Finally catching up on movies that have been out forever, we saw Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland last night. I think it’s the ‘lost in the shuffle’ big summer movie, the one that just didn’t generate enough buzz to really take off, which is a shame. It’s an energetic and enjoyable flick, and also a seriously intended commentary on contemporary society and politics. In fact, that’s its biggest problem, I think. Bird has something significant to say in this movie, but the vehicle for his message is so pretty and funny and light that the message doesn’t penetrate. Except when it did.
The movie first. A kid, Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), brings an invention to the 1964 World’s Fair, a jet pack, an awesome piece of James Bond-ish technology that has the solitary defect of not working very well. Queried about it by an enigmatic judge figure, Nix (Hugh Laurie), young Frank admits that it’s not a practical invention. It could, however, inspire young people, he insists. Not good enough, says Nix, and leaves, his nine-year-old daughter, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) accompanying him. But Athena gestures for Frank to join them, and he does, ending up in Tomorrowland, a magic world of amazing technology, like Epcot Center on steroids.
Cut to the future, and we meet a teenaged girl, Casey (Britt Robertson), about to commit an act of sabotage. It’s the future (or our present?), and the NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral is scheduled for demolition. Casey, a plucky optimist and science freak, thinks this is unconscionable, and zips around on her motorcycle, frying the controls of the demolition equipment. This leads to fights with her father (Tim McGraw), a soon-to-be-unemployed NASA engineer. But we sense how much father and daughter (and also her younger brother (Pierce Gagnon) care about each other. And in their conversation, the ruling metaphor of the film finds its first expression. The human spirit is likened to two wolves: one, positive, optimistic, kind, the other selfish, fearful, negative. Which one will survive? The one we feed.
Okay, so Casey is caught and arrested, and Dad makes bail, but in her effects, she finds something that’s not hers; a pin with a T on it. And she discovers that when she touches the pin, she’s transported to a wheat field outside a magical city, the same techno-paradise that young Frank saw in the earlier scenes. But the pin has a time limit, and when hers expires, she returns to her reality. Obviously, the next step is an internet search for that pin, which leads her to a curios shop in Texas, run by the amusingly menacing couple, Ursula (Kathryn Hahn) and Hugo (Keegan-Michael Key). When Casey won’t tell them where she got the pin, they pull out space age blasters, and start shooting. She’s rescued, however, by little Athena, aged not a day from her earlier iteration, but now with mad martial arts skills. Athena then sends Casey to the home of a world-weary recluse, Frank, now played by George Clooney.
The world, it seems, is on the brink of destruction. Climate change, political instability, ethnic hatreds, all are leading us to destruction. We have about two months left. But old Frank sees something on his various monitors that tell him that the world might still be salvageable, because of this girl, Casey, because of her optimism and courage. And so he takes her with him to Tomorrowland. He takes her to, in other words, a technologically advanced society living in a parallel universe to earth, run by, yes, Nix, Athena’s putative father (who also hasn’t aged).
And amidst their various struggles, Nix gives a speech. Seeing the end of the world rapidly approaching, he decided to send a signal from his world to ours, showing precisely what would happen if we all continued in our current course. He thought the warning would wake us up. He thought we’d change our ways. He thought we’d all figure out what we were doing wrong and make the political and cultural changes that would hold destruction at bay. He thought the human capacity for innovation and invention would prevail, that we’d allow it to prevail. But in fact, he ‘fed the wrong wolf.’ We embraced nihilism. We embraced various visions of dystopia. We fetishized it, in pop culture, in movies and television and video games. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss: we’ve accelerated our headlong rush to oblivion. And he doesn’t see a lot of reason to stop sending that signal. He warned us. We don’t seem to care. Let us blow ourselves up.
What can we do? Well, we can blow up that signal, and Clooney and Laurie can scrap a bit, finally Casey wins, and with Frank’s aid, she createss a whole bunch more Tomorrowland pins, which she distributes, which I read as ‘recruit forward-thinking optimists and get things solved.’ The ending of the movie really was genuinely moving and inspiring. I mean, yes, in part, the movie is arguing for a Disney-esque vision for mankind, and asks us to reject the values of the other big box office movie released the same week, the new Mad Max. It’s Disney asking us all to adopt Disney values. (And reject worldly nihilistic values). It’s Disney Corp. saying only Disney can save us. See what I did there? Used a positive family-values movie to feed my inner cynic?
But in fact, Nix is right. I know, he gives a pretentious and didactic bad-guy-monologuing nihilist speech at the end of a fun fantasy adventure movie, and I’m probably taking that speech way too seriously. But he is right. He accuses mankind of short-sightedness, laziness, selfishness and complacency, and he basically gets us right. Doesn’t he?
I mean, I live in Provo, Utah. A nice little town, maybe 100, 000 contented souls. And it’s a town built on the suburban model. It’s all single-residence homes, grass yards, transportation needs filled by cars. It’s an ecological disaster. Hardly any mass transit, which one of the most contentious local political issues involves expanding. If global warming is raised as an issue at all, it’s in the context of disputing whether or not the science can be trusted.
We should probably change. We should increase buses, add more rail options, move into apartments, retire our cars. (I live with my wife and daughter–we own three cars between us). We should make massive cultural and lifestyle changes in an effort to stave off global warming. And we’re not going to. We don’t want to. I don’t want to. Run for public office on a ‘radically downsize society, or we’re doomed’ platform. You’d get, what, 1% of the vote? Less?
It’s easier to amuse ourselves with dystopias. It’s easier to comfortably embrace nihilism. Yes, global warming, how very dreadful. Gonna be tough on our grandkids. But, hey, they’ll figure something out.
I found Tomorrowland . . . unsettling, in a way that’s peculiarly at odds with its colorful and fast-paced fantasy storytelling. I liked Clooney, liked the child actress Cassidy, really liked Robertson. But Hugh Laurie ended up costing me sleep. Brad Bird is a visual stylist of the first order. But he’s also a bright guy, with something to say. We should probably all pay more attention.
But we’re not going to. It’s too much trouble.