Nostalgia is the engine that hums along beneath Brad Bird’s films — the Fantastic Four pastiche of The Incredibles, the secret-agent capers of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the aroused sentimentality of critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille, and the animation of The Iron Giant, which combined CG with hand-drawn images. Bird is an old-school kind of filmmaker with old-school kinds of values, and thodr values are expressed as narrative subtext. The disaster ofTomorrowland is that the subtext has become text. Tomorrowland is not just a film about nostalgia; it’s a Very Important Statement on the World We Live In that takes nostalgia as a given. Tomorrowland shows us a gleaming, Oz-like city on the horizon populated by uniformly smiling faces and dressed up with decades-old sci-fi tropes like jetpacks and rocketship launching pads, and Bird looks back longingly on the world that imagined it.
Specifically, and unsurprisingly, that world was basically the U.S. in the 1950s, when Disney’s Tomorrowland first went online as a corporate-sponsored theme-park attraction. But while Bird’s film eventually reveals the minds behind Tomorrowland as the villains of his piece, it never peers behind the surface or questions their vision. Tomorrowland gleams like a new iMac, but it seems to lack the beauty of anything built by human hands. It feels like the kind of city where you would get arrested for riding a skateboard, or imprisoned for chewing gum. In movie terms, it feels like the kind of city that might adopt the eugenics policies of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca, or that could train the unquestioning, bug-killing grunts of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Did Bird realize that his whiz-bang Tomorrowland would creep some of us the fuck out? I doubt he cares. After all, he’s made a film that seriously blames the other films in the multiplex — your Mad Max: Fury Roads and your San Andreases — for encouraging a kind of mass-market nihilism that may bring on the end of the world. (I didn’t roll my eyes too hard at that bit, but I did sprain something in my face wincing at all of the overt Lucasfilm product placement that made the film’s corporate parentage so abundantly and insistently clear.) So don’t think about any of this too hard, kids, or you might be part of the problem.
If I found Tomorrowland‘s brand of nostalgia vaguely poisonous, I was more disappointed by the general lack of focus and vision. Brad Bird excels at visual storytelling, butTomorrowland is a mess. I liked the early sequence that switches back and forth between our world and the other dimension where Tomorrowland exists, as well as the big action set piece at the George Clooney compound, both of which thrum with the kind of life that’s missing from the rest of the film. Editor Walter Murch was reportedly fired from the film last November, and I want to say that it’s probably a bad idea to fire one of the world’s greatest film editors. But I also have to acknowledge that Tomorrowland sprawls uncomfortably on the screen, and I can totally understand why Disney might have started freaking out about it six months before its release. So who knows what happened after he left. All I can say for sure is that the film runs 130 minutes long, and I felt every one of them. Fortunately, the film is led by a pair of fine actresses — Britt Robertson and young Raffey Cassidy — and it’s fun to watch them carry a summer tentpole on their own, at least until Clooney shows up.