Are we too cynical to take Tomorrowland seriously?

Tomorrowland is a rare futuristic film that is overwhelmingly optimistic. As a character in the film itself points out, stories set in the future these days tend to be pretty dark and depressing, and we eat all that up. Films like The Hunger Games practically revel in the misery of these characters, telling us that everything is terrible and we’re headed down a dark path. In fact, movies in general are pretty dark these days, especially summer blockbusters. Tomorrowland doesn’t necessarily disagree that times are bad and that this can be reflected in our storytelling, but it’s is a movie that asks the question,”What can we do differently now?”

But is it too sincere for critics and audiences to take seriously?

Directed by The Incredibles’ Brad Bird, Tomorrowland tells two parallel stories. First there’s self-described optimist Casey, who refuses to admit the space age is over, sabotaging machines NASA is using to take down a launch platform. She would most definitely relate to Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar. 

When she receives a mysterious pin that can take her to another world, she’s drawn into the mystery of Tomorrowland, a fantastical place where the brightest of the bright would come together to make a difference and change the world. Casey meets Frank Walker, played by George Clooney, who once was full of hope like her but who has been beaten down by the horrors of the world, obsessed with the dark path humanity has in store.

George Clooney is the clear stand in for the audience throughout the film. Like us as a society, he’s obsessed with the future and the fact that humanity might be doomed. Issues like global warming, ongoing wars, poverty and starvation ravage society and make it hard to think that anything but despair lies ahead. Walker’s house is full of TVs tuned into horrifying news stories, and we can see that as being analogous to us, both watching the news and watching The Hunger Games. We’re obsessed with things being dark and terrible because, as the movie later points out, that implies we don’t have to change our behavior at all. This is how things are going to be.

But Tomorrowland, through the voice of Casey, is overwhelmingly sincere and optimistic, telling us that absolutely nothing is set in stone, and we can actually change our future today. I wasn’t quite expecting this from the trailers, but the movie is definitely geared quite a bit at kids, and it’s a movie that tells them that they can think big and make a difference.

Isn’t that something we should be embracing? Isn’t it great to see a summer blockbuster for families discuss themes like climate change, telling us that we can build a better future together?

It’s without a doubt a message movie, but Tomorrowland is also highly entertaining in general. For the first act of the film, Tomorrowland is very reminiscent of classic Spielberg. It gives us this tremendous sense of awe, and we experience that wonder through our protagonist, Casey. I love when a movie has a great sense of discovery, and Tomorrowland certainly has that. We’re very slowly finding out more about this world, and Bird and Lindelof do a great job hooking us from the beginning.

The movie was written by Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost, and like that show, Tomorrowland is about the journey more than the destination. We don’t actually spend that much time in the titular city, but the movie is more about the journey to find it and exploring what the idea of Tomorrowland represents. And that idea is truly interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie does have problems. The third act is definitely extremely rushed, with the major conflict introducing itself through a monologuing villain and then being resolved almost immediately after. It feels like Lindelof was mainly interested in setting up this world, but once he got there, he kind of rushed his way to the end. The teasing out of the mystery is far more interesting to him, and I’m often inclined to agree. But just 10 or 15 more minutes in the last act would have certainly helped things feel less rushed.

The movie is also kind of goofy at times, like one scene featuring Keegan-Michael Key with robots essentially shooting kids guns. This goofy tone combined with a message reminiscent of a Captain Planet episode makes it pretty easy to make fun of Tomorrowland, writing a cynical takedown of its plot holes and moving on.

But what’s the point of that? Can’t we stop being so cynical and look at the overall picture here? Do we have to dismiss a movie for wearing its heart on its sleeve and being overwhelmingly earnest and optimistic? Tomorrowland is a somewhat flawed film but one that is overall highly entertaining and with a great message. I’m thrilled by the prospect of kids going to see the movie this weekend and feeling inspired to make a difference in the world, and that’s not usually something you would say about a summer blockbuster.

But if we watch the movie with our arms crossed, resigned not to let a positive message sink in, we’ll probably miss all that.

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