“There are two wolves,” says Casey of Tomorrowland. “One represents darkness and despair, the other light and hope. Which one survives?” To be sure, the philosophizing throughout Brad Bird’s latest film is never any more subtle than this (or less). Casey, optimist to such a ridiculous degree that we learn that about her before we even learn her name, disregards any need for subtext and instead just states the thing itself: “I’m an optimist”. She answers the wolves question in a similarly matter-of-fact manner. Which one survives? “The one you feed.”
Happily, we put this very quote to work in our review of an episode of The Red Road called “The Wolf and the Dog“. It’s much less of a stretch here in Tomorrowland, and again, you don’t really have to stretch at all. It’s plainly clear that the vast majority of today’s storytelling is geared towards the grim, towards the harrowing action-filled future, towards the Cormac McCarthy-style doom and gloom. This is true of almost every medium and almost every target audience, but since Tomorrowland is so much in line with the present Young Adult craze (and because Casey is a teenager) we’ll deal in that genre. The examples should leap readily to mind: Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Giver, Divergent, The Mortal Instruments and Ender’s Game are all youthful dystopias with damn similar plots and damn similar everything else. Even Harry Potter, while not dystopian in any way, was a kid’s story turned dark and brooding on screen (see: everything after Daniel Radcliffe grew up).
Tomorrowland feeds the other wolf. It’s difficult sometimes to put a finger on what exactly is so endlessly irksome about YA dystopias, even though there are plenty of littler things that are endlessly irksome about YA dystopias. The fact that each poses as this original, brave new world while really just being a rehash of whatever the last one was, slightly shinier, is certainly a major point of contention. But now that Tomorrowland is out it’s painfully obvious that the problem lies elsewhere. The plots of these films, again, are damn similar: “headstrong teen battles the threat of conformity” describes Hunger, Giver, Divergent, etc. The massively understated fact of the matter is that these movies are so frequent and so similar and so infuriatingly mindless that they are the threat of conformity — understated not so much by critics (Nick Schager’s article over at Vulture hits that nail on the head) but by filmmakers themselves, who either don’t notice or don’t care.
Until, finally, Tomorrowland. Say what you will about the “uneven storytelling” or the “reliance on message” or the lack of depth to the main character or the lack of dialogue that isn’t exposition — you could make a compelling argument for any of these as drawbacks to the film, or even as ultimate failures. We could run around in circles debating these things, and we certainly should give Tomorrowland the same level of scrutiny we’d give to anything else. It’s only fair. And yet there’s so much worth in the experience alone, shorn of any analytical thoughts or interpretations or criticisms at all. The experience of watching Tomorrowland and actually having a blast at the movies is reason enough to champion the film, even before we get to to social commentary described above.
That experience is very plot-based, so I won’t give anything away…okay, I have to. If you haven’t seen the film yet get the hell out, man. The scene that best resembles the experience of actually watching Tomorrowland shows a young Frank jetpacking through the newly-discovered Tomorrowland, blasting up and over skyscrapers and zipping through mid-air lanes of hovering traffic. He flies up the side of a building so shiny that the entire edifice is a gigantic mirror, and so Frank inspects himself wearing his invention as he hurtles upward. He turns slightly to the side and grins at how cool he looks — and then bam! the building peaks, the mirror vanishes in an instant, replaced by the breathtaking skyline of the city of the future. Frank hurtles forward over the top of the building. That moment, that bam!, might be the moment that sold me completely on Tomorrowland. One minute Frank’s looking at everything that’s possible if he puts his mind to it, and the next — bam! — well, yeah: he’s looking at everything that’s possible if he puts his mind to it. All the spoken exposition in the world can’t recreate the message of that moment.
Tomorrowland didn’t just make me want to watch Tomorrowland again. It made me want to watch The Rocketeer, a joyous movie full of moments like that one; it made me want to watch Bird’s own Iron Giant or Incredibles or Damon Lindelof’s Lost; it made me want to give Interstellar another shot at being the pro-human love letter it was supposed to be. Tomorrowland made me want to feed the other wolf, to watch stuff that made me wonder, to let myself wonder. That sounds overly grand, I know, but it’s the trick of the whole thing. “I think people can figure out that clocks counting down are bad,” says Casey at the outset of the film — that kind of stuff is easy. So I’ll watch Tomorrowland again and watch Tomorrowlands of the past, and I’ll hunt for Tomorrowlands of the future, films willing to replace formula with motifs of craze and love, and when that comes I’ll say yes. For the sake of optimism, I’ll say it again: yes.