In the 1980’s and 90’s kids in the movies went on adventures. In retrospect many of said adventures were buoyed by hysterically low stakes, usually to avoid getting in trouble with your parents. Some protected nice, green aliens with an affinity for green M&M’s, other searched for treasure with a cave dweller while another group tried to rescue a baseball from the vicious dog next door. That was my childhood. The joy of doing something with your friends and being away from your parents was enough, even when the moral of the story was – don’t get grounded.
Well it’s 2015 damnit – and even kids in the movies have to save the world. Now those are some stakes! I guess you have to up your game when every blockbuster is knocking down sky scrapers and rescuing humanity. This is the troubling dichotomy of Disney’s new kid-centric Tomorrowland – a movie that desperately wants to have it both ways – 1980’s wonder with 2015 aspirations.
It’s not entirely unsuccessful either. Britt Robertson (who is 25 but looks 16) is Casey Newton – a precocious high schooler who spends her days in monotonous classes and her evenings sabotaging the demolition of NASA’s Houston launch pad. Her father Eddie (Tim McGraw) is a NASA engineer who will be out of a job as soon as NASA officially decommissions their space shuttle program. Casey is beside herself that we as a country could ever dream of such a thing. Stop exploring? Stop pushing our knowledge of the universe? What the hell people?
One particularly unlucky evening Casey is caught and arrested. Upon her release she receives her belongings along with an auspicious pin. When she picks up the pin (fashioned with a T for…oh I’m sure you can guess) Casey is transported to the most beautifully lit wheat field on earth. In the distance is a gorgeous city, with spires and spiral freeways shooting into the sky. The only problem is, Casey is not actually there. As soon as she releases the pin she is right back in the prison waiting room, with her Dad furiously waiting to take her home.
But every time Casey grabs this pin she is able to explore Tomorrowland (just as long as she has the proper space, it is just a projection that leads to a lot of bumping into walls and falling down stairs.) To actually get there proves far trickier.
In steps Frank Walker (George Clooney) and his former recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy) to help. Athena is an adorable robot programmed to recruit the brightest minds on Earth to Tomorrowland. Frank is her reluctant first recruit who was brought there in the 60’s only to be turned away when, apparently, the cynicism of his mid-20’s was too much for this brave new world to handle. After Athena dumps Casey on his doorstep Frank reluctantly shepherds her to Tomorrowland – through a series of increasingly conspiratorial stunts and well placed, secret rocket ships.
The set up here is often wondrous and a whole lot of fun. Director Brad Bird has captured that whimsy of my childhood in many of his previous films (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) and does just as masterful a job setting up this new world. And collaborating with screenwriter Damon Lindelof on the script surely helped as well. Lindelof is the king of the intriguing set up (and questionable payoff) and his work here is no different.
The film ultimately falters in the third act (as nearly all Lindelof’s work does,) but not for lack of trying. All of the actors are game – with Clooney and Robertson leading the way. This is not a subtle movie but Clooney in particular has no problem selling the hokum. Robertson (who’s found her way into several high-profile films of late) has just as much presence, lending a lightness to her role that’s needed for a high concept like this.
Unfortunately the requirements of a modern blockbuster rear their ugly head, right on cue in Tomorrowland. Fun ideas, world building and problem solving slowly give way to robot fights, spaceship battles and face punching. It all devolves so quickly and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Kids deserve more credit than this. By the end of the film my sense of wonder had crumbled into disappointment.
In Tomorrowland Bird wants to inspire a new generation of dreamers. I think he very much believes that film can do that, and so do I. But when the world is constantly at stake it forces the dreamers out. It excludes the truly exceptional by framing problems so big only the most brilliant can solve them. It’s a one-percenter’s world. But most kids have to start somewhere and that wonder and discovery can come from anywhere. From a treasure map or a lost baseball or a little green alien. The world doesn’t always have to end to scare us into caring.