Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?
I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.
Brad Bird, the director of one of my favorite sci-fi films, the animated The Iron Giant, serves up a work crammed with ideas worth pondering. Tomorrowland, like most good films of the sci-fi genre, is as much concerned with the present as it is with the future. What have we lost in this age of deconstruction, irony, and widespread cynicism, and how might that impact the future? A tall order, and if things get a bit muddled in the last half, so crammed with fast-paced action and an earnest homily from the supposed villain, none of this spoils the fun. And I do mean fun–this film is so filled with the Spielberg sense of wonder that made E.T. so special, making us lose all sense of time!
The theme of “is the glass half full or half empty?” is embodied in the persons of a teenager named Casey (Britt Robertson) and Frank Walker (George Clooney). Frank is addressing a camera at the beginning of the film, telling their story from his pessimistic viewpoint. He says, “When I was a kid, the future was different.” Casey keeps interrupting him off camera, until he turns and says that she should tell the story. She does, starting with a young Frank ( a perfectly cast Thomas Robinson) who arrives with a bulky backpack at the 1964 New York World Fair. Entering a pavillion for inventors, he marches up to a table where judge David Nix (Hugh Laurie) presides. The boy removes from the pack a strange device made basically from an Electrolux sweeper (perfect because of its futuristic look). After he explains that it is a flying jetpack, he admits to Nix’s skeptical question that it does not work—yet. In a flashback we see the funny mishap when Frank first tried it out.
The judge gruffly dismisses him, but the boy and his invention have caught the eye of a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). She hands him a souvenir pin of the Fair. When she leaves the pavillion with Nix, the enraptured boy follows them. They enter a V.I.P. ride, Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” and Frank jumps into an empty gondola behind theirs. In the midst of the dark tunnel he touches the pin and suddenly finds himself in the future where he gazes at a towering utopian city on the horizon. The shape of the city’s skyline bears quite a resemblance to Disney Picture’s signature enchanted castle.
Casey’s own story starts in present day Florida where pessimism seems to pervade all of her teachers, who speak of planetary doom from over population, war, or environmental disaster. She waves her hand to respond, but the first two teachers ignore her. When she does get to pose her question, she asks what can we do about our impending doom, but no solution is offered. She herself does try to do something about her own unemployed father’s (Tim McGraw) sad situation. Once an engineer at NASA, he has been laid off because no further space missions are planned. The massive launching towers are to be demolished, so Casey sneaks onto the grounds at night to sabotage the massive demolition cranes. On her third break in she is caught and hauled off to jail. When released, she finds among her effects that the policeman returns to her a Tomorrowland pin. We see that it is like young Frank’s. She touches it, and instantly she is in the midst of a wheatfield from whence she sees the beautiful city in the distance.
Casey is whisked back and forth as she touches the pin, although she cannot quite control her entrances and exits. In one sequence she wanders through the city, in awe of its tall, narrow towers, sky trains and hovercraft rushing around the buildings (one couple walk by with a floating baby stroller). Like Disney’s Epcot, everything is pristine—no litter or slums. The people are of all hues and dressed in rich clothing that seems fresh off the drawing boards of high fashion designers. And yet she is not really “in” the city because she is able to pass her hand through the images.
Athena connects with Casey, setting her on a journey that will lead to the now grownup Frank. Along the way a squad of androids with pasty smiles belonging to an overly friendly quiz show host (the screening audience laughed aloud at this) try to end their journey, one of the bizarre encounters being at a toy store devoted to games and action figures from sci-fi and horror films (it’s a fan’s dream store!). At last Casey finds her way to the isolated farm house which is filled with the high tech gadgetry of a Frank who has given up hope for the future. However, she has little time to argue with him because their pursuers burst onto the scene. Quite a thrilling chase before they arrive at Tomorrowland where David Nix is now in control, and not happy at seeing Frank, who apparently had been sent away in exile. There follows an exciting climax that will thrill those viewers too young to understand the more cerebral parts. The special effects are truly awesome, especially the episode in Paris where our heroes blast off in a rocketship that has been cleverly hidden in the Eifel Tower! By “cerebral parts” I mean such scenes as the rant by Nix, the man in charge of a now ruined Tomorrowland. No longer is it the beautiful utopia that Casey had first observed. Nix (isn’t his name intriguing?) sorrowfully bemoans a world “of simultaneous obesity and starvation.” (Adults might explain this later by having the children think about the many overweight people they know or see at the mall and pictures on TV and magazines of hungry and homeless people.)
On this morning after the film as I write this review, Frank’s statement, “When I was a kid, the future was different,” brings to mind one of my favorite songs from “the good ole days,” Judy Collin’s verson of Joni Mtitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” * This is a song in which the singer nostalgically reflects upon the way she had during her youthful days looked at clouds—filled with “Rows and flows of angel hair/And ice cream castles in the air/And feather canyons everywhere”—but now that she has supposedly grown up they “only block the sun.” This describes well what has happened to Frank, his pessimism, his losing of faith in the future serving to bring about the dystopia he fears. Those who discuss this film with others might want to play the song and see if others think this describes what has happened to Frank.
Some critics have seen the film as a critique of Hollywood sci-fi films, as well as of our society. During the past few years the majority of films of this genre have looked at the future as dystopian. Their vision of humanity’s future is the polar opposite of the Disney inspired 1964 New York World’s Fair. Science itself is pessimistic as to the future of humanity, seeing the universe either as winding down or blowing up. Little wonder that the Book of Ecclesiastes, written by a jaded man who has seen it all, is well received today, though not the writer’s belief that nevertheless our sad world is still in God’s hands.
On the other hand, the concept of the squeaky clean future utopia, “Tomorrowland in this film, so beloved by the Disney-led people also is worth examining, especially by people of faith. Is this vision of the future a myth that needs to be taken with a pound of salt? Years ago an ecumenical convention of Christian educators met in Orlando Florida, with the registration fee including a day’s pass to Disney’s Epcot Center. There we were impressed by the architecture and well-manicured lawns and shrubs and the clean paths and streets free of litter. We enjoyed the ride through the history of humanity in the giant geodesic sphere known as “Spaceship Earth,” which featured great civilizations and their breakthroughs in communications. However, noticeably absent was that of the Hebrews and their gift of the Ten Commandments. Later also, when Parker Palmer led us in reflecting on the experience, he pointed out how secular the Epcot future is, indeed, how devoid of an interior life its citizens were expected to lead. “Even the bushes by the park benches are wired so that music is always being played,” he observed. Thus how difficult to find a quiet place just to meditate, the logical extension of a culture where even in elevators we are surrounded by sounds. Is this vision of a future we make without any need for God realistic, that is, does it take into consideration fallen humanity’s tendency to “screw up”? Frank talks about gathering together “the brightest and the best” who will create a good future, but should we not recall that once an admirable US President gathered such a capable group, and one of the results was the Vietnam War?
In regards to Frank’s giving up hope for the future there is for people of faith what at times seems to be the uselessly archaic line in the Apostle’s Creed “He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.” Whatever form Christ’s Second Coming might take, the affirmation is the ground for hope. Our future is not entirely in the hands of optimists like young Casey, though it will be influenced by people like her who cling tenaciously to hope and work to fulfill it. But even she needs the kind of faith exhibited by the prophet Habakkuk.
I know the above is not as organized or as full as it might be, but I hope it will convince you not only to go see this remarkable film, but also to share it and discuss it with others. Brad Bird’s film is more fun than any of the rides at Disneyland!
*To see the lyrics go to http://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=83. Search further, and you will find it sung on YouTube.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.