Tomorrowland

[May 23, 2015]

“When I was a kid, the future was different.” So says George Clooney at the beginning of “Tomorrowland,” looking directly into the camera. Before you can wonder what he means, you see it: the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where everything is shiny, sunny, and rocket-shaped. Clooney’s character, young Frank Walker, has arrived with his homemade jetpack (powered by twin Electrolux canister vacuums), and waits in line for an expert’s evaluation. But the jetpack suffers from the technical flaw of not, actually, working. The sour evaluator, Nix (Hugh Laurie), sends Frank off with a discouraging word.

But there’s a pretty little girl called Athena (Raffey Cassidy) traveling with Nix, and she takes an interest in Frank. She gives him a small pin bearing a large “T” (for Tomorrow), and by its power Frank is ushered into a marvelous new world, even more futuristic than the World’s Fair. There, a kindly giant robot fixes his jetpack so that it can fly, and he soars and dips over the city’s shimmering spires. When he meets up with Athena again, he asks her “So what is this place?,” and she takes his hand.

“And then everything went to hell,” Clooney concludes.

A young female voice breaks in, scolding his negativity, and after some banter we get a glimpse of this teenager’s world. Casey Newton (15-year-old Britt Robertson) bicycles by night from her Cape Canaveral home to NASA property, where she is trying to slow the demolition of a launch platform by damaging the machinery involved. When she asks her dad why it’s being torn down, he replies, “Because it’s hard to have ideas, and easy to give up.”

That’s an odd thing to say. Well, in one sense it’s familiar; it’s the same shape as every other portentous, moral-of-the-story line built into the early scenes of a movie. But we’re used to these lines telling us something we already know, and providing a good guy-bad guy guide to the rest of the film. We don’t recognize “having ideas” and “giving up” as a pair of opposites. They’re not two ends of a cliché. Wherever this movie is going, it won’t be familiar territory.

Next we see a series of lecturers at Casey’s school, all delivering bad news about the world: global warming, political unrest, and the promise of dystopia. Despite the uniformly woeful news, each delivers it with a sort of smug relish, as if adding an unspoken “I told you so.” Casey has just one question, for which the teacher has no reply: “Can we fix it?”

Again, we recognize the shape of the set-up—the stick-in-the-mud oldsters challenged by a confident teen—but the content of the exchange is new. Where is this movie going?

Things make more sense when you consider that the director is Brad Bird, who gave us other films that had original points to make: The Incredibles, Ratatouille, The Iron Giant. His films can’t be herded into liberal-conservative categories. Critics were perplexed by The Incredibles, for example, because it was apparent that Bird was criticizing the cultural leveling that refuses to recognize excellence because someone’s feelings might be hurt (instead, everyone gets an award for participating). But did that make him a conservative? Was he, maybe, a follower of Ayn Rand? Such dithering didn’t last long, for the underlying fact was that it is a wonderful movie, and that was all audiences needed to know.

Tomorrowland is not quite as wonderful. There is much to praise, but the whole does not hang together dramatically as well as it might have. In my first sentence, above, I credited Clooney with the opening line, though of course it is actually voiced by his character, Frank Walker. But that is precisely the problem; Frank Walker is never more than a mist, for the Famous Actor keeps shining through. And, though he is a very good actor, grumpiness is not his forte. When he yells “Go away!” at Casey, and “Wherever you come from, kid, go back!,” his heart isn’t in it. The other characters are well-vested in their roles, but Clooney’s just play-acting. It leaves a big hole in the center of the film.

Secondly, this film is an uneven blend of provocative ideas and exploding stuff. There are huge fight scenes, rocket ship scenes, interdimensional travel scenes, and even a short flight in a clawfoot bathtub; but these scenes don’t materially advance the plot, but interrupt the story in a noisy way, after which you get back to the business at hand. (I exempt from that critique a wonderful sequence in which the Eiffel Tower fulfills at last the destiny that Eiffel, Tesla, Edison, and Verne intended it to have.)

One thing that deserves praise is that that the lead characters, besides Clooney and Laurie, are a young teenaged girl (14 at the time of filming) and a pre-teen girl. The teenager is always fully and modestly clothed (the younger girl too, of course). These two talk to each other, and talk about things other than the men in the story, thus easily acing the Bechdel test.

An early fight scene must be unique, in that it takes place among four characters, and three of them are female, and none of them are Angelina Jolie. Girls are allowed to be girls, and we can give thanks for that. Clooney and Laurie eventually have a fight scene all to themselves, and that sequence breaks tradition as well by being as low-tech as possible, taking place on an empty, sandy beach.

The theme that gradually emerges is that bad news about terrorism, disease, climate change, and so forth can be strangely addictive. “What human would not be galvanized by imminent doom?” Nix asks. “They gobbled it up like a chocolate éclair.” (Casey passes a billboard advertising a film titled Toxicosmos 3: Nowhere to Go.) As Casey’s dad said, it’s hard to have ideas, and easy to give up.

What’s needed, we come to realize, are the kind of people who have ideas, “dreamers” as the film calls them—people who maintain hope rather than giving in to fashionable despair. People who have hope are the kind most likely to come up with solutions. Dreamers can be drawn from every land and culture, and in the film they are drawn by magical means, running across one of those “T” pins and being transported to Tomorrowland. It will be harder in real life to find and support those dreamers. But just thinking about it is encouraging; and feeling that it is worth a try is how all solutions to problems begin.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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