Never has commercialism and idealism blended so beautifully, and still so discordantly.
A $190 million summer blockbuster starring George Clooney based on an area in a Disney theme park hits theaters, presumably hoping to rake in at least that much at the box office. Its narrative goal, however: to get you to stop caring so much about the vapid capitalistic things that are ruining us all and instead maybe do something to make the world a better place.
The logline for Tomorrowland is deceptively complicated for a film so aggressively blunt with its message. That message, by the way? We have the power to save the world, should we choose to use it.
It’s Al Gore by way of Captain Planet, Disney-approved.
We’re introduced to a wide-eyed teenager named Casey (played by Britt Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer, who refuses to accept the end of the Space Race era, and the optimism and spirit it embodied.
The next part is the wee bit of sci-fi wonkiness: Casey is recruited by an ageless adolescent android who gives her a pin that transports her to Tomorrowland—a Jetsons-like utopia where the brightest, purest minds in the world were meant to gather to manufacture the brightest future possible.
George Clooney, at one point decades earlier, was also gifted a pin and access to this utopia, where he was once swept away by the romance and promise of a blissful tomorrow.
Decades later, now that Tomorrowland is all but defunct, his character is a crusty old man who passes his days staring at a bank of TV sets playing clips from 24-hour news stations detailing the disastrous state of our present: global warming, famine, wildfire, drought, climate change, endless war, endless disease.
A genius inventor in his own right, Clooney’s character fashioned a countdown clock, ticking away to the moment that these things—most of which are disasters of our making, consequences of our selfish behavior—will cause Armageddon.
Yes, in Tomorrowland, George Clooney is shaming us for causing the end of the world.
Of course, there are twists and turns that deepen this. As it turns out, Clooney’s return from Tomorrowland made him just as cynical and complacent as the society he blames for our impending doom. He’s not as much the film’s hero as he is the one who needs to be saved—before he can help save the world.
To that regard, it’s Clooney’s character who is the stand-in for the audience, not, as it initially seemed, our gumptious young heroine, who is fueled on her pursuit to fix the world by her own personal jetpack of boundless optimism and limitless dreaming.
He’s the one who, like all of us, is educated on the environmental issues and human behaviors that are leading to the destruction of the Earth and the end of civilization. He, like all of us, knows that we hold the power to fix these things, should we choose to do so. And he, like all of us, is resigned to not doing anything about it.
That is, until the right person and argument—or futuristic utopia based on a region in a Disney theme park—comes along to convince us to get motivated.
For all of its grandness, broad themes, and massive scope, the end moral of Tomorrowland is very specific and intimately directed. We, individually, all have the responsibility to change the world. And, more, we, individually, all have the power to. I do. You do. George Clooney does.
(And here’s the part that’s irritating the most cynical of critics.) All it takes is for us to believe that we can. The end of the world is only inevitable if we let it be.
Clooney has been admirably resistant to big, traditional summer blockbusters—save for one nippled Caped Crusader catastrophe—in his career, and is therefore making a very pointed and deliberate decision in making Tomorrowland, and the values and morals it proliferates, his rare foray into the genre.
You’re a more closed-off and insulated person than even Tomorrowland speculates you are if you’re not aware of Clooney’s own celebrity-turned-superhero crusades.
Though one of the most steadily employed actors in Hollywood, he’s often eschewed discussion of his film work in favor of his humanitarian efforts and accomplishments as an activist: as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, advocate for a resolution in the Darfur genocide, work as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and, his involvement in the Not On Our Watch Project, which focuses on raising global attention for mass atrocities around the world—an effort certainly resonant in the message of Tomorrowland.
There are myriad conversations about a number of crises of our making sparked by Tomorrowland. How global warming is destroying the planet is chief among them. How our ignorance of calamities going on in the far reaches of the world will end up affecting all of us as those conflicts begin reverberating outside of the far-flung regions we so easily ignore.
And, in one hilarious quip from Hugh Laurie, playing a bit of a villain-as-moral-arbiter in the film, how bonkers it is that our globe simultaneously is facing obesity and starvation epidemics.
These are heady things to think about, and it’s at times off-putting how sincerely Tomorrowland wears its heart on its sleeve, or how it sometimes tends toward finger-wagging didacticism. But they are remarkable conversations to spurn from a summer blockbuster.
When was the last time Transformers made you think about your carbon footprint?
Cinematic ambition has long defined the summer movie season. That typically refers to how many different, new, and spectacular ways studios can blow up things, transport us to other dimensions, and delight us with whizbangs and kabooms.
Tomorrowland, as visually stunning of a blockbuster as we’ve ever seen, certainly boasts all that technical ambition. But what sets it apart from what we’re used to is a little bit of moral aspiration, too.
The ideas of Tomorrowland, if occasionally heavy-handed, are admirably resonant. How do you wake people up out of their somnambulant compliance and get them not just optimistic about the future, but engaged in charting the direction of it?
In fact, a lot of the scoffing at the film’s Big Idea ambition speaks to the jadedness and state of culture that Tomorrowland actually seeks to expose and confront. Given the rolled-eye reaction to a lot of it, perhaps the challenge is greater than even the film estimates.
Maybe George Clooney and his big summer movie aren’t changing the world yet. But it’s at least changing the discussion.
As he told New York magazine, quite self-satisfyingly, “This is a very different sort of conversation than you have for most summer movies, isn’t it?”