Near the middle of Brad Bird's second live-action feature Tomorrowland, a melee in a sci-fi memorabilia store involving our young heroine Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) and two inexplicable geek-chic robots (Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key) sends more than a few artifacts from our movie-going childhood splintering across the screen. The filmmakers revel in the opportunity for multiple visual references in this sequence, as Newton places her trinket of time travel at the center of the swirling art design for Disney's 1979 feature The Black Hole, and eventually, as the conflict over the trinket ensues, a model of the iconic robot Gort from the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still collapses in shambles. This cue to the audience that Tomorrowland is not exactly your grandma's thinly veiled apocalyptic warning occurs around the point that most audiences will likely experience their own narrative comprehension begin to spiral into a black hole, so to speak.
Tomorrowland is a troubled piece of storytelling that offers four or five different narrative paths, each one a bit more tonally skewed from the last. The design of the picture matches the film's hapless narrative pastiche, juxtaposing sequences that rely heavily on historical recreation in one moment (the 1964 World's Fair), and the cartoonish design of Bird's more successful animated film The Incredibles in the next (bulbous robots with Swiss Army knife appendages). All of this is wrapped in (or around) a simple tale of light vs dark, optimism vs pessimism, good wolves vs bad, yet fraught by an inability to tell it simply, or even clearly. A dedication to the “Disney Ideal” is on display from the very beginning of Bird and fellow screenwriter Damon Lindelof's script, along with tiresome homages to their Spielberg-saturated childhoods. Tomorrowland gives the impression of mature filmmakers who have culled together the references of those childhood influences, but childishly failed to heed any of the lessons on display in even the most basic of their predecessor's oeuvre. In other words, both Bird and Lindelof could have benefited here from reviewing Spielberg's first feature Duel, where a man in a car is chased by a man in a truck until he defeats both man and truck.
In the early 1980's I watched Duel numerous times on Sunday afternoons and never tired of it. To be fair, I could see that same 12 year-old “me” taking much more easily to the pleasures of Tomorrowland than the future, curmudgeonly “me” who has probably fed the "wolf of pessimism" too often for his own good, to borrow the central parable of the film. One reason for this is that Tomorrowland plays relentlessly--and rather expertly--to a child's sense of action and wonder, but at the expense of any semblance of adult patience. Yes, there's a child in me that really digs Tomorrowland, and, by film's end, an adult that can't help but admire the grandiose sense of inspiration it intends. Unfortunately, this message of inspiration is perhaps the falsest note of the entire film, channeled through the character of Casey Newton who is continually and vaguely championed as just "knowing how things work." Robertson's histrionic, goofy physiognomy doesn't help matters, nor does the hokey depiction early in the film of her character’s infant self, a regrettable scene that seemingly forces the script to turn against itself.
Perhaps the truest moment in Tomorrowland comes during one of the film's three or four finales, when our human protagonists drive robot/villain Nix (Hugh Laurie) to "monologuing" (in yet another reference to The Incredibles), as he exclaims: "You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one! Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, the algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won't take the hint!" Putting the occasional pessimism of "future me" aside, I truly wish this weren't the most impactful moment of the film, because it’s certainly not the tangled mess that surrounds it: a beyond-convoluted plot involving a new army of robots covertly sneaking Tomorrowland emblems into the design files and guitar cases of potential world-shakers, who will then be transported into an extremely difficult-to-navigate immersive fantasy commercial (?) that might inspire them to alter the course of Frank Walker's generic apocalyptic predictions.
Frank Walker (George Clooney) is our exiled hero, a former citizen of Tomorrowland inexplicably forlorn over an adolescent robot named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). Athena is programmed to recruit the next great generation of innovators, and eventually brings Walker and young Newton together before ultimately sacrificing herself for the future of the human race. In this second (or third) finale involving Athena’s sacrifice, the film plays with the possibility of raising intriguing questions about human obligation in a post-human world. Unfortunately, these themes have been explored more fully in recent films such as Spike Jones' Her and Alex Garland's Ex Machina. Even within Bird's Pixar cohort, the creators of Wall-E managed to delve way more trenchantly into this thematic territory, asking perhaps the most intriguing futurist question of any animated film: What is our obligation to two robots that fall in love?
Of course, just because one film does something better than another film is no justification of a film’s success or failure. Tomorrowland certainly fails well enough on its own, and gloriously so, with an absurdly over-stuffed quality that I admire. Did I mention the scene where young Newton lights a combine tractor on fire and sends it rolling driverless toward Walker’s house? Walker’s freeze-gun? The hologram dog? Like the centerpiece memorabilia store of the film, Tomorrowland is packed floor-to-ceiling with shiny, enticing toys and trinkets. Its quality as product far outweighs its shallow sense of social change. For a film that calls toward fixing the climate crisis and various other forms of environmental and social upheaval, it seems hopelessly fixed in the stagnant mentality that Nix so eloquently describes. It’s the same mentality that the memorabilia store perpetuates, that naturalizes us toward a world of adults playing with children’s toys and paying for children’s movies, fixed in the daydream of the past while the apocalypse plays out on a loop.