Hating on things is fun. Particularly online, where we tend to grade things not by the ways in which they succeed, but by the degrees in which they fail to meet our expectations. A new phone doesn’t offer enough features; a watch isn’t a replacement for your cell phone; a movie doesn’t deliver to the same degree that its predecessor did. It’s an easy shorthand that gives us all a common frame of reference and a fight in which to take up arms, but perhaps most importantly — and here’s the dirty not-so-secret — it’s safe.
What can be hard is looking past that cynicism and admitting to actually liking things. Especially the imperfect ones — the ones that require us to look past their deficiencies and glaring weaknesses to see the benefit within, the ones that force us to adjust our perspective and come to grips with the jarring juxtaposition between the way they disappoint us, but still leave us with a feeling of hope and wonder — hell, even childish delight.
Brad Bird’s new movie Tomorrowland comes out this weekend, and it’s a strange, awkward, contrarian mess at times. I’m also in love with it.
Directed by Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) — who co-wrote with Lost’s Damon Lindelof — Tomorrowland has kept things mysterious with its trailers thus far, and I’m largely going to adhere to that. Going too much into the movie’s plot mechanics would rob it of its weird, exploratory tension, but suffice it to say that there’s an idealistic teenaged girl named Casey (Britt Robertson), a grumpy old man called Frank (George Clooney), and a child (Athena, played brilliantly by Raffey Cassidy) trying to bring them both together. There’s also Hugh Laurie’s rather generic bad guy, Nix, and of course Tomorrowland itself.
As glimpsed in the trailer above, the film’s Tomorrowland is a wondrous landscape of levitating trains and jet packs. Production designer Scott Chambliss riffs off the style of Disneyland and architect Santiago Calatrava to create a retro-future world that captures the essence of the 1960s space race aesthetic at a glance. Bird’s camera captures it with the wandering, awed gaze of a child — in one particular sequence drifting from incredible sight to incredible sight in the span of a continuous, minutes-long shot. It’s also a world the movie spends remarkably little time in. Tomorrowland is part location, part MacGuffin, but mostly it’s a conceptual stand-in for what the movie is really interested in: hope and optimism.
Or perhaps I should say the lack thereof. The world Casey inhabits is a mirror image of our own, where obsessions with global catastrophe, the defunding of agencies like NASA, and post-apocalyptic entertainment have all aligned to force people into apathetic resignation — with potentially disastrous results. (In one of the film’s Pixar-esque gags, billboards for a movie called ToxiCosmos 3 pop up repeatedly in the background.) The meta-commentary isn’t subtle, and with Tomorrowland, Bird and Lindelof essentially point a finger at every dour superhero movie or YA dystopia, saying These things are helping make the world a lesser place.
It points a scolding finger at every dour superhero movie
For anyone tired of the monochrome tonality of so much modern entertainment, it’s a breath of fresh air — though I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the more cynical read on that same sentiment is Movies that aren’t happy like Disney films make the world a lesser place. This is a movie based partly on a theme park, after all, and one so well aware of its corporate parentage that it manages to work in several Star Wars references while simultaneously winking at the corporate synergy of it all. But Tomorrowland is so damn earnest in the way it deals with its big-picture ideas that you can’t help but believe Bird and Lindelof mean it, too.
If only the movie was as sharp-minded throughout its two-hour runtime as it is with this particular bit of commentary. Tomorrowland is a pastiche, sometimes calling back to the best of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, at other moments playing like a live-action cartoon, and toward the end morphing into a generic ticking-clock action flick. The mix is off-putting, preventing the viewer from settling in because you never know which zig the movie’s going to zag. It’s as if Lindelof and Bird just had too many ideas they didn’t want to part with, and at a certain point I was almost certain I would end up disliking Tomorrowland despite its charms. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the movie ends on such an aspirational crescendo — go back to Apple’s "Think Different" campaign, and you’ll get the idea — that I couldn’t stop smiling. And I realized, days later, that I was still thinking about the weird, wild optimism that runs through the movie’s veins — while the misfires were steadily fading from memory.
A movie that dares to inspire
We live in a world where the biggest, world-changing ideas come courtesy of massive corporations and eccentric billionaires. Where astronomers have to actually remind people that the simple act of exploration can excite a generation. A world where it’s safer to snark and critique than to take a risk. If the latter’s what you’re into, Tomorrowland will give you plenty of ammunition. It’s messy, confused, and full of strange set-ups and a thinly sketched villain. But it’s also a movie that dares to inspire. Flawed or not, I’ll take that one.