Plucky young whiz-kid overcomes all odds to save the world using the power of Science!!! and Optimistism!!!
Which sounds terribly positive, probably an antidote to our somewhat downbeat world, where the smart play seems to be the last fiddler left on the deck of the Titanic. This may be the most upbeat “SF” film since Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but it’s been far less well received and commercially successful. I kept wanting to like it, hoping it’d deliver on what it seemed to promise, which is simply a brighter future. But at the film’s conclusion I felt distinctly downbeat and a bit frustrated. At first I thought it was the appropriately happy ending, a real victory against the odds, but I’ve had no problem with similar pseudo-deus ex machina in the past where the stakes have been as clearly articulated and the emotional centre of the film has been as carefully skewed in the protagonist’s favour. What I came to realise is that the basic structure of the film reads against hope and against optimism, because it’s not what it claims to be at all, it’s an Epic Fantasy ™, and that genre is predicated on the decline, fall and eventual eradication of anything great or good.
The conflict between Casey [Raffey Cassidy] and Nix [Hugh Laurie] is framed precisely as a battle between fear and hope, giving the film a utopian sheen, but the real conflict that drives most of the film is actually between Casey and Frank [George Clooney], and it’s a generational conflict. The conflict is about the scope of human imagination, and despite herself, Casey is exactly on the side of the limited-imagination pragmatists represented by Nix, it’s just that she doesn’t realise it. As a kid, Frank creates an amazing jet pack – a creation dismissed by Nix as having no practical use and hence leading inexorably to Frank’s dismissal. Casey’s great technological innovation, to put her into the same league as Frank is… nothing. Casey is crippled by the conventionality of the world as it has become, so that rather than being a pioneer of new imagination, she becomes the audience’s proxy exploring a new world of wonder – she becomes exactly the problem. Frank too, is basically inferior to those that came before him – the scientist pioneers who in 1800s technology built a Rocket Ship beneath the Eiffel Tower have nothing to learn from the early 21st Century.
Casey’s quest for answers becomes a literal quest to a fallen Utopia, with exactly the same kind of obstacles and pseudo-magical interference that we’d expect from any fantasy quest. It’s a film about the power and optimism of science fiction with no science. Instead of representing a utopian vision, this film puts a high-gloss polish coat on a dystopia – our world is the world that fell from the original vision of “Tomorrowland”. And the ending represents not a triumphant march back to progress, but a virtually post-apocalyptic vision of rebuilding from scratch.
So of course it fails: it doesn’t even know what it is itself. It has no idea what its basic story architecture does, or means. Ironically, it fails precisely because it can’t imagine a better tomorrow, it can only imagine a better past.