(WARNING: MATURE LANGUAGE) I desperately wanted to like Tomorrowland. The film’s director, Brad Bird, had made my favorite Pixar film (The Incredibles) and Iron Giant and Ratatouille besides, and the subject matter – that awestruck, hopeful image of the technological future promised in the Disney theme park attraction that gives the film its name – is one dear to my heart. But I didn’t, and I should have seen the reason coming a mile away.
The film features Britt Robertson as Casey Newton, the teenage daughter of a soon-to-be-laid-off NASA employee who covertly protests the demolition of a shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center by sabotaging the cranes every night. This brings her to the attention of Athena, a little British girl who isn’t what she seems, and into an abrupt partnership with Frank (George Clooney,) another onetime whiz kid whose own history with Athena goes back decades.
As painstakingly set up by Bird and screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Lost, World War Z and – this should have been a tip-off – Prometheus,) the film is about how our wonder and optimism for a gleaming, space-age future, as imagined by Disney and at various world fairs from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, seemed to starve and die as oil shortages, plant closures, budget cutbacks and a kind of “future fatigue” turned the sunny vision into risible camp.
Think of how the soaring, curvaceous architecture of late art deco and early modernism was replaced by the concrete bunkers of brutalism in the ‘60s and by merely functional, characterless glass towers today. There might have been a lot of naiveté behind those drive-ins that looked like space ports, but there’s no denying that something went sour when our idea of the future changed from The Jetsons to Aliens.
During a couple of sequences that will probably inspire theme park rides, Casey, Frank and Athena evade the bad guys long enough to vault themselves out of the apparently doomed present and into the titular world of the title – a golden city of the future that exists in another place in space and time. And this is where things go very wrong.
You see, the earth is running out of time. It’s not some imminent alien invasion or impending thermonuclear Armageddon but – wait for it – some perfect storm of resource depletion, overpopulation and climate catastrophe. Rising seas and dying trees, all about to hit the earth like an EMP or a plague when the countdown clock – a literal prop in Frank’s workshop – runs out.
The damning verdict on mankind’s self-sabotage is delivered in a bombastic, furious speech by Hugh Laurie’s Governor Nix, the film’s affably caustic villain. But hold on – by Tomorrowland’s logic, aren’t we the real villains, snuffing out the future as we despoil the planet despite the warnings subliminally beamed to us by Nix from Tomorrowland’s cosmic wifi?
As Pogo the possum said in Walt Kelly’s comic strip, “We have seen the enemy and he is us,” and it is still some kind of heavy shit, apparently.
Laurie’s speech – and the whole clanking ecogeddon conceit – sits astride the film like a colossal choking bolus, a sour, finger-pointing jeremiad that kills the hurtling action dead, and forces anyone who doesn’t worship the gospel of Green and its sackcloth truisms abruptly out of the story and into an eye-rolling frenzy.
If you’re looking for some kind of internal logic, give up now. Our loss of faith in the future and the technology that was supposed to take us there is the tragic condition that Bird and Lindelof make their film’s foundation. And yet the same technology that harvests energy and improves crop yields, enables travel at once-implausible speeds and makes cities denser yet healthier places to live than they ever were is the villain that robbed us of that future.
Ponder this message for a minute, and then wonder that no one who read Tomorrowland’s script ever drew a red line through Laurie’s big scene and said, “OK – right here. You’ve lost me.”
There is, to be sure, a great film – still unmade – about our loss of faith in a better world we imagined so fervently in the shadow of two world wars. But a new kind of faith – the gospel of Green and all of its logic-busting assumptions – has clouded reason and, almost like collateral damage, ruined what could have been a great little film about wonder and optimism and scientific inspiration.
Perhaps it’s no great loss that yet another film has been spoiled, but the same logical self-sabotage is crippling scientific education and public discourse, and as long as it persists we’ll continue moving into the future, one step forward and two steps back.
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