I think the vagueness of the looming disaster that the protagonists have to avert prevents the movie from being a great one, but there’s lots to delight the imagination in Tomorrowland, and the underlying message, the glorification of hope and creativity, is one I can get behind.
I don’t know who this retro-futuristic dys/utopian sci-fi/fantasy family mystery/thriller nostalgic road adventure movie was made for, because it’s got admirable protagonists in three different age groups, and that’s not the only thing that makes it a bit strange. Whatever else it may be, however it might be said to fail, it’s definitely original.
Below are some notes on what I thought the message of the movie was as well as a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
My Beat Sheet for Tomorrowland
George Clooney, and/or a countdown clock.
Clooney’s character Frank walks viewers through an incident in his childhood: in spite of fatherly discouragement, he invented a (faulty) jetpack, which failed to win him recognition from Hugh Laurie’s appropriately named character David Nix at a competition at the 1964 World’s Fair. Nevertheless, Laurie’s sidekick, a girl Frank’s age appropriately named Athena, gives him a Tomorrowland pin and tells him to follow her on the Small World ride. When he does, he’s transported to another dimension, a beautiful city full of shining spires where he joyfully flies through the air after his jetpack is repaired by giant robots.
While telling his story, Frank keeps being interrupted by a teen girl named Casey Newton (boy, someone really had fun with these character names). She starts to tell her part of the story next. Frustrated but never really discouraged by negativity from her teachers at school, at night she sabotages the construction machines that are being used to deconstruct the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, in part to save her engineer father’s job and in part because, well, space exploration is cool. Casey loves her father and her father’s red NASA hat, and the parable of the two wolves (which also crops up in the TV show Killjoys): one representing despair and one representing hope, which we can all choose between.
I don’t remember who says it or how, but the theme is something like “don’t give up” or, phrased more positively, “anything’s possible”. Ah, how about this? “Anything is possible if you never give up!”
Casey gets caught and jailed. Among the personal possessions returned to her when she gets bailed out is a Tomorrowland pin that Athena planted on her, but which she has never seen and claims isn’t hers. When she touches it, it immerses her in a vision of a beautiful field of wheat from which she can see the beautiful city of spires. Moving around in the vision moves her in the real world, though, and she drops the pin when she crashes into the wall. In the car going home, she experiences the same phenomenon, but her father doesn’t so he thinks she’s just crazy. Once home again, she still hasn’t figured out that walking around in the vision means she’ll run into real things, and falls down the stairs in her house. Finally, she orients herself towards the city and then rides her motorbike towards it, visiting the other dimension again when she’s within the city itself. She relishes the sights and sounds and almost gets to go on a space shuttle, but some kind of battery in the pin fails, and she finds herself waist deep in a pond, unable to visit the city again.
Eager for an explanation, she looks for the pin on eBay, then (telling her dad she’s gone camping with friends) drives to Texas to visit a pair of shopkeepers who she believes will know something. Unfortunately, it’s a trap. The shopkeepers demand to know where to find “the girl”, believing Casey has met Athena. Casey has no idea what they’re talking about. They attack her with laser guns and press an alarm button to summon backup. Luckily, Athena shows up (having been told Casey’s whereabouts by Casey’s brother) and disables the shopkeepers, who self-destruct. (It turns out they were robots.) Casey and Athena get in a car and flee the scene. Glitchy, grinning men-in-black who are also obviously robots show up on the scene and disintegrate some policemen with futuristic weapons that look like flashlights built into retractable dog-leashes.
Casey questions Athena, who is also a robot, mainly wanting to know whether the place she saw is real, and how to get there. Athena says she chose to give the pin to Casey, and says Casey should find Frank Walker. Casey trusts her, since she saved her life and seems to have the answers, even if she won’t share anything about them. Athena shuts down after Casey asks too many questions, but eventually wakes up and takes over the driving so Casey can rest. Next, however, Casey finds herself abandoned on a country road in New York.
Break Into Two
Approaching Frank’s house, Casey is initially frightened by a loud, fierce dog on a chain, but then realizes the dog hasn’t left any paw prints. It’s a hologram! The ramshackle house is really a high-tech lair, the home of someone who went to Tomorrowland and came back (though why would you?).
B Story / The Promise of the Premise
Frank won’t answer the door, and in fact repels Casey from it using some kind of shockwave. She won’t be deterred, though, even by nightfall or torrential rain: she sets a construction vehicle on fire and aims it at his front door. While Frank uses a superpowered fire-extinguisher on it, she sneaks around behind him into his front door and then locks him out while examining strange objects in his house, one of which is a kind of holographic video camera containing a memory of a young Frank and an ageless Athena.
Frank sneaks back in via the basement just as Casey discovers Frank’s doomsday countdown and the screens that show the certain end of the world. Casey’s optimism makes the certainty of the vague social/nuclear/environmental disaster dip below 100%, but then the glitchy killer robots show up and attack the house. Frank gathers a handful of personal and emergency items and leads Casey to his bathtub escape rocket (hey, anything is possible), which launches them into the safety of a pond some distance from the house. Casey retrieves her wet NASA hat from the pond. Athena shows up and helps them escape. Frank bitterly explains that Athena and her pins are the useless remnants of a scrapped advertising campaign for a ruined utopian land that kicked him out. (The road trip aspects of Tomorrowland reminded me vaguely of Logan; in both there’s a stoic little girl and an old grump.)
Bad Guys Close In
The doomsday device is counting down, but Casey wants to go to Tomorrowland, and/or prevent the end of the world, so she follows Frank to some shed where he keeps a teleporter, and though it makes them really dehydrated and ill, they use it to travel to a secret room in the Eiffel Tower. Once there, they knock a human guard unconscious using a tuning fork and use a phonograph recording (the Edison tube) to reveal a secret steampunk room of shiny gears, built by a cabal of dead white guy inventor illuminati or whatever (blah blah exposition blah blah). The whole tower opens up to reveal a space ship. They strap themselves in and launch it, barely evading the robot assassins. They’re not going to space, though, they’re going up in space so that they can turn around and plummet through the Earth into the other dimension, thus reaching Tomorrowland.
It’s just like Casey’s vision, architecturally, but the white paint no longer gleams, and there are no people and no sunshine. Frank gives Athena a small, spherical bomb that he calls their insurance policy before David Nix, in a scaly dictator jacket, shows up with guards on a maglev train. Frank explains that Casey affected the probability of the vague impending disaster the Earth faces, and might be able to fix the world. Nix expresses skepticism, but agrees to take the group to the infallible predicting machine thingy, which is in the center of the city near a portal to Earth.
Rising up on a circular platform, Casey can see future echoes of herself. She loses her NASA hat. When they reach the top of the spire, a spherical screen with a horrible spherical trackball user interface shows them any place at any time in the past or future. Casey sees herself at her house in the past; she sees the launchpad being torn down; she sees static. And she sees her house, flooded and abandoned. The world is doomed. Or not! When she expresses the theme of the movie, something about not giving up, for a moment the screen shows her house undamaged.
All Is Lost
Nix doesn’t buy it. He forcibly removes them from the projection room to somewhere else, where they wait to be sent back to Earth to die with everyone else in the inevitable cataclysm.
Dark Night of the Soul / Break Into Three
Casey, thinking about the machine, realizes maybe it’s not predicting the future but in fact creating it. Perhaps the signal goes both ways, into the machine and also out of it. If they can stop the signal, people will (probably) stop subconsciously believing the world will end, and then it won’t.
Nix opens the portal onto a deserted island where Casey and Frank will spend the rest of their numbered days, unable to warn anyone. They argue that the world can still be saved, but Nix doesn’t seem to think it deserves to be.
Nix gives a big speech about how he thought telling people what would happen if they didn’t change their ways would make them, well, change their ways, and how they instead embraced the idea of disaster in the future as granting them freedom from responsibility for changing in the present, and complacently watched as all the canaries in the coal mine died, without ever being persuaded to turn back.
Frank attacks Nix and uses his smartwatch to activate the big, circular elevator platform. Casey rides it up to the projection machine, carrying the bomb that Athena has been holding for safekeeping. Casey doesn’t know how to activate it, but figures it out by watching a future echo of herself activate it. Unfortunately, in the course of the fight, the moving platform is prevented from reaching the machine, and eventually crashes back to the ground. The bomb, already activated, gets tossed into the portal, where it explodes without helping the good guys destroy the machine at all.
As the fight continues, Athena sees Nix shoot Frank in a future echo and jumps in front of the bullet to save him. Mortally injured, Athena plays back a recording about how Frank considered her human even though she wasn’t; she worried about disappointing him. Finally, Athena suggests detonating her robot body to destroy the machine. Accordingly, Frank bids her a tearful goodbye and drops her onto the machine, destroying it. Nix dies in the collapse of the tower.
Frank and Casey are in control of Tomorrowland now. They invite Casey’s dad and brother in, fix it up, get some new recruiter robots, and make a speech before sending the recruiters out into the world to find creative folk.
People of conspicuously varied races and professions are in the highly photogenic wheat field, looking towards the city.
Tomorrowland: What Does It Mean?
Maybe the message of the movie is something like, “We should quit with the needlessly alarmist doom-and-gloom predictions and just have fun inventing stuff, and we’ll all be okay”, which is what reviewer David Edelstein seems to think. Ayn Rand and related bits of unpopular cultural baggage keep getting mentioned in analyses of the movie.
Another possibility is that it means something like, “We should quit being loud, self-righteous hypocrites, take responsibility, and act on the very relevant, very dire facts we’ve gathered”, which is what it sounded like to me. In other words, I don’t think viewers are meant to doubt the villain’s assertion that canaries are dying in the coal mine; I think viewers are meant to pay attention to those canaries, so that they won’t have died in vain.
The villain isn’t just evil for the sake of being evil. We’re meant to sympathize with his frustration at humanity’s perverse stubbornness. Letting the world self-destruct was just his way of saying, “Fine, have it your way!” What made him a villain was his choice to ignore evidence that not everyone had given up hope. It sounded to me like he originally wanted to save the world, and just got horribly depressed and fatalistic when he realized that no matter what he said or did to warn them, most people didn’t seem to want to help him do it.
I applaud the movie’s attempt to remind us that the future used to be a joyful place. Too many movies like The Matrix have us convinced that the future is a dark, dismal, dangerous place, and that maybe we’re better off without machines. It’s easy to criticize and unintuitive to praise, perhaps because it makes us vulnerable to others’ criticisms.
In a lot of movies, inventors and explorers, who by definition “meddle” with things they don’t fully understand—not that there is much we do fully understand—are thought, by dint of flying too close to the sun, to be risking all of humanity and not just themselves. This odd film not only defends but enshrines scientists, pioneers, and exceptional people. That’s what The Incredibles does, and it’s by the same director, Brad Bird, who was also responsible for the very enjoyable Ratatouille and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, as well as Iron Giant, which I now am curious to see. The movie is also being compared thematically to Interstellar, which I also haven’t seen. So many movies, so little time.