To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
I wish Tomorrowland had only strutted and fretted an hour upon the stage. This inglorious mess went on for days, or so it seemed. It may not be a tale told by an idiot, but it is definitely one told as if to an idiot. Imagine L. Frank Baum’s untalented second cousin, Jules Verne’s freshly disinterred corpse, Rube Goldberg, and the secretary-general of the United Nations coming up with an idea for a futuristic summer blockbuster of a movie, then handing over their 850-page treatment to whoever is responsible for writing the End User Agreements for Microsoft, and you have some idea of what a blithering, blathering, hectoring mess of a movie this is.
So yes, I intend to spoil this for you.
We begin in the present, I think. Frank Walker (George Clooney) is addressing the future, presumably. Or perhaps his contemporaries. It is unclear. Given his assumptions — that we’re all doomed — neither makes much sense. We think he is going to narrate this tale, but he’s only getting it kicked off, by flashing back to 1964 and the World’s Fair in Flushing Park.
Young Frank Walker (like Skywalker, get it?) has taken the bus into Queens of all places to contribute an original invention to the world the Jetsons will inhabit. Frank winds his way through this Disneyland of a futuristic carnival, with its promise of space travel and flying cars and a lot of shiny metal, until he arrives at the Inventions of Tomorrow booth, overseen by an imperious Brit named Nix (Hugh Laurie), who is unimpressed with Walker’s primitive Electrolux-powered jet pack. It doesn’t quite work. And even if it did, of what value is it? What does it contribute to the “good” of society.
It’s merely awesome, young Frank says. It inspires. Nix nixes Frank and sends him packing.
But a young lady named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who attends the booth with Nix sees something more in Frank. So impressed with his vision is she that she leads him through a portal to the future, where Disney’s and NASA’s and every day dreamer’s idea of what the future looks like is manifest. Future persons are wearing those silver jump suits, and yes, there are flying cars, and a lot of space needles, and a lot of robots. In other words, it’s pretty cold and fast and predictable if you’ve ever watched a movie set in the future.
Frank, however, is in awe, and inspired, which to him is the whole point of even having a future. (Plus, he’s 11.) So he’s happy to stay and learn — especially if it means having Athena with her big blue eyes as his guide.
Now we flit back to the past, where a young woman named Casey Newton (like Isaac, get it?), who is holed up with Old Frank, begins telling her backstory. She is the daughter of a NASA engineer about to lose his job because, well, space exploration ain’t what it used to be. She’s a troublemaker and endlessly curious and a fighter, so she of course winds up being picked up by the cops one night only to find a World’s Fair medallion that enables her to go through that same portal into the same future young Frank Walker now inhabits (or inhabited, now that he’s Old Frank Walker and apparently back in the present — and very disillusioned).
Well, Casey wants to know what this medallion thingee is, and what that whole future thing is, and why she keeps being pulled back into Kansas, er, the present — only to be hunted by some wacky Danger Will Robinson–era Space Age robots until young Athena comes to her rescue and, though no more than 10 or 11, proceeds to kick the living ordure out of everyone and everything. Casey has no idea what to think, but Athena is in no mood to explain and insists that Casey’s very life depends on her following Athena’s every command.
So off the two of them go on a road trip (Athena driving, of course) that ends up leading Casey to Old Frank, now locked in a safe house with a lot of monitors and futuristic tech. They eventually get set upon by some Men in Black, robots from the future who are hunting Casey, and especially that medallion, but they manage to elude by way of a flying bathtub with water wings. Casey and Old Frank meet up again with Athena, and the whole gang shoot back to the future where they meet Nix, who is the Imperial Governor of Tomorrow, and who kicked young Frank out of the future because young Frank invented a machine that could predict the end of the world, which just brought everyone down, made everyone fatalistic, so instead of doing anything about climate change and war and — get this — mutually assured destruction (for a minute I thought I was watching War Games), the masses just became complacent and accepted their fate, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy so to hell with them, let them drown in melted ice caps or evaporate via nuclear fallout.
But Old Frank sees something in Casey, which Athena sees too: “She hasn’t given up.” Casey still has energy for the fight, the fight for the future, despite Nix’s long-winded speech about how the world isn’t worth saving because people are both fat and starving and watch too much TV and get off my lawn you damn kids and what time is it and how much more of this movie is there?
And yet — there they are. In the future. If the world is coming to and end —in 58 days, to be exact (we’re constantly brought back to a digital countdown sitting on Old Frank’s desk) — how did there get to be a future in the first place? Well, the elites that young Frank had hoped would sidestep politics and Big Capitalism to stage a kind of Manhattan Project Meets the War on Poverty and You Know How That Turned Out to prevent environmental collapse and endless civil war worked, but only for the elites. Once they created their future, they closed the doors behind them so the rest of humankind couldn’t get in, because when they were told about the imminent collapse of civilization, they were more than happy to make bad movies like this one about the end of the world and ensure that the apocalypse would make Harold Camping a rich man.
But why not just show the hoi poloi the future possibilities of the future and let them in? Because the rabble are all savages and would only make a mess of it. Only those who are deserving of a future, the dreamers, the thinkers, the innovators, have a right to live.
There’s the inevitable Big Fight between Old Frank and Nix (who “nixes” everyone’s future — get it?) and something like a hopeful ending, where the future is placed in the hands of dreamers like Casey (and even Athena, who, it turns out, was a kind of distaff Pinocchio who almost becomes a real girl). These special folk, the new “elite,” are culled from Africa and Asia and Latin America and privileges women, presumably because Nix’s future had more than enough white people and men are the bastards who ruin everything anyway.
So, the moral of the story is: when the elites tell you the world is going to end if you don’t do something, don’t listen to the Nixers of the world (read the Party of No): do something about it. Because the elites know what’s best for them. And what’s best for them is what’s best for you, even though you don’t really figure in the future that’s best for them.
And embedded in all this are long stretches where characters just talk and talk or look amazed or scared or run around or beat up kids (which is kind of disturbing) or robots that look like kids with the final effect that a lot of time is killed.
Now believe it or not, this tendentious and semi-circular tale of past, present, and future possibilities is just that: a story that had possibilities but that blows itself up with its time-traveling almost cleverness and dogged self-importance. One truly jaw-dropping set piece involves the Cleaving Tower of Eiffel and the original Plus Ultra, that historic and historical Elect who congregated to think through the first Tomorrowland: Jules Verne, Gustave Eiffel, Nicola Tesla, and Thomas Edison, whose likenesses are preserved in a museum room in the Tower itself. In Frank’s telling, the Eiffel Tower was never meant to be a monument but rather an antenna — collecting signals from other worlds. What follows should have had me at the edge of my seat, but instead had me looking at my watch. I immediately thought about how in the hands of a Steven Spielberg this could have been an epic and awe-inspiring romance of how visionaries and Big Thinkers have conjured new pathways to the stars and new technological capabilities, and if we but followed in their footsteps, who knows what wonders we could contrive.
Instead we’re treated to an endless series of open-university lectures about how you have to have hope even when everyone keeps telling you that there is no basis for hope, otherwise disaster becomes inevitable, except for those who know better than you and who don’t like you very much anyway.
George Clooney looks concerned throughout, whether about the end of the world or his career, I don’t know. Hugh Laurie seems to be having fun and gets in a funny line or two. (Well, one.) But it’s Raffey Cassidy who steals the show as Athena, the Powerpuff Girl Deluxe Edition. She manages to be charming and authoritative even though her adolescent character calls for her to be distant and even vacant while all the time dressed like she’s just come from Sunday school. She definitely has a future.
As for director Brad Bird, for the guy who gave us The Incredibles, well, this is an incredible waste of time, resources, and CGI. Perhaps on the next project he’ll spend more time focusing on compelling storytelling and lighten the hell up on the Nobel speeches.
The film’s attitude toward “elites” is worth considering for a moment. It’s ambivalent, which is a nice way of saying confused. At first, it appears that the modern-day “Plus Ultras” will, or already have, solved most of the entrenched critical crises that keep CNN from going dark. But if Governor Nix is the “elitist” exemplar, then they really can’t be trusted to pursue the common good any more than the masses of ordinary self-involved folk can, who, by the way, are discussed as if hardly worth saving to begin with. Or are we to assume that the past produced better elites? The almost worshipful treatment of Edison, Tesla, et al. would lead one to think that the future was better when it was still safely ensconced in the 19th and 20th centuries. (In fact, Old Walker opens with a joke about how the future was “different” when he was a kid.” There’s a strange nostalgia that sits uneasily with the restless yearning for tomorrowland here.)
Even once Nix, and his mentality, is disposed of, the portal to the future is opened only to a select few (Tesla had his own ideas of what constituted an elite — an irony nowhere addressed here). Though not necessarily of genius IQ, these Very Special Persons nevertheless possess qualities an elite, and progressive, view of the future demands.
Conservationists and physicists and ballerinas and tenders of the soil? Check. Philosophers and theologians? Uh, no. There is no God, in the future, no Unmoved Mover or Uncaused Caused. Only wannabes. Sovereign deities are just predestinarian killjoys, setting limits to the limitless possibilities imagined by those with tenure.
And while the vision of the future saviors of the world is short on white people, it would be petty to dismiss the ending as merely politically correct. The majority of the world is not white, as a matter of demographic fact. And so the sensibilities the denouement was meant to flatter can have this future.
I’ll take the apocalypse any day.
I’m Governor Nix, and I approved this message.