As we left a screening of Tomorrowland, my wife heard a mother ask her young daughter how she liked the movie.
"Well, while I was watching it, I kept thinking, 'Is this a commercial, or is this a movie?'" the child said.
Disney's $190 million exercise in corporate image makeover doesn't want you to ask that question. The entertainment conglomerate had a big hole in its theme park properties called Tomorrowland, a relic of the time before everything in Disneyland had to tie in with a specific film. Conceived in the 1950s, Tomorrowland's branding has devolved from the whiz-bang jetpack wonder world of Buck Rogers serials to kitchy retrofuturism. But Tomorrowland has Space Mountain, the Mona Lisa of roller coasters, so they couldn't just bulldoze it and start over with something more relevant to today's audiences, like say, Corporate Dystopia Land or Mad Max Radioactive Waste Land. So they hired some talent, in the form of Brad Bird, a Simpsons veteran with a spotless directorial filmography including The Incredibles and The Iron Giant; and George Clooney, World's Most Interesting Man, for the grand rebranding.
When Clooney first appears as super genius inventor Frank Walker, he's in pitchman mode. His attempts to introduce the story are interrupted by precocious teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), who won't let him finish a sentence. Eventually, he tells us of the time he took his homemade jetpack to enter the Inventor's Competition at the 1964 World's Fair. He didn't win, but he caught the attention of Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a prim young British girl who is tagging along with a mysterious group of people wearing Tomorrowland pins. She slips him a pin and invites him to follow them into It's A Small World, the Disney ride that made its debut at the fair. (It's cross branding, you see.) Turns out, the hopelessly upbeat dark ride doubles as an interdimensional portal to Tomorrowland, a place free of bothersome government bureaucrats and depressing lower classes, where the world's elite minds can come together to create utopia.
Then we get to hear Casey's side of the story. She is introduced in the present day as a cyberpunk archetype, the motorcycle-riding androgynous hacker who is always looking to throw a techno wrench into the works. As she gets out of jail for her latest exploit, she finds a Tomorrowland pin that reveals utopian visions. When she seeks out the origin of the pins, she alerts an army of creepy humanoid robot men in black who want to keep Tomorrowland secret.
Bird's movie is mostly about other movies. He wants to champion the utopian optimism of 1930s-1960s science fiction like Star Trek and Forbidden Planet over the darker, dystopian visions like Blade Runner, Mad Max, and The Hunger Games. But unfortunately, Disney also hired Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost, as a writer and producer. On the one hand, this makes perfect sense, because Lindelof has become the epitome of a modern Hollywood hack, specializing in toeing the corporate line. On the other hand, Lindelof's biggest film success has been stripping the philosophical roots from Star Trek, the science-fiction franchise that most epitomizes the optimistic, techno-utopian futurism that Tomorrowland wants us to believe it believes in.
But in the words of the great Afrofuturist George Clinton, all Tomorrowland really believes in is "the great god Big Bucks." It's a structurally muddled mess that manages to make flying around with a jetpack feel boring. After a series of joyless action sequences and a layer of steampunk backstory ripped off wholesale from the Venture Brothers, the film reaches its low point when unmotivated bad guy Nix (Hugh Laurie) delivers a long speech that blames the makers and consumers of dystopian fiction for the world's ills. It's kind of a remarkable moment, where corporate entertainment crosses the line into full-blown political propaganda — branding as ideology. Tomorrowland plays more like a commercial than a movie because it's made by people who can no longer tell the difference.