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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Tomorrowland (aka Tomorrowland: A World Beyond) movie review: back to the future

Tomorrowland green light

It gets a tad heavy-handed, but my eyes welled with tears of geeky joy at the film’s embrace of an optimism it steadfastly refuses to see as old-fashioned.
I’m “biast” (pro): love George Clooney; big SF geek

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

We geeks have been getting teased and taunted by the prospect of Disney and director Brad Bird’s (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Ratatouille) Tomorrowland for so long now, without getting anything more than vague hint of what the movie is actually about, that it seems inevitable that the actual film must be a disappointment. So is it?

Not at all. In fact, it’s a glorious reminder — in this era of reboots and remakes and sequels and based-on-something-else movies — of the joy of discovery that we get far less frequently at the movies these days. To go into a film not knowing what to expect? Going to the movies used to be like this all the time.

I am not going to tell you too much and spoil that wondrous discovery for you. But it’s no spoiler to say that the notion that things used to be different — a better sort of different — is the crux of Tomorrowland. You knew that already, what with the movie borrowing a title from Walt Disney’s postwar theme-park odes to the bright and shining future that science fiction — and reality-based science! — used to promise us. Once upon a time, the future was so much better, all gleaming rockets and cities on the moon and interstellar federations. Nowadays, the future is postapocalyptic: hungry, despairing, dangerous. It used to be that in the future, we were all explorers and adventurers heading off into the wide universe. In the future now, we are all dead, on a planet Earth turned to dusty armageddon.

What happened to hope? What happened to optimism? What happened to us that we lost that? These are the things Tomorrowland is worried about — it’s something that I, as lifelong fan of science fiction and longtime observer of pop culture, have been worried about, too — and it’s something the movie would like to rectify. Does Tomorrowland succeed at that? At the worrying, yes. At the rectifying, perhaps not so much. But even baby steps toward regaining that optimism is a net gain. We have needed a movie like this for a long while.

So I love Casey Newton (Britt Robertson: Delivery Man, Scream 4), Florida high-school student, engineer, dreamer, and perpetrator of nonviolent protest at the slow shutdown of America’s collective imagination. Her dad (Tim McGraw: Country Strong, The Blind Side) is an out-of-work NASA rocket scientist; her protest is connected with that. She looks to the stars, and despairs that we aren’t going. I share her pain. And obviously Frank Walker (George Clooney: The Monuments Men, Gravity) also shares her pain, or did once and now laments the loss of the same sort of optimism in himself. It takes him a while to realize this. He has become a cranky old man! Frank was once like Casey, albeit in a time that was more conducive to being a crazy dreamer: when he was a kid (Thomas Robinson: The Switch), he went to the World’s Fair in 1964 in New York City to show off an invention: a jetpack! It’s not just intelligence and creativity and optimism that Casey and young Frank shared, but also a stubbornness, an unwillingness to give up in the face of disdain from others and seemingly insurmountable odds of what they hoped to achieve. And this is what catches the eye of the mysterious Athena (Raffey Cassidy: Snow White and the Huntsman, Dark Shadows), who invites them to a place Somewhere Else where everyone is like them…

Tomorrowland flips back and forth between young Frank in the 1960s and older Frank and Casey today — circumstances bring them together — and is not unsympathetic when it comes to showing how cheery young Frank turned into pessimistic older Frank today. Frank is all of us, and despair is easy. But that is the problem, too: despair is too easy. Fixing things is harder. Yet it takes so little to turn off despair! The vision of this other place that we glimpse along with Frank and Casey is intoxicating, particularly for how long it has been since we’ve seen anything quite like it in our collective fantasies. (The last batch of Star Wars movies, probably. Even the confident 1960s TV show Star Trek has turned into a dark and grim 21st-century movie series.) I wanted to linger longer with Casey as she takes a tour of “Tomorrowland,” all shining towers and functioning civic spaces and happy people full of purpose and… well, when Casey’s ride on an antigrav subway culminates in the automated conductor announcing “Now arriving: Spaceport,” I am not ashamed to tell you that my eyes welled with tears of geeky joy. We need to hear things like that. So we can imagine that they are possible.

Tomorrowland gets rather heavy-handed delivering this message — we need hope! we need imagination! — in its finale, but I can forgive this, because we really do need to hear these things said, and then we really do need to accept them and engage in them. At one point, Frank, while he’s still cranky and cynical, accuses Casey of being “too smart for your own good,” and that’s another thing the film ultimately disposes of as being nonsense. There is no such thing as “too smart for your own good.” Only “too disheartened to fix the things that need fixing.” We will need smarts, along with hope, to fix them.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Tomorrowland for its representation of girls and women.

green light 4 stars

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Tomorrowland (aka Tomorrowland: A World Beyond) (2015)
US/Can release: May 22 2015
UK/Ire release: May 22 2015

MPAA: rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence)

viewed in 2D IMAX
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Judy

    Oh this sounds wonderful! Can’t wait to see it!

  • Constable

    Hmm, should I watch this and then Mad Max or Mad Max and then this? I guess It’ll be decided by my free time and convenient show times.

  • Mad Max first.

  • Tonio Kruger

    It might be more practical to support Tomorrowland since the latest Mad Max movie is part of a successful movie series and I really don’t want to see people encouraged to pick the old reliable franchise movie over a film which might contain new ideas. That’s part of the reason fresh ideas are so rare in Hollywood movies; we encourage the suits to invest in “safe” movies–and they are already all too inclined to go in that direction to begin with.

  • I don’t disagree with anything you said, but if all the remakes etc were as good as Mad Max, this wouldn’t be an issue at all.

  • Bluejay

    The issue is simply one of good writing vs bad writing, which can happen to originals as well as sequels and remakes. Being a franchise film does not preclude it from exploring fresh ideas, and indeed Mad Max: Fury Road is more visually inventive — and makes a stronger statement about feminism — than many “original” films out there.

  • Beowulf

    See Mad Max first…and then forget to see this film until it is on HBO or BRD.

    Go see Mad Max again…and again.

  • amanohyo

    After watching this and Mad Max twice each, I’d say Mad Max is the better choice for the first viewing. The second time around, I still appreciated the spectacle, but a lot of the script comes off as corny, cliched and dare I say it, mediocre. The best actor in the thing when it comes to speaking (which admittedly, there isn’t a lot of) is Nicholas Hoult. Theron and Hardy handle the physical components perfectly, but their line delivery is a little… off. It’s not all their fault, the soundtrack and cinematography overbearingly try to shoehorn some pathos into a couple scenes.

    Tomorrowland is all over the place in every conceivable way and feels clumsy, patronizing, and hamfisted about its message during the first viewing. On the second viewing, it starts to grow on you. Both movies have not so subtle messages about how to solve problems, but Tomorrowland, despite its more kid friendly exterior, proposes a more realistic and ballsy solution. Both films have more imagination than the average summer blockbuster, but I think Tomorrowland will stick with me a little longer, if only because it literally challenges the audience instead of simply trying to entertain.


    What is this fascination with young female robots? It’s as if geeky guys want young women to be able to kick ass because it’s cool, but they also don’t want them to age. Are all these female robots some kind of rationalization of women’s growing power by allowing them to be physically powerful while remaining controllable and safe? Sure you can be smart, capable, and powerful, just don’t age or get all emotional? I’m not immune, I like me some Ghost in the Shell from time to time, but I don’t know exactly what the appeal is. The cool female robot trope has been around a while, maybe someone can explain it to me.

    I always gender swap movies in my mind after seeing them as a mental exercise, and this could have been a much stronger film if every role was swapped. It would at least be more interesting and would lose the creepy factor of Clooney’s romantic moment with a tween “girl.” Might as well make a female Benjamin Button next so Clooney can confess his love to a dying fetus.


  • I didn’t find Clooney’s moment creepy. It seemed to me that it was about his nostalgia for his childhood, and not at all about anything to do with how he would feel toward this robot as an adult man.

    What other little-girl robots are you thinking of?

  • Tonio Kruger

    Point taken. But if you don’t reward good writing at the box office by buying tickets for the few new releases that possess it or otherwise supporting such films in other ways, then pretty soon such movies are not going to be made. At least not in Hollywood.

    Indeed, even the franchise films need to earn a hefty amount at the box office to make their production worthwhile. And one only compare the fate of box office failure Serenity to that of the successful Star Wars prequel that was released the same year as Serenity (2005) to realize that good writing doesn’t automatically win out even with franchise movies.

  • amanohyo

    It’s not overtly creepy – the plot and theme justify the moment, and I found the scene genuinely touching. However, the more I think about it in retrospect, the creepier it gets.

    Athena is a machine, a physical embodiment of science, a symbol of youthful optimism about the potential of technology and later of dashed hopes and false promises. She functions very well in this capacity in the film. However, she is also the love interest in the flashback, and in their final scene together, it is suggested that she has feelings of romantic affection for Frank. There is something disturbing about how easily my mind accepts that revelation (some of the creep factor is a projection of my inner creep).

    When I do a mental gender swap, and Francine Walker, a elderly jaded, brilliant scientist is holding Perseus, a dying robot with the body of an attractive young boy, the identical lines have a different tone, less romantic.

    Athena is a genuinely cool and appealing character, and I can understand that a young Frank Walker would be smitten, but because she speaks with the authority and wisdom of an adult, it is plausible for them to be romantically linked after their reunion. Compounding this is Cassidy’s acting which is not very robot-like, and comes across as a girl pretending to be a woman. Frank and Athena interact with each other in the car scene like a squabbling couple.

    I’m not suggesting that Bird did it on purpose – quite the contrary, I can see the efforts he and Clooney are making to eliminate any pedophillic implications. But there is an intrinsic creepiness when an attractive young actress imperfectly plays a robot that is the love interest of a young boy who comes to realize as an old man that he still has feelings for what this girl/robot/woman represents.

    On the surface, Walker is realizing that he still has love, hope, and optimism for the ability of dreamers and scientists to fix our problems, but there’s something else. Athena is not merely an abstract symbol, and their interaction is not so much one between creator and creation, artist and muse, or even father and daughter, as it is between potential lovers torn apart by tragedy and fate. It’s kinda creepy.

    Regarding young female robots – they are increasingly common in sci-fi stories. I feel as though they have recently become a convenient method for men to maintain “believable” violence in a more visually attractive package. There may also be a subconscious desire to acknowledge the power of women in some way, while still keeping it under control (certainly that is the case in Japan where the gap between the power of fictional female characters and their real life counterparts is sometimes enormous). Here are a few famous examples (some from games/anime):

    Maria – Metropolis
    Stepford Wives (SPOILER ALERT… I guess?)
    Bionic Woman
    Rachael, Other Female Replicants
    Lisa – Weird Science
    Android 18
    Cutey Honey
    Seven of Nine
    Annalee Call
    Motoko Kusanagi
    Various Cylons
    Chi – Chobits
    Drossel von Flugel
    Alisa Boskonovitch – Tekken
    Ava – Ex Machina

    There are many more. It feels as though the percentage of female characters who are robots is higher than the corresponding percentage for men/boys. Perhaps this is a false impression? Ex Machina is the movie that made me think that this increase might be a way of avoiding or postponing putting real girls and women into stories. It’s just a hypothesis – it might also be a genuine reflection of the pressure women feel to suppress their emotions to gain power and move up. I’ll have to think some more about it.

    Despite the vague creepy factor, I liked this movie a lot more after a second viewing – it’s not nearly as well-produced as Mad Max, but it takes a more courageous stance with its ideas. Mad Max simply says let the women and poor people in on the wealth and power game, this movie reminds us that letting them in on the game is just the first tiny step toward changing the rules, that redemption is more of a process than an event.

  • Bluejay

    Who says it has to be either/or? The original commenter on this thread didn’t say they would see only one movie; they were just wondering out loud which one to see first. I thoroughly enjoyed Mad Max AND fully intend to see Tomorrowland as well. Let’s support good writing wherever it’s found: in excellent stand-alone new stories as well as in excellent franchise films.

    (Of course, that’s assuming it’s within one’s budget. If you have limited time and funds, and you’d rather support new stories, that’s a fine and valid choice. The point is it doesn’t mean that franchise films, by virtue of being franchise films, can’t have anything new to say.)

  • There’s a huge difference between a “sexy” robot that looks like a young adult woman and a little-girl robot. I don’t think Athena fits into this mold at all.

  • amanohyo

    That line was once clearly defined, but is rapidly blurring as a result of the huge rise in popularity of early adolescent Moe characters that has taken place over the past decade in geek and gaming culture.

    Fortunately, this aspect of Japanese culture has not made significant inroads in mainstream western culture yet, but I fear it’s on its way. It’s a kind of defense mechanism for a culture that fears women to sexualize the young, naive and/or helpless.

    As our culture is pushed farther toward an adolescent mindset (witness the growing number of adults who proudly read young adult novels and are obsessed with trends, gossip, and shopping), and women continue to reach positions of genuine power, it’s natural that younger and younger looking women will be objectified (Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, for example). A similar thing happened in the 20’s.

    I’m not saying that Athena is the equivalent of Ava, but there is a link between the two (and their robolady lineage) – their origins stem from a similar impulse – the geeky idea that female robots are cool and interesting because they are physically strong/perfect, but mentally naive and curious. I believe that the gap between Athena and Ava will be filled in within the next couple years in a mainstream movie, if not by Cameron in Battle Angel, then by some movie based on the next big young adult dystopian trilogy.

    Bird is a humanist – he allowed Athena to have more agency than she should logically possess. If she can love, she can be loved, and she is clearly the object of Frank’s love in her final moments. It’s a double edged sword – by granting her humanity, he opened the creepy door just a crack. From my perspective down in the creepy swamp of geeky otaku dudes, I can see the crack clearly. It’s not large, but it’s there and the potential for it to grow scares me a little (paging Dr Freud =).

  • the geeky idea that female robots are cool and interesting because they are physically strong/perfect, but mentally naive and curious.

    That’s a good point. But I’d still not place Athena in a category with Ava.

  • Dr. Rocketscience


    The problems with this movie are many, but I think they stem first and foremost from this: Brad Bird and Jeff Jensen had a screen story with a great* first and second acts, but lacking a compelling conclusion. By the time they brought in Damon Lindelof to finish the script**, they knew that they had no idea how to finish the story***. But by that time, they were on the hook to deliver a movie. So they expanded the first two acts beyond all reason, and slammed together an abbreviated third act. One that included a back-and-forth pacing, monologuing villain****; a fist fight between two late-fifty-something men (or, rather, their stunt doubles); and something going boom, cause that’s what the kids like these days.

    * “Great” if you’re an aging baby-boomer studio exec. Seriously, MAJ, this isn’t our optimism, this is our parents’.

    ** Damon Lindelof is not a good screenwriter. And he is the last guy to bring into finish a script. Unless you’re a bean counting studio exec, because Lindelof certainly can deliver a filmable script, just not a watchable one.

    *** At this point, I’m not sure they even know who’s story this is supposed to be. The finished version spends half its running time trying to convince itself it’s Abbey’s story, then abruptly switches gears to make it Frank’s. Which is just as well, since Abbey certainly has no character arc.

    **** Seriously. Brad Bird, the guy who effectively named the trope, included this in his movie. And has poor Hugh Laurie, deliver the monologue in what must be the worst blocking in any film this decade, literally pace along a straight line, while everyone watches.

  • Cathy Forman

    Plot holes? Sure. Squished and confused ending? Yep. Does it matter? Nope.

    This movie channels that Forbidden Planet ’50s SF vibrancy and has an unabashed and unapologetic Technicolor sense of wonder.

    Walt would have loved this film.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I finally had a chance to see this movie on cable recently and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. (Granted, it was not perfect, but I was far better than I expected, especially when compared with such cynical fare as the Back to the Future trilogy, Robocop and Galaxyquest.)

    I wish I had had the money or the opportunity to see it in the movie theater and I can’t help but wonder if the real reason science fiction movies like this don’t make more money is due to the fact the current economic climate doesn’t exactly encourage movie-goers to see anything that isn’t already part of an established franchise. After all, rock critic Dave Marsh used to argue that any rise in record prices would automatically result in younger music fans becoming more conservative in their purchases so it seems silly to argue that similar logic wouldn’t apply to the price of movie tickets. Then again I’ve griped about that before and I’ll probably gripe about it again. I hope this doesn’t discourage those of you who haven’t yet seen this movie from seeing it.

  • RogerBW

    It’s not ticket prices by themselves that are the problem, I think; we’ve had commenters here saying before that it’s also the cost of getting to a cinema, and the obligatory snacks and so on, especially if they have children. But ticket price is a good enough proxy.
    Given the Hollywood focus on opening weekends, I think the films that do “best” are the ones with target audiences that can be easily sucked in by last-minute advertising: in other words, undiscriminating teenage boys again. Their dollars are just as good as anyone else’s even if they have no taste.

  • bronxbee

    Galaxy Quest is *not* cynical. the characters may be cynical, but the Thermians are not, nor are the fans who help save the day. i kind of think the point of Galaxy Quest was to smack down all the people who jeer at trekkers (other science fiction fans) for wanting/believing in a better society.

  • Danielm80

    Is Back to the Future cynical? I haven’t seen it in years (and I never saw the sequels), but I remember it being fairly optimistic.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I don’t know. Galaxy Quest was hardly the first movie I’ve seen that parodied Star Trek but it did parody it in such an obvious “satire for dummies”-type manner that it seemed to encourage the idea that mainstream movie-goers were right to look down upon the original series.

    And yes, it was nice that it let sci-fi fans help save the day but that bit seemed more like a bone thrown at the type of sci-fi fan who might otherwise hate this movie than anything else.

    However, your mileage obviously varies.

  • bronxbee

    i’m a life long trekker, and have put up with my share of mockery, abuse, and put downs… in life and in movies and other media. and i think that Galaxy Quest is the only movie that really *got it*. as you say, your mileage may vary, but it’s a movie that brings tears to my eyes every time.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Perhaps patronizing is a better word.

    As a sci-fi fan, I found its attitude toward science fiction writers to be a tad condescending. Indeed, I found its attitude toward everyone in the movie save the Michael J. Fox character to be a tad condescending.

    And after all the fuss made about the geekface in The Big Bang Theory, I’m surprised that no one here was particularly bothered by the nerdface performances of Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover in that movie. Granted, nerds are by definition not as likable as geeks but still.

    The movie did have a few good lines but not as many as its fans seem to think.

    Then again, I’m obviously biast and I will admit that I’ve seen worse.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Yes, ticket prices are a good enough proxy.

    There are more important issues involved, of course, and I don’t kid myself that movies will suddenly become much better if ticket prices themselves started to drop. After all, there are many less expensive options competing for the average person’s entertainment dollar and it’s not like the American economy is in any danger of putting too much money in the average person’s pocket any time soon. And, of course, as long as money is tight, people are going to be a lot more conservative in their entertainment choices — and less likely to take a chance on an unknown quality. Which is good news if you’re producing a franchise movie, a sequel or a remake, but bad news if you’re producing anything else.

  • Bluejay

    I’m surprised that no one here was particularly bothered by the nerdface performances of Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover in that movie

    You have a point about the nerdface, although I’m not sure there has been a dedicated discussion of BTTF on this site, so I don’t know how you would know if commenters here were bothered or not bothered.

  • I’m surprised that no one here was particularly bothered by the nerdface performances of Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover.

    This is a great point! Of course, in the mid 80s, geeks were still fair game. If George McFly had been born a few decades later, he’d be a character on *The Big Bang Theory,* and celebrated.

    I think, for me, when I saw BTTF as a teen in the 80s, I was far more into how ideas that I thought were cool — like time travel — were treated seriously, even if the characters who were most like me (as George McFly was) were not. And that sticks with me to this day, fair or not. Perhaps if I were to see this movie for the first time today, I might think differently.

    Crap, there’s a book in this…

  • Tonio Kruger


    But most mentions of BttF on this forum in the past have seemed positive so I guess I made an unwise assumption based on that. My bad.

  • RogerBW

    You write it, I’ll buy it, and shelve it next to The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride.
    BTTF is heavy on what I now think of as comedy of embarrassment. So were a lot of other stories of that era, which perhaps made it less recognisable.
    And as for Where are the Women…

  • Bluejay

    I think it’s probably fair to say that a lot of the movies we liked in our youth (or even like today) have problematic racial/sexual politics and other issues. (A lot of us give Harrison Ford a pass for being so charismatic and sexy, but few discuss what a dick Han Solo really was to Leia in ESB.) But if a film has been very positively received on-balance, the flaws tend not to come up in casual conversation, only in deep analysis.

  • Danielm80

    I’ve been watching old episodes of Friends, and I suspect that even the later episodes would get a terrible score on the WATW test. If I were a mathematician, I could probably come up with a formula to show how quickly our favorite movies and TV shows will become unwatchable. I still remember a time when Friends was considered vaguely progressive.

    And I would definitely buy Mary-Ann’s BTTF book.

  • bronxbee

    in what way was Lea Thompson’s character a “nerdface”? crispin glover, i can see the point…

  • bronxbee

    but in the end, George becomes successful writing a science fiction book! (although they don’t say what he does for a living in general). so the “geek face” had the last laugh.

  • bronxbee

    that may be true, humans will be humans, some people are dicks, some are not, and i don’t expect saints. but i’m not a revisionist myself. i don’t want to go back and re-do or tear apart the movies i love, and i love Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and Casablanca and Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. but would hope and would like to see movies with better treatment of women, the disabled and with more diversity, without it having to *be about* the diversity and mores…

  • bronxbee

    yes, we need more Totally Geeky Guides!

  • Danielm80

    I always hear people saying that new movies and TV shows are “about” diversity, but I can’t think of many examples. Mostly, I just see films where the main characters aren’t all white and male. That may be enough to infuriate the anti-SJW crowd. Have I missed a whole set of movies where the characters’ race and gender are a key part of the plot?

  • Bluejay

    Good point, I think it applies really just to Crispin Glover.

  • Bluejay

    I don’t think we should tear apart all the movies we love, but we should be able to simultaneously enjoy them while acknowledging their flaws.

    I do think that, in some cases, being able to tear apart a movie I *used* to love is a good thing; it means I’m growing as a person, and I’m not willing to give something a pass for an odious message just because I loved it when I was nine. There was a time, in my boyhood, when Peter Pan was my favorite film in the entire world; now I absolutely can’t stand how racist and sexist it is.

  • Tonio Kruger

    SPOILER for BttF

    Lea Thompson deliberately glammed down her looks at the beginning of the movie when her character is still in dysfunctional mode and talked in a fashion reminiscent of the female nerd the late Gilda Radner used to play on Saturday Night Live, only to glam back up and talk in “normal” fashion after Marty McFly has fixed everything. Her character might not have been an official “nerd” but she was pretty close to it.

  • Tonio Kruger

    For its time, it was progressive. As were Room 222, All in the Family, Maude, M.A.S.H. and many other liberal shows.
    Even back in the day, it got criticized for having too many white characters but it also featured one of the first gay wedding scenes ever to be seen on American prime-time TV.

  • bronxbee

    at the beginning she is a drunk, bitter, unhappy woman… hardly what i’d call “nerd” anything… as a teenager, she was a lovely, freshfaced normal young woman, and at the end she was a happy middle aged woman. no nerd face at all.

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