Tomorrowland: The Challenge and Promise of the Future

Brad Bird’s newest film, Tomorrowland, is a lot of things. A successful film is not one of these things, but it presents an intriguing idea for a film that could have been. The basic structure of that film is here, but what we ended up with is a film that gets lost in its own mystery box. The screenplay comes courtesy of Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) and Bird, based on an idea by Lindelof. Like much of Lindelof’s previous output, Tomorrowland represents another interesting premise that isn’t followed through to a satisfying conclusion; another film I want to like but I can’t.

Before we get started, it’s impossible to discuss this film in any detail without venturing into the spoiler jungle so consider this your warning.

THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS, WHICH MAY SPOIL PEOPLE WHO DO NOT WISH TO BE SPOILED. OLÉ!

Tomorrowland is the third property from a Disney theme park to be adapted to film form, and Tomorrowland the film is a deeper and richer adaptation of its source than either The Haunted Mansion or the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Tomorrowland the place has its own complicated and problematic history throughout its many iterations at Disney parks throughout the world, so that its film adaptation is similarly problematic is, in a way, fitting. Tomorrowland was an opening day section of Disneyland Park when it first opened in 1955 and for the most part has remained a work-in-progress ever since. A “land” dedicated to the future has always opened with every “castle park,” and has always taken a somewhat different form. The main problem with Tomorrowland the place is our idea of the future is constantly being rendered obsolete, so a land based on the future inevitably becomes dated fairly quickly. Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland of 1955 in Disneyland envisioned a fantastical future set in the year 1982 (!), where atomic energy would be feasible as a power source for the masses and man would travel to the moon. Walt Disney World’s opening day version of Tomorrowland was woefully incomplete until 1975 with the addition of Space Mountain, the one concept from Tomorrowland that hasn’t dated itself into irrelevancy (“if you had wings” anyone?). Space Mountain is also the one element of Tomorrowland the place that appears in Tomorrowland, the film.

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While Tomorrowland may not pull specific elements and scenes from its source material like Pirates or Mansion, it explicitly references one of the most important chapters in the history of the Disney theme parks: the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Walt Disney and his creative team at WED Enterprises contributed four exhibits to the Fair: The Magic Skyway for the Ford Motor Company, Progressland for General Electric, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln for the State of Illinois and “it’s a small world” for Pepsi/UNICEF. Disney’s projects at the Fair served as a test to determine whether Disneyland-style themed entertainment could be a success on the east coast during the development of Disney’s Florida project. The Carousel of Progress and “it’s a small world” still operate in Disney’s domestic parks and elements of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Magic Skyway still exist in Disneyland. In addition to spurring into existence several of Disney’s most important attractions, the Fair marked an important milestone in the development of Disney’s unique brand of immersive entertainment: it gave Walt the proof that his ideas played well nationwide and was the first big step towards the building of Walt Disney World. In addition, Mr. Lincoln made history as the first Audio-Animatronic figure of a person; Animatronics remain a critical element of themed attractions and the inclusion of this term into Tomorrowland hints at some narrative possibilities left out of the final product.

A leaked (and hastily retracted) Japanese trailer contains a crucial piece of information that did not make it into the final film, and dramatically alters one way to read this film. In the trailer, Walt Disney is name-dropped as a founding member of Tomorrowland, and it is stated that Tomorrowland, in Disneyland was merely a front for the real thing. On the surface this may smack of corporate synergy, but it presents a parallel to Walt Disney’s original vision for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that is hard to dismiss. The desolate, dying Tomorrowland we find at the beginning of the third act mirrors the artistic and thematic decay that has befallen the Epcot theme park over the past two decades, and the shadow of Walt’s EPCOT that never came to be.

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The thing that’s so frustrating about Tomorrowland is how little this matters. The film spends the majority of its running time just getting to Tomorrowland in a series of chases, fights and carefully placed hints; while not particularly engaging at least answers and pay-offs are eluded to. Unfortunately, the answer to the mystery driving the narrative is stupid and worse, ill-defined even amidst some lengthy exposition dumps. The film runs on the propulsion on promising answers to the questions it poses, but the answers don’t make a lot of sense. My reading is George Clooney’s character, Frank Walker invented a device that was designed to monitor events on multiple axes including time, but had the unintended consequence of amplifying the general population’s sense of pessimism and impending doom to tangible, and catastrophic, effects. Instead of explaining this, Hugh Laurie’s character proceeds on an extended rant about how people dig dystopian fiction. It simply does not work. The film’s main protagonist, the plucky teenager Casey played by Britt Robertson, barely leaves an impression and has very little in terms of a dramatic arc. By never wavering from her spunky, assertive attitude and youthful optimism for the future, Casey forgoes any possibility for meaningful character growth and serves mostly as an annoying audience surrogate.

In the end, Tomorrowland serves less as the intriguing sci-fi mystery it intends to be and more as a frustrating hint at what might have been. Brad Bird’s track record was unsullied prior to this film, and there are sequences where Bird’s panache for inventive visuals and precise, coherent action scenes shines through. The overall product, however, sputters as it attempts to soar.

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