The pin comes from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and an exhibition in particular, Highways and Horizons, a glimpse of days to come as offered by the Ford Motor Company and Norman Bel Geddes. The pin was handed out at the end of “Futurama,” a conveyor belt ride, but in the space between, a future of innovation and relentless potential was put on display. Tomorrowland is in search of this theoretical world of tomorrow. Not simply how we might achieve this future, but what happened to the pursuit.
Obsessed in aesthetic and setting with our once glimmering space age, Tomorrowland opens at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. A young man has prepared his entry for an invention competition, and it’s nothing less than the official shorthand for any worthwhile future: a jetpack. When pressed as to why this invention matters, how it makes the world a better place, he replies, “If I saw a kid fly past in a jetpack, I’d believe anything was possible.”
Where our precocious young man in 1964 is rewarded for such hopefulness and ingenuity, we meet Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a young woman out of place in 2015, the era of apocalypse. Her introduction is two-fold, first at night as a motorbike riding tech genius bent on saving a defunct NASA launch pad. Then during the day where she’s a high school senior reminded in class after class, no matter the subject, humanity is headed for certain ruin. All the while she keeps her hand raised, and when finally called upon she asks the most relevant, overlooked question, “What can we do about it?”
All of this is set up through a rather clever framing device, and our story is spun around a certain optimism. Not to say Tomorrowland is nearsighted in its idealism, but it challenges the pervasive sense of doom with a counter proposal. To go into the finery of the story would only poke deeper into Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird’s surprisingly intricate narrative structure. More than is fun anyway. All that said, we travel through time, space (briefly), and across dimensions to meet, confront, and attempt to reject our inevitable fate. Along the way we collect Hugh Laurie, George Clooney, and Raffey Cassidy as the disquietingly post-human Athena.
Where the circuitous design of the story is largely enjoyable, the film does get bogged down in Disney-fication and/or poor judgement, it's hard to tell which, but there are some treacly, corny moments. Not the major beats—a bit predictable, yet they still manage to land on the sweet notes—but little stuff. The robot G-men sent to hunt Casey and company are obnoxious in their cheesy rigidness. Our villain’s bloviating is trite, until it opens into something fairly cutting and insightful. Our righteous sermonizing is cliché, until it yields a pretty cool moment. And public enemy number one is, unfortunately, the CGI. Drenched in digitally-rendered action and cityscapes, the effects do more to cheapen the aesthetic than buoy it. (Which it probably didn’t help I’d seen adjective detonating Mad Max: Fury Road, Tomorrowland's visual antithesis, three times the weekend before. That’s a conversation for another time and place, but still...less is more, folks.)
Sure, the film stumbles through some dopey moments, it could be 10 to 15 minutes leaner, but the handful a few grievances aren't enough to put me off an otherwise resonant film. All message, all hope, all big, bursting heart, there is something exciting about a vision of our shared future void of cynicism. Because if Tomorrowland argues anything with conviction, it’s that the future isn’t left to fate or statistical certainty, but to its participants. If we’re fated to ruination, a hellscape made by our collective hand, if we can aspire to humankind’s vision of jetpacks on every back, it’s ours and we made it so.