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No Time Like the Present: "Tomorrowland" and the Cinema of Brad Bird

You had only to look at the collected films of Brad Bird to know that “Tomorrowland” would be in large part a reverie for yesterday.
Duncan Gray
You had only to look at the collected films of Brad Bird to know that Tomorrowland would be in large part a reverie for yesterday. The Iron Giant (1999) was such a friendly evocation of Cold War sci-fi that it belongs, in paperback form, tucked away in the back of a school library. The Incredibles (2004) was a tribute to 60s comics, 60s modernism, and the jazzy vibe of Thunderball-era Bond movies. Ratatouille (2007), with its story of talking rats in a timeless Paris, was a very classical kind of animation. More than anything else Pixar has put out—though Finding Nemo (2003) might come close—its style operates in the vernacular of what Disney animation used to mean in the 50s. Even Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), whose place in Bird's filmography is largely to show if he could handle live action (he can!), is the franchise's biggest throwback. (Its plot centered on nuclear war with the Kremlin, which hasn't been edgy material since Roger Moore was in charge of it). But in the best of Bird's films, there is a sense of urgency that goes beyond nostalgia. They're alive with energy, gadgetry, and the golly-gee-whiz pluck of a boy genius set loose in a lab. The past isn't dead, as the saying goes. Only one generation later, its pop culture has been absorbed into the collective unconscious.
Over the last decade, Bird was the most distinctive voice to emerge from Pixar's collaborative braintrust, in large part because his films were willing to venture to darker, more mordant, more complicated places. In the opening scenes of The Incredibles, a man tries to commit suicide and then is furious when he's stopped, while a character in Ratatouille has an illegitimate child. Ratatouille, Pixar's greatest masterpiece to my mind, is not just the well-worn message about "being yourself", but a brilliantly articulate take on the relationship between artists, critics, and audiences. The Incredibles, instead of settling for a safe, simple story of good vs. evil, family vs. crisis, etc., is a loaded and sometimes disconcerting allegory about exceptional individuals weighed down by a society that doesn't appreciate them. If that attitude sounds uncomfortably similar to the Nietzsche-styled reactionary fetishism of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged, you're not the first. Bird, for his part, addressed the Ayn Rand speculation as far back as 2005, calling it "ridiculous." After Tomorrowland, he'll probably get asked again. More on that in a moment, suffice it to say that his Tomorrowland is the year's least subtle allegory, at the very least eccentric and occasionally bordering on batshit. But there's not likely to be a zippier, dafter, more fascinating piece of family-friendly pop-art all summer.
Tomorrowland arrived with a mammoth budget, anemic box office, and an ad campaign that could be described as "vague", by which I mean that I keep running into friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who say they've seen the trailer but aren't entirely clear on what the film is actually about. The "real" Tomorrowland, such as it is, has been a Disney theme park attraction for 50 years; the version in Bird's film is more of a cross between Neverland, the Matrix, and an MIT summer program. It is a secret alternate reality and space-age playground—2015 as 1964 might have dreamed it—that recruits the best and brightest young people and invites them to escape the mediocre everyday world and create in total freedom. In the 2015 that exists today, an invitation finds its way into the hands of Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a precocious, tech-savvy teenage girl. Tantalized by the promise of Tomorrowland, and with mysterious black-clad figures in pursuit, she seeks out an alumnus: Frank Walker (George Clooney), a former boy genius who got kicked out of Tomorrowland and now lives as a hermit. The world as always hangs in the balance, while the exact nature of Tomorrowland hangs over the film in bluntly discursive ways. In many ways, Tomorrowland is the epitome of Bird's thematic concerns, and it makes a telling footnote that he was offered the reins of the new Star Wars (Disney's latest acquisition) but chose to do this instead.
So let's take it as it comes. The film begins with a close-up of Clooney, directly addressing the camera, his faced creased and tired. "How're you doing?" he asks, before quickly adding, "Don't answer that, it's rhetorical." This isn't going to be a dialogue. The world is scary, he says, and the film cuts to B-roll footage of environmental catastrophe and social strife, startling for a Disney film and establishing Tomorrrowland's central thesis: that the world of 2015 is a disappointment and a disaster, and nobody is doing anything meaningful to fix it. But maybe it will be a dialogue after all, because the voice of Casey breaks in. Why not start with the good things? she asks. So we flash back to Frank as a young boy, showing up to the 1964 World's Fair with a homemade, semi-functional jetpack to show off at a contest. The judge (an instantly villainous Hugh Laurie) is unimpressed. "Will it make the world a better place?" Laurie asks. The young Frank looks insecure. "Can't it just be fun?" he responds, and it's easy to imagine that an ambitious entertainer like Bird has rolled this division over in his mind before. Frank is rejected, but then a strange, uncanny young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) approaches him and offers an invitation to a world where his curiosity and ambition will be rewarded. So in the first (but by no means the last) touch of Disney synergy, she instructs Frank to hop on the "It's a Small World" ride, which literally opens the door to a magical dimension.
By this point, ten minutes in, I'd already filled up a page of notes. By splitting its voice between a young girl and an old man, is the film acknowledging that its own dire prognosis is largely a matter of age? That we're not any more hell-bound than we were in 1964, it just looks that way when you're older? Is the film peddling Disney sentimentality, or reflecting on the idea of it? Has any Disney film, or for that matter any film by Alain Robbe-Grillet, commented on itself with the density of this opening sequence? And how can a movie feel both so uncomfortably personal and so dizzyingly corporate?
It's easy to see the challenge that Tomorrowland has set for itself in being taken seriously. Here is a film that not only takes its name from a Disneyland attraction, but that sees this Disneyland attraction as a vitally important symbol. The world has changed since Bird was a child, but instead of flying cars and moon colonies, we got climate change, post-9/11 paranoia, childhood obesity, and intractable war in the Middle East. And the solution the film puts forth, in aphorism, metaphor, allegory, and drama, is Tomorrowland—the world needs a new generation of whiz-kids. But what's stopping them, exactly? The first answer comes from a character who says that scientists need to work free from "politics and bureaucracy." The second answer, which the film gives repeatedly and with vigor, is optimism: that the power of positivity is itself enough to inspire the world and turn it around. The battle of the film is not good vs. evil or left vs. right, but positive thinkers vs. pessimists.
And it is here that Tomorrowland charges into wonky territory, tackling real-world issues left and right with more passion than acuity. Casey's initial point of rebellion is a protest over the scaling back of NASA. As for why NASA is cutting back, the answer given by Casey and the film is simply: "Because it's hard to have ideas, and easy to give up"—the deeper intricacies of funding a government agency be damned. In one of the most direct scenes, Casey is confronted with a string of gloomy high school teachers, who rattle off the threats that society faces, from nuclear stockpiles to global warming, but have no answer when she asks if there's anything we can do to fix them. If you're so inclined, I'm sure you can find any number of policy proposals to solve these issues; the problem isn't a poverty of imagination, but a poverty of consensus and a poverty of political will, both of which, perhaps by necessity, are outside the film's purview. In a peak of apoplectic nuttiness, a character rants about how the current trend of apocalyptic blockbusters is a symptom of our sick, hopeless society. This strikes me as unfair: there's no shortage of self-determined heroes at the multiplex, and even Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) has valuable, constructive messages for all the 14-year-old ex-Disney kids who've no doubt sneaked in to see it. The vagueness proposed by Tomorrowland is something like the notoriously unsatisfying ending of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), which announced that Marx's industrial nightmare could be fixed if only "the Head" and "the Heart" worked together—though what, specifically, that meant remains unanswered to this day.
Which brings us back to Ayn Rand. Some critics have drawn comparisons to Atlas Shrugged, which (noxiously) imagined that humanity could be reborn if the intellectual elite ran away to a secret society, leaving parasitic leftist Untermenschen to drown in their own corpulence. There are surface parallels, to be sure: an America in decline, a plucky heroine, a hidden enclave recruiting the exceptional, a celebration of individual potential in the field of science and engineering. But such a comparison is hardly fair to the nuances of Bird's work. There is something in his films that has always bristled against authority and the idea of being part of a collective, going all the way back to the arrogant G-man villain in The Iron Giant. Yet Bird remains a much more sensitive, observant humanist than Rand ever wanted to be, and for what it's worth, Tomorrowland laments damage to the environment, defends an expensive government agency, and lists "captains of industry" alongside federal bureaucrats as people who've lost their Disney jingle.
The politics of Bird's films have always been ambiguous, or at least uncooperative to any ideology that might want to claim him. His odes to exceptionalism, American or otherwise, are often critical of capitalism, which can either dehumanize its subjects (the insurance company in The Incredibles) or pander to their worst instincts (the villain in Ratatouille and his line of microwaveable food). As for elitism, Ratatouille imagined not the victory of artists over mass culture, but the creation of a utopia—call it Pixar, circa 2007?—that could bring all sides together. Tomorrowland is by far his least eloquent manifesto on talented outsiders. But as his most explicit and the first to directly reference current events, it reveals more of this particular brand of populism; if Bird is enough of a contrarian to imagine a secret club for the exceptional, he's also democratic enough to wish more people got invited. Tomorrowland's gatekeeper turns out to be both its biggest elitist and its villain, and the happy ending has the magic kingdom's doors opened wider than ever before. So perhaps when Bird rails in fuzzy terms for optimism to defeat bureaucrats, the comparison is not Ayn Rand, or Fritz Lang for that matter. He is more like the Frank Capra of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), continuing a very American tradition of wishing that complicated real-world politics have simple, broad, emotional solutions. And simple, broad, emotional concepts, unlike funding socialized medicine or committing to a war against ISIS, are things that no one might object to. The movies have always been much more for the Heart than the Head.
So for the subtlety Bird lacks as a political commentator, he makes up as a cinematic storyteller. His visual sense shows an animator's way with color schemes and exaggerated proportions. He understands that the value of a special effect is not just the effect itself, but its relation to our own tactile, physical world; thus the image of a holographic dog stomping across dirt without leaving footprints is, if you'll pardon the word, more magical than anything in the latest Marvel movies. Casey's first view inside Tomorrowland is done in a magnificently giddy long take, raising the question, just as Steven Spielberg's Tintin (2011) did, on how a tracking shot still retains its effect even if you know that most of it is green-screened.
But best of all are the hints of self-awareness. Even when the ending is shot in the language of a TV advertisement, it's difficult to tell where "corporate" ends and "personal" begins: the film is far too strange to be dismissed as a formula, and its details place everything in the context of a human (and adult) mind reflecting on the very fantasy it presents. The most intriguing wrinkle is Athena, Tomorrowland's child-like recruiter, who is quickly revealed to be a robot—or is that "animatronic", like Disneyland's Hall of Presidents? Frank, as a child, developed a crush on her, and then had to suffer first when he found out that she wasn't real, and again when she stayed the same as he got older and more bitter. This idea creates a deeply weird, melancholy tug reminiscent of Powell & Pressburger, a good deal quieter and more satisfying than any of the direct addresses to the audience, and enough to suggest that Bird understands how the promise of Tomorrowland (and the entire Disney machine itself) is a message that can only be delivered through fakery. But of course, Bird chose to go forward anyway. I'd like to think that this, and not the topical polemic, is the true heart of the film. On the way out, I noticed that on the poster in the lobby, George Clooney's character wasn't sharing space with his co-star Casey—the one who saved the world—but with his less-jaded childhood self.
Bizarre movies that cost $190 million generally look better in the long run than on their initial release. Tomorrowland is a movie that denounces cynicism but can't help but invite it, and as the box office angst settles, I'm curious to see what its optimism, anger, and energy will amount to, other than one of Disney's golden boys going off the deep end and costing them nine figures. It could be a statement on how the most obvious of platitudes might be a vital truth, if only worded properly. It could go down as one of the most genuinely self-reflexive Disney products, fulfilling yet contemplating the parameters of the assignment with uncommon seriousness. It could be a lesson on how you should follow your curiosity when a talented director gets a 49% on Rotten Tomatoes (do—you might surprise yourself). Or it could be that this loud pop exegesis will end up as an earnest artifact of American political life in the first half of the 2010s: a time when seemingly every public figure will say that the Republic is in mortal danger, and the only plan anyone can agree on is shouting.


Brad BirdLong Reads
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