Disney’s Tomorrowland: A World Beyond is ‘Atlas Shrugged for kids’, says MacDara Conroy
It’s actually quite fitting that Disney’s latest attempt to spin a blockbuster film out of its resort attractions literally begins with a theme park ride. I suppose they had to shoehorn It’s A Small World in somewhere, as it was never going to get a movie to itself. But that’s how Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland: A World Beyond starts, with a young inventor at the 1964 World’s Fair following Hugh Laurie and chums onto that sickly sweet darkride and into a secret parallel world where the dreams and wonders of the future – flying cars, rocket ships, jet packs and the like – are already reality.
Forty years later and those dreams seem even further away for high-schooler Casey Newton (Britt Robertson, Delivery Man). She’s constantly bombarded with dystopian messages that the world is doomed and we’re resigned to our fate, but she alone holds on to the hope that we have the power to fix things, if only we just did it. Sigh. Anyway, her peers and elders – including her NASA engineer dad (country music star Tim McGraw) – might not be listening, but someone is, and soon enough Casey is transported via mysterious lapel pin (slash merchandise opportunity) to that world beyond our own, a taster of the future that leads her on a chase across the States into battles with laser-toting robots and an encounter with an older, grumpier version of that boy from the World’s Fair, played by George Clooney (Return of the Killer Tomatoes).
Joined by an exile from the future world, starchy tween Athena (Raffey Cassidy), this cross-generational tag team ventures through time and space to find all is not well, neither in Tomorrowland nor their own universe, thanks to the actions of disillusioned utopian dictator, and a baffling probability device that’s determined the exact date of the end of the world.
It’s around this point in proceedings that the action – as much as there is in a film that, overall, feels strangely unfantastic for its theme – grinds to a halt and co-writer Damon Lindelof’s cod philosophy takes over. Eschewing the Biblical metaphors this time round (though there is one awkward pieta-style scene near the end), the guy who ruined Lost and Prometheus is in league with Pixar alum Bird to make science and its exaltation their agenda in Tomorrowland. Yet while their hearts are in the right place – what’s ignoble about encouraging interest in science and big ideas? – their execution of it here is pretty insidious.
Celebrating the notion of an alternate dimension where the brightest minds, the people of ideas, go to better the world in their own vision because they’re convinced they know what’s best for everyone? That sounds an awful lot like Ayn Rand. And the inevitable destructiveness of that kind of libertarian thinking is hardly surprising – it’s the basis of the Bioshock video game series, for crying out loud – but Bird and Lindelof aren’t really concerned with any of that. To them, it seems, all that matters is scientific progress; ethics don’t even come into it. How to defeat a nefarious device that transmits negative ideas into people’s heads en masse? Why, their plot contrives, but with a device that transmits positive ones instead! Consent? What consent?
So is Tomorrowland their version of Atlas Shrugged for kids? Maybe if it remembered it’s supposed to be a popcorn movie and wasn’t so enamoured with its talkiness over the kind of spectacle that really captures attention on the big screen. Scenes of characters Talking About Things in cavernous grey rooms dominate over the admittedly eye-catching but far-too-few sections that fly us around the utopian paradise, its look (for all we really get is a look) inspired by the fantastical fiction of sci-fi’s Golden Age. I doubt many children will be influenced by the stifling didacticism, like a preachy educational film on the classroom projector, or something you’d see on the Disney ride you had to go on because the line for the cool one was too long. (That’s especially so when many of its bigger points are made by the ostensible villain of the piece, in the form of rhetorical questions that aren’t quite as simple as Bird and Lindelof make them out to be.)
Tomorrowland is a film that thinks it has the answers, but it doesn’t even understand the questions. And it ultimately falls into the same traps as Bird’s Pixar colleague Andrew Stanton with his box office bomb John Carter, convinced that the vision that works for them must be universalised for everyone. If only that vision wasn’t so one-dimensional, diluting the imaginative and, yes, even philosophical richness of the stories that inspired them: in Stanton’s case, into a boring space western with nothing at stake; in Bird’s, into a naive paean to an era of enlightenment where eugenics was considered a good idea. And this from the guy who made The Iron Giant. For shame!