Back to the Future
If ever a movie were misshapen by opposing forces, Tomorrowland’s it. On the one hand you have a film conspicuously designed to ape the blockbusters of yore; a call to adventure that puts a demographic proxy in a perilous situation involving otherworldly forces, sending her to a magical place that in keeping with the source theme park attraction’s USP, represents the pinnacle of man’s technological achievement. Cue stage managed awe and wonder. On the other hand this is the ultimate in corporate synergy; a movie that advertises its backer’s assets, including the recently acquired Star Wars, with all the subtlety of a Disney theme park. You crave the shiny chrome future the movie’s selling, where a techno-elite’s stripped out all life’s detritus and hardship, you just hope there’s no profit motive there; a world where the only integrated products are devices of great utility.
Then there’s the screenplay, also a slave to many masters. Though we may never know, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the parts credited to director Brad Bird are the ones that have the greatest definition. Like many an old adventure before it, The Last Starfighter for example, the narrative trajectory is clearly delineated from the get go. Britt Robertson’s recruited by Tomorrowland’s exiles, on account of her fanatical devotion to science and technology, to return with one time child resident, later adult reject George Clooney, and liberate the place from Hugh Laurie’s disillusioned founder, who built it for the world to enjoy then changed his mind when he saw the feckless mass didn’t share his utopian vision. In such a story we expect to be teased for an act or so, the backstory laid out while our heroine asks plot advancing questions. Then, typically, the adventure should begin in earnest. But fellow scribe Damon Lindelof, he who added layers of wilful obfuscation to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, thereby ruining it, is determined to inflict a similar act of vandalism on Bird’s blockbuster.
The movie’s ninety plus minutes of tease. Checking your Apple Watch, wondering if the answers will ever come, you’re left irritable and bored, hoping against hope that the payoff, when Bird and Lindelof deign to provide it, will be so satisfying that it will make up for pleasure deferred. Instead the film takes a strangely didactic turn, going off half-cocked (and half-baked) with a nebulous scheme from the barely featured villain, that essentially involves frightening the world into embracing optimism.
Then, though perhaps this was just a script note Lindelof didn’t read and no one at the studio picked up, the film appears to imply that Tomorrowland’s mission, to marshal the world’s creativity and create a society that relentlessly focuses on realising the Whig interpretation of history, has been frustrated by the pessimists and pragmatists. The solution? Give entry visas to self-selecting creatives, presumably leaving the rest of the world to languish in a new dark age. Atlas Shrugged realised. “Seek out dreamers” says Robertson, but doesn’t everyone dream? Aren’t we all creative in our way? Perhaps the original line was, “hunt for those who’ve been gifted the time and space, whether by education, background or plain good luck, to indulge their passions” but Disney thought it was unwieldy and ordered it shortened.
So we’re left with a good looking movie, reflexively a very fine technical achievement, that has some exciting sequences thanks to Bird’s touch, but a story that gets weaker as the film progresses. Tomorrowland has values Uncle Walt would be proud of but conceptually it’s busted. Clearer thinking was required on how to take the movie’s central message – get curious and utilise what you learn to better the world – and fold it into a compelling narrative. Instead, all concerned seem to have given up, hoping some strained exposition and a fist fight on a beach would be enough for audiences who’d spent nearly two hours wondering where the movie was going. Sounds like the thinking of a machine, doesn’t it?