally. While this saves us the annoying trope of “young character who’s suddenly good at fighting for no reason” it also robs Casey of some great potential hero moments. Without getting too spoilery, there’s a point in the film where it looks like things are going in a direction that would have been very interesting, and new, but then the film resets itself to put Frank back on center stage. I am way more interested in the film where Casey stays the main agent throughout. Having said all of that, though, I still really liked the film. I just wish there was more futuristic food capsules to chew over.

Rockets!

There are several of them, each more impressively steampunk than the last.

In Case You Forgot, This is A Disney Film.

Tomorrowland’s skyline looks like Disneyland, and a whole other Disney ride has a cameo in the film! However, there is also a scene that feels to me much more like Brad Bird’s editorializing that undercuts all the marketing and retro-future-nostalgia of the film. When Casey tries researching the pin by visiting a boutique called Blast From the Past—basically a cabinet of wonders filled with mint condition action figures, posters, and movie memorabilia—it quickly becomes clear that this is a misstep on her quest. Allowing herself to be wooed by nostalgia is a distraction, and all of that attachment to the past needs to be gotten rid of so she can move forward into the future.

Marketing Is Dangerous!

Possibly the most subversive thing you can ever say in a Disney film is that advertising lies to people, but this film, despite literally being based on a theme park ride, manages to have surprisingly complex relationship with marketing. Can the architects of Tomorrowland be trusted? Or are they just shilling for a future that can never be? Are they just feeding us false hope, and encouraging us to dream genuinely impossible dreams?

And Did I Mention Hope?

This leads me to my last point. This film is not for me. It’s for the ten-year-old children who might be able to salvage whatever’s left of civilization in another decade. I will admit that despite the flaws in the film, I was (slightly! just a little!) teary at the end. The last few moments are an adrenaline shot of hope to the heart, and it might be worth watching the whole film just for that.

Leah Schnelbach thinks that tickets for this movie should have come with a jetpack. Come yell at her about retrofuturism on Twitter!

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