I watched Tomorrowland (2015) because I couldn’t tell from the synopses on line if the eponymous utopia was future based, an alternate history or what. Having seen it, I can say it doesn’t qualify for the book, and that the road to boring films is paved with good intentions. Spoilers follow, be warned.
After an amusing intro, we see pre-teen inventor Frank pitching his defective jetpack to Nix (Hugh Laurie) at the 1964 World’s Fair. It doesn’t work, but Nix’s daughter Athena (Raffey Cassidy) is impressed enough to get Frank into Tomorrowland, a city of the future that seems cobbled together out of all the old-school SF dreams: spaceflight, thin towering skyscrapers, super-fast trains (surprisingly no moving sidewalks) and now a jetpack (he finds a way to make it work)! Oh, and Athena is fairly obviously an android though some critics seemed to think that was a surprise when it’s revealed later.
Cut to years later, when teen Casey (Britt Robertson—having a female lead in what could easily be a male role was one good thing about the film) is frustrated with everyone’s pessimism (her teachers hold up 1984 and Brave New World as prophecy, but have no interest in discussing how to improve things) and trying to sabotage NASA’s efforts to shutdown a nearby base. Athena (as we learn later) gives her a pin that lets her see Tomorrowland, then drags her off to find the grown-up, embittered Frank (George Clooney) who was kicked out of the city for inventing something forbidden. When they reach Frank, Casey learns that Tomorrowland’s computer algorithms predict the imminent end of the world—but when the computer sees Casey, the probability of doom drops slightly. Frank and Athena struggle to get her into Tomorrowland to change things while dodging an army of killer droids.
When they finally arrive, Nix delivers a blistering speech about how everyone’s given up on hope and loves reading about and watching about and playing videogames about the end of the world which shows how defeated and despairing we’ve become. He also refuses to save anyone by bringing them into Tomorrowland because they’ll just spoil it (I thought this was going to be a take on the countless SF stories about some Last Redoubt holding the survivors of humanity, but no). Casey, however, realizes their computer isn’t just predicting apocalypse, it’s broadcasting the idea into people’s heads, and thereby bringing it about; Nix replies that if they aren’t inspired to fight and prevent it, that shows how screwed up they are. Ultimately, Casey and Frank save the day, and begin recruiting new dreamers for Tomorrowland to rise again.
The first problem I had with Tomorrowland was story logic. I admit my mind started to wander midway through so maybe I missed it, but I don’t think we ever learn where the killer droids came from. Or why what was once a flourishing city of researchers is now empty except for Nix and his goons—did Nix exile everyone? Did they all just give up?
Then there’s the theme that we’ve abandoned our optimistic view of the future (both in reality and SF) for a negative one, and that’s why we can’t fix the world. This is not a new complaint, and it’s not very convincing: dystopias go back to H.G. Wells, after all. Buck Rogers, once the byword for cool future tech, also presented a US regressing to barbarism under the heel of foreign conquerors. Assuming (and I do) Nix’s speech was supposed to be the message of the film, it sounded less like an indictment of modern SF than kvetching about Kids Today! (with their death metal, their videogames, their dystopian Y/A fiction!). I’d disagree with the analysis of real-world vision, but that’s too complicated (and political) a topic to get into here.
And then there’s the whole call for dreamers and imagineers to rise up and envision a brighter future … coming from a movie whose vision of the future is notably lacking in imagination. Tomorrowland really does seem recycled from the technical visions The Jetsons once captured on TV—shouldn’t we have something better, wilder, crazier? As the late SF critic Baird Searles put it, there’s nothing in Tomorrowland that makes me say “Of course that’s what the future would be like—but I never imagined it!”
As critic AO Scott put it, Tomorrowland is the equivalent of someone screaming at kids to go have fun, dammit!