**Spoilers for the film**
Oh Tomorrowland, you have given me the most mixed of emotions. You have Brad Bird (who has done no wrong) retro-futurism, and a purpose for the oddly beloved Small World ride. You have epic vertical urban expansion. You have the jetpacks that signal that yes, we have indeed arrived in the future!
And yet all is not well. We are given an uneven film, with sermons, urban decay, technology as savior, technology run amok, and the power of positive thinking. This movie is famously based on a mysterious box, and feels as such. The presentation is fantastic, the possibilities are exciting, but when everything’s been opened up it feels like a collection of things, all jumbled together.
In my eyes Brad Bird has still done no wrong. The movie, for all of its flaws, still sizzles with the promise of tomorrow, with the style of yesterday, as his films tend to do (Iron Giant and The Incredibles). The movie makes some questionable choices but doesn’t drag. Like the hover-rails that offer quick transit through Tomorrowland, the film speeds along and offers gorgeous designs. From the reference to the front window view of Disney’s monorails, to the Unisphere-inspired dress that Athena is wearing at the World’s Fair, Bird is pulling off the hyper-stylized style.
The problems arise a bit later in the movie as things unfold. The film follows Frank (George Clooney) and Casey (Britt Robertson) at the persistent and forceful, yet dramatically ambiguous, urging of Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Frank used to live and work in Tomorrowland, but is exiled after creating (and presumably attempting to dismantle) a probability projector that can see through time. Nix (Hugh Laurie) is the governor who called for the exile, and who continues to use the device to try to run things more efficiently.
Through all of these introductions, the movie feels muddy. Frank has a clear, bright origin story. We see his drive, optimism, and engineering talent. Casey gets a shorter, thinner introduction that never seems to click. She’s capable of using technology but we only get quick glimpses of her actually doing any engineering. She is said to have an innate ability to see how things work at a glance, but only uses it to modify other people’s projects. The split narrative isn’t balanced and even though Casey is the protagonist Frank still has more of an arc. He starts out dedicated to developing technology to inspire people, he is up against both his unsupportive father and an indifferent Nix, he achieves his dream, he falls for Athena, he finds the limit of what people “should” tinker with, he is kicked out of his own dream and loses Athena, he becomes embittered and loses all hope in the future. Casey, on the other hand, has a near magic ability, and is very curious. She has agency but mostly reacts to other people urging her along, or getting in her way. There is very little she does for herself, other than an early plot involving her love of preserving NASA. But it seems clear that while Casey is the character that can act as the standard everyman to carry the audience, Clooney’s Frank is the one who had all the development in the script.
And then there’s the problem with the ending. It all comes down to the fact that the future reader is broadcasting these negative thoughts to Earth. Nix did it with the intention of scaring humanity to fight against these worst possible scenarios, but instead we just get entertainment from creating dark and violent movies, television, and video games. Seeing this response, Nix closes the door to Tomorrowland, and gives up hope for humanity. Instead, he intends to isolate and protect a small community in Tomorrowland, using it as a new start for humans, rather than a think tank to benefit everyone. Eventually Frank, Athena, and Casey destroy the future viewer, stop the bad thoughts from being transmitted back to Earth, and in the destruction Nix is killed.
None of this sits right with the tone of optimism that this movie is championing. Even ignoring the sermon that Nix delivers, the entire end just doesn’t work. Nix’s intentions were to save people, but he sees the odds and gives up hope. This is exactly what Frank has done, wallowing in misery for twentyfive years. Nix, while not helping people, isn’t trying to destroy the Earth. He’s trying to get out of the way while people destroy themselves. So why does this warrant his death, crushed by his own
hubris technological implement? With the entire story trained on Casey as the one person who can bring about a change of heart for the entire world using her raging optimism, why can’t she help Nix come around? He hasn’t turned toward evil, or even cruelty. He’s just been so hurt at humanity’s lack of, well, humanity that he is trying to make the best for the people he knows he can save. It feels like we’re supposed to see him as the outright villain, but there’s far too much in common between Nix and Frank for one to be a hero and the other worthy of death.
But Nix is never made out to be that much of a villain. He’s a true antagonist, standing in the way of our protagonists, but it’s certainly not heroes versus a villain. It’s more of pitting a philosophy of conservative practicality against a riskier optimism. But these themes are treated as if they are black and white issues of morality, with Nix’s reserved pragmatism earning him a unsympathetic death. Frank and Casey essentially destroy the head of Tomorrowland to start over, in much the same way Nix wanted to do to Earth. There’s no earning of trust, or winning of hearts. It never comes down to harnessing the much talked about power of optimism. No, the end is just about destroying sources of pessimism.
And there is the biggest problem with the film. In a story about humanity’s drive to grow and learn, in a story advocating the power of dreaming big and inspiring the future, where people come up against the edge of where technology may overtake humanity, there’s never a word said for compassion. Dreamers aren’t made in this movie, they are found. It is a trait that people have or do not, and those that have it may ascend to Tomorrowland. People with talent aren’t shown a vision. The mandate of Tomorrowland’s emissaries isn’t to inspire people to dream, it’s to show Tomorrowland to people who already are dreamers. No one is galvanized into reaching beyond who they start as, but instead are urged to fulfill who they already are. The best that Tommorrowland can offer is a refuge for dreamers that exports technology. It harvests the most hopeful instead of inspiring hope. I really wanted to lose myself in this movie, and to find a piece of fiction I could dream about. Instead I found myself mourning for the “villain” and feeling unease with equally, if not more, cruel sunshine that Frank and Casey promise.