Theory of Negativity, by Tyler Smith
To say that Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland feels like a throwback would be both obvious and an understatement. In its look and its expression of theme, the film reminded me of science fiction movies of the 1950s. It also retains a sense of fun and wonder, as our main characters are exposed to a world of technology and endless possibilities. Where Tomorrowland deviates from most science fiction, however, is in its worldview. While other sci-fi will explore themes of cynicism, fatalism, and a breakdown in humanity, Tomorrowland attempts to extoll the virtues of positivity and optimism. While this doesn’t always work out, it is at least a breath of fresh air at a time when our blockbusters are so preoccupied with widespread death and destruction.
The story begins with Casey (Britt Robertson), a feisty, brilliant teenage girl who lives with her father and brother. Her father is a NASA engineer who is soon to be out of work, due to the impending demolition of the nearby launchpad. Casey uses her technological prowess to sabotage the demolition and is soon recruited by a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) to be a part of a mysterious “World of Tomorrow”. In order to find this world, Casey seeks out Frank Walker (George Clooney), an aging scientist exiled from Tomorrowland.
Once there, they find that Tomorrowland isn’t what it used to be. While this was once a world of hope and optimism, there is now resignation and cynicism. All this in response to the impending end of the world, which is much sooner than one would assume. As Casey and Frank try to avert disaster, they find that their greatest obstacle isn’t technological in nature, but emotional. They are faced with such apathy on the parts of those that could possibly make a difference, our characters are deeply frustrated. When faced with doom and destruction, how could so many people go on about their day?
This is the primary question of Tomorrowland, and it feels right at home among films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. However, where those films embraced the ever-encroaching sense of human extinction, Tomorrowland tries to sidestep it. This isn’t a film interested in the problem, only solutions. It longs to be a source of hope and optimism, stating outright that the biggest problem is the sense of inevitability that comes from cynicism and negativity.
I welcome this point of view, especially as so many other tentpole studio films double down on the complete destruction of cities and worlds. In many ways, it seems like Tomorrowland is Brad Bird’s stand against the standard Hollywood mindset, which clearly states that, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Having directed the fourth- and possibly best- Mission: Impossible film, it’s feasible that Bird was a firsthand witness to the cynicism of the studio’s attitude towards violence and he did not like what he saw.
And so we have a film desperate to challenge us to demand more of ourselves and our entertainment. So desperate, in fact, that it sort of shoots itself in the foot. Characters that start out as fairly well-conceived eventually just become vessels in which to get the film’s message across. Britt Robertson, so delightful in the early scenes of the film, soon starts to buckle under the pressure of having to deliver and elicit exposition that her performance becomes stilted and uncomfortable. The same goes for Clooney, whose character sheds his grizzled persona the moment the film needs him to.
The actors do their best, but the dialogue is simply too heavy on exposition. By the end of the film, everybody is simply explaining things, from their goals to their motivations to the inner workings of Tomorrowland. This can be the problem with a message-driven film; it is so earnest and sincere in its intentions that it forgets to be as narratively-compelling as it can.
And, as much as the film explains itself, it never bothers to explain just how optimism and hope will save us. That may seem a strange complaint, but if the film is going to condemn cynicism, it needs to provide an adequate replacement for that instinct. The appeal- valid or not- of cynicism and fatalism is that it purports to see the world as it is, not as we wish it were. Considering how difficult life can be, the instinct to do everything we can to anticipate problems is very desirable. If we are to abandon that, we need a specific explanation of the virtues of optimism, which the film doesn’t provide. In the end, the message seems to amount to, “Stop doing what you’re doing.” Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying that; many other films have. But, if Tomorrowland is attempting to be more than those movies, then it needs to provide us with more.