Detailed in Esquires’ recent article, “Inside Walt Disney’s Ambitious, Failed Plan to Build the City of Tomorrow,” the visionary pioneer behind the House of Mouse set his sights on something grander and more utilitarian than the awe-inspiring theme parks that he has become legendary for. It was called the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” — and it was primed to change the face of the metropolis as we know it. Disney, ever the idealist and ambassador of optimism, envisioned a wheel-shaped city in Florida that would be clean, organized, beautiful and technologically-savvy, reinventing how humans thought about transportation, waste-management and community planning. It was his next step in changing the world.
And it never happened. Marred by an extended timeline and Walt’s untimely death in 1966, Project X, as it was nicknamed, never reached fruition. Instead, the city was repurposed into creating a new park: Epcot.
Fast-forward to 2015. Geek throne-bearers and sci-fi heavyweights Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof and Jeff Jensen announced to the world that they were working on a Disney futurist film, promptly setting off a storm of intrigue and wonder with release of a mysterious box labeled 1952. I personally devoured every morsel of information I could find on the movie that would eventually become Tomorrowland. Every trailer hinted at what the rousing adventure would hold — the completion of Walt’s vision.
Tomorrowland is out, and just like Walt’s unfulfilled vision of his dream, so is the movie. That’s not to say Tomorrowland does not have its fair share of strengths — from the rousing score from Michael Giacchino, a game-protagonist in newcomer Britt Robertson and to seeing my stomping grounds of Florida onscreen. The strange choice to relegate everything that is interesting about this story to the background deflates what could have been a new bonafide classic.
To recap, Tomorrowland follows Casey Newton (Robertson), who upon finding a mysterious pin in her personal items after her arrest for sabotaging machines that are dismantling launch pads at a defunct NASA launch site, is transported to a futurist world filled with endless potential — but only for a few minutes. In an effort to get back there, Casey tracks down Frank Walker, a curmudgeonly engineer with possible ties to the city she saw.
To be totally honest, I wanted to see Tomorrowland. I wanted to walk among the platinum streets, play with the holographic technology and fly in a jetpack like a young Frank Walker does in the prologue. An adventure in Tomorrowland would have been the stuff of movie magic. But just like the pin that acted as a commercial for what Tomorrowland could be, the movie was a commercial for what the story could have been.
I believe this comes down to an issue of scope. In Slashfilm’s inteview with story architect Jeff Jensen, he describes the approach of the movie to be like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, opting to focus on a character searching for truth and authenticity for what they saw or experienced early in the film. By teasing something beautiful and profound, the protagonist must fight to solve the mystery and find what they only had a taste of.
In order to do this, you need a really good mystery — one that unfolds through narrative, character, theme and aesthetics. And boy, does Tomorrowland have tantalizing mysteries. The incredible Plus Ultra brain trust that founded Tomorrowland. The machinations of the 1964 World Fair. And of course the inner-workings of the city itself. Even more dynamic though is the focus on Casey and her family — a ragtag group of scientists who share a love for the stars and their place in it.
For the first half of the film, the mystery is firing on all cylinders. When we finally get to Tomorrowland via a spaceship hidden inside the Eiffel Tower (my favorite scene in the movie), there’s nothing left of the promise and optimism that Casey saw. It’s a desolate, abandoned city that has succumbed to the inevitability of a coming apocalypse, foreseen by one of the inventions Frank made during his tenure there.
Then it all seems to fall apart. There’s talk of tachyons and alternative futures contingent of positive thinking, but it plays out in too convoluted a manner. The story seems to go off the rails, as though there was not enough track to keep the whole enterprise running smoothly. When the audience expects ingenuity, wonder and even a larger-than-life magic, we are given revenge, fighting robots and more portals. The payoff just isn’t sufficient. We are left wanting so much more.
Was that really it?
Maybe the expectations were too high. Maybe Tomorrowland should simply be judged for what it is — a small story of a smart girl realizing she’s right to be optimistic in the face of cynicism. Bird and Co. have the right ideas, a fantastic team and a spectacular idea of a world, but it seems they got so caught up in getting to Tomorrowland, they didn’t know what to do when they got there.
In addition, a focus on optimistic humanism lends itself to a different kind of shrinking in scope — the lack of the supernatural or extraterrestrial. When evaluating the work of the great populist science fiction creatives of our time (Spielberg, Stephen King, Zemeckis, Lucas, J.J. Abrams), they acknowledge at the least the potentiality of something beyond ourselves, giving their stories weight with mystery about the great what ifs of our universe. Tomorrowland bypasses these concepts, preaching that great ideas and hard work are all that is needed to reach beyond the stars, signaling that the best humanity has to offer is from humanity itself. Although I can see the comfort in this philosophy, it makes the film seem so much smaller and earthbound than a film about reaching for the stars should be.
Nonetheless, I applaud Bird, Lindelof and Jensen for attempting, reaching and dreaming. I love that they want kids to care about space, about caring and about hope. Even though their ideas never quite break the atmosphere, I hope maybe their next film will or that a new generation of storytellers will take these themes into orbit. Maybe one day we’ll even have a new Walt, who will carry on the vision of a brighter tomorrow.
2.5 out of 5