In loving a future that used to be "better", Tomorrowland is predictably incoherent. It wants an old future, one that's long gone.
"Do I have to explain everything? Can't you just be amazed and move on?"
--Frank (George Clooney)
"We saved a seat just for you!" Summoned by a smiling young cadet in uniform, Casey (Britt Robertson) does her best to step inside the shiny transport bound for great adventures. But as she steps forward, Casey is suddenly slowed, and when she looks down, she sees that she's walking through water, increasingly deep.
Casey doesn't make it aboard the transport during this early scene in Tomorrowland, but she believes in what she's seen: that is, the future. It's a future full of glossy surfaces and monorails, pale blues and swirly greens, a place and time where kids like her fly with jetpacks and bounce about in inflatable suits. This future is the sort imagined in the past; indeed, as Tomorrowland references, the sort erected for the 1964 World's Fair. This nostalgic future is all promise, no problem -- except, maybe, for that bit about the waist-high water.
It's this bit that provides Brad Bird's movie with something like a plot, uneven as this turns out to be. Once Casey glimpses her idealized future, she determines to return to it, even as she's pulled back into her present in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Here she's mad at NASA, that once-forward-looking enterprise now which is temporarily employing her engineer dad (Tim McGraw) to demolish a launch pad. Casey's been sneaking into the (apparently poorly secured) area at night to dismantle the demolition apparatus, then returns home to explain to her little brother (Pierce Gagnon) that she still believes that "even the teeniest of actions could change the future."
This would be Tomorrowland's point, at least when it's not distracted by other teeny and not so teeny actions by other individuals working with and against Casey. These individuals include Frank Walker (played by George Clooney in the film's present and by Thomas Robinson in 1964, when Frank is 11 years old), as well as 10-year-old Athena (Raffey Cassidy), whose British accent signals her otherness, along with her talents for time-travel, and Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie), whose nefarious arrogance is obvious during his first few moments on screen, rejecting the adorable young Frank's entry in an inventors' contest at the World's Fair. Just how Casey comes in and out of contact with these other players is less coherent than contrived; suffice it to say that she provides the closet thing the movie has to an emotional center.
As such, Casey engages in time and other-dimensional travel, sometimes initiated by her access to a pin with a T for tomorrow on it, and sometimes by transport by vehicles that include the Eiffel Tower, here reportedly designed in 1889 by Eiffel, Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, and, for good measure, Nikola Tesla, to become a rocket launch pad when needed. As the Tower breaks away to make room for the ship rumbling up from the ground, one or two tourists flail about on the breaking surface while others pull out their cell phones. It's a moment that reminds you of our own present, and the future it augurs, the present and future combined, where recording an event makes it a memory instantly, where imagining what comes next is less popular, less compelling, than holding on to what has happened.
For Casey the experience of the Eiffel Tower launching a rocket is something else, something like a fulfillment of her invitation at film's start. She is special, signaled by her access to the T pin, and so she must perform her specialness, in this case by "fixing" the future that is in imminent danger. She's special because she's your hero in Tomorrowland, the self-proclaimed optimist who reminds Frank of his lost faith in the future, and she's special because she develops a not-quite-convincing alliance with Athena, whose own specialness has to do with her embodiment of the idealized future, her incredible fighting skills and her eerie wisdom.
The film's investment in this idea, that everyone on the planet's future depends on special individuals, is hardly original. Moreover, it is awkwardly developed here, leading to a denouement where special individuals are recruited -- much as Casey and Frank have been -- to do good work. More specifically, they're recruited to be optimistic, or maybe to share their optimism. The pessimists here have a penchant for being in control, for being right, for containing energies rather than expending them. The optimists, Casey most emphatically, are curious and enthusiastic, given to deciphering predicaments suddenly if unbelievably. Casey may be as convinced that she's right at her adversaries, but she's eager rather than dour, young rather than not.
In this, Tomorrowland is old rather than new. Loving a future that used to be "better," as Frank terms it, a future imagined before cynicism was pervasive (at least for cute white boys like Frank used to be), the movie is predictably incoherent. It wants an old future, one that's long gone.