CINEMA by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Dystopia gives way to a little hope: Tomorrowland
, June 20, 2015
“There are two wolves who are always fighting. One is darkness and despair. The other is light and hope. The question is: which wolf wins? The one you feed.”
George Clooney and Britt Robertson
Tomorrowland is a fascinating and highly entertaining, if imperfect, contrast to the despair-laden stories that seem to dominate these days. It is a sci-fi action adventure from Brad Bird, the man behind The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, and Damon Lindelof, the man responsible for television’s Lost.
The film opens with Frank Walker (George Clooney) trying to set the scene, speaking to an unknown group, but being constantly interrupted by an unseen girl.
In 1964 a young Frank (Thomas Robinson) goes to the New York World Fair with an invention he has cobbled together in his shed – a jetpack. He is dismissed by the head of the panel overseeing new inventions, David Nix (Hugh Laurie), but catches the eye of Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who gives him a pin and tells him to follow them secretly.
He does so and is transported to Tomorrowland, a futuristic city full of technological wonders and that seeks to build the future. There he stays to take part in a great experiment.
In the present, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a hope-filled dreamer and geek-girl who keeps sabotaging the dismantling of a NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral, where her father, Eddie (Tim McGraw), a former NASA engineer, works.
Inevitably Casey is caught, thanks to an unknown person who also hides among her belongings a Tomorrowland pin, just like the one given to Frank.
When she is bailed out, she protests about the pin, but when she touches it, she is given a vision of Tomorrowland, a vision that no one else can see. Inspired by the promise of a better, more hope-filled world, she becomes obsessed with finding out all she can about Tomorrowland.
After various excitements, involving eccentric shopkeepers and Men in Black, Casey is found by Athena, who has not aged. Athena sneaked her the pin, and she takes Casey to Frank, who by now, has turned into a crotchety old man but one with a number of cool gadgets. And a new mission begins – to save the future.
The whiz-bang visuals are crisp and clear, and endlessly inventive – what happens with the Eiffel Tower is quite amazing. The fight scenes are intense without being too intense, as befits a PG film. There is a mass of product placement in the film, as might be expected in something from Disney.
Tomorrowland itself has two inspirations. Philosophically it is the planned living spaces of which Walt Disney was fond and believed would be the cities of the future. Visually it is directly inspired by the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia – a futuristic city that went wildly over budget.
Throughout the film the prevailing philosophy is that of Walt Disney – a grand hope in the future, in technological progress, in the capacity of mankind to make things better. This is the belief in a happy ending that makes sense and has depths.
Such a mindset provides a refreshing change from the constant stream of dystopian depression that is aimed at young adults – The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Divergent; and their adult versions – Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead. It also provides relief from the disasters and despair so often promoted by the media.
There are criticisms that Brad Bird’s alleged Ayn Rand leanings are being brought to the fore. He does go on about special people and distinctness, but Rand was so selfish that she rejected any project that might be good for humanity as a whole, so I think that remains a long bow.
The real problem is vagueness. Bird wishes to encourage wonder, but the lack of reasonable restraint can cause the more critical to wonder at his relentless optimism. Admittedly, the movie is aimed at children, but it might’ve been an idea also to encourage in them the ethical use of technology, so they do not get sucked into a scientific utopianism cut off from humanity – something that the film itself hints at.
Key to understanding Tomorrowland is the fable printed at the top of this review. Eddie told Casey the story when she was young and she has taken it as her personal motto.
The fable argues that if we have hope and joy, then we are more likely to continue to be hopeful. But if we give up, then the dark wolf of despair will start to win, and try to consume us.
This hope does not need to be reduced to the sciences as Bird does, nor does it even need be reduced to hope in humanity. Hope is a grace, one that brings us to the One, True, Good and Beautiful, no matter where it is found.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).