“Which way do you want to go?” one young idealist asks another midway through Tomorrowland. “Backwards or forwards?” In every Brad Bird film, the will of the innovator overpowers the evils of complacency: a mouse with a culinary gift abandons the comforts of family (Ratatouille); a group of spies employ untested technologies to scale buildings and outwit henchmen stuck in a Cold War mindset (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol); a family of gifted heroes can only make a better world by pursuing adventure at every opportunity (The Incredibles). Bird’s films conjure wonder through their sympathetic dreamers, ingenious gadgetry, and action sequences of nearly unrivaled thrills and propulsion. Tomorrowland doesn’t stray far from formula, but Bird’s latest has a tortured relationship with idealism, societal progress, and technological advancement. Here, the way forward is backward, on a path that stumbles into misplaced nostalgia and dicey humanism.
Bird is, at least, somewhat forthright about his confusion. “When I was a kid,” Frank Walker (George Clooney) says, “the future was different,” but both Frank and a teenager named Casey (Britt Robertson) find their entry to the utopian Tomorrowland through formative disappointments. Young Frank (Thomas Robinson) comes to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York to enter a contest for inventors, but his malfunctioning jetpack, assembled from home appliances, is dismissed by judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie). But it intrigues a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who hands Frank a souvenir pin that, after a detour through Disney’s “It’s a Small World” exhibition, transports him to a future utopia. Casey’s journey begins in the near past: NASA’s launch pad at Cape Canaveral is set for demolition, and her father (Tim McGraw), an engineer, is about to lose his job. With the aid of a drone helicopter, Casey repeatedly breaks into the launch site in a futile attempt to sabotage the razing. Eventually, she’s hauled off to jail, and a Tomorrowland pin winds up among her belongings. Casey’s journey to and through the Epcot-like city of wonders and innovation is the film’s imaginative apex: Among the Pixarian visual gags are a redefinition of the infinity pool and a parade of hovercraft, culminating with a floating baby stroller. Tomorrowland’s early half has the pace and flavor of an unusually stirring commencement speech. The film consciously evades the family-first ethos of modern tent poles, from Gravity to Guardians of the Galaxy, in favor of intrepid individualism: Night-lit bike rides through suburban environs consciously evoke Spielberg, and the sense that becoming a grownup means taking risks and encountering other worlds alone regains a bygone sense of danger and potency.
From here, though, Tomorrowland gradually leans away from narrative coherence and toward underbaked moralism. Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof concoct a series of beat-the-clock scenarios to unite Casey and Frank, whose combined forces of spunk and ingenuity might save an imperiled Earth and a Tomorrowland whose promise is foundering. But Frank, too, has lost his spark, spending his days staring at a doomsday device counting down the seconds until unstable governments, overpopulation, and resources shortages end civilization. Bird and Lindelof transform both Frank and Nix, the film’s ostensible hero and villain, into mouthpieces condemning Hollywood and the media for fixating on bleak images of dystopia. This cynicism, Tomorrowland argues, has become a fait accompli: We’ve become so attuned to our impending destruction that we’re unwilling to do anything to try and prevent it. We’re Beyond Thunderdrome. We don’t need another hero.
Nix, mocking the state of things, bemoans a world “of simultaneous obesity and starvation. Explain that one.” Such wildly simplistic dichotomies put a considerable sour on a blockbuster of noble, if misguided, intentions. Tomorrowland (both film and utopic world) constantly refers to an idyllic, Disneyfied mid-century futurism and innovation; it elides how these visions were a response to a moment where the perennial bogeymen of the apocalypse (overpopulation, resource shortages, nuclear warfare, and science-fiction cinema) were invented. There are hints that Bird is aware of this irony (Athena becomes a compelling and multi-faceted argument that world-weary cynicism is merely a product of aging), but they’re overwhelmed by hand-wringing about present-day Hollywood. Bird does a bolder job bemoaning the state of cinema when the film winds up in a kitsch store called Blast from the Past, which is stocked with souvenirs from the director’s own career (Iron Giant figurines, a Bart Simpson plush doll) and sits across the street from a billboard advertising a film called ToxiCosmos 3. The store explodes, while the billboard remains intact. Like most of his protagonists, Bird is a “special” artist with a rare gift for visual invention and narrative momentum—and as Tomorrowland evolves into a weird, pained discourse on the maker’s dilemma, it’s hard not to wish he’d just put his head down and keep dreaming.