In October 1998, a blisteringly loud Swedish hardcore band called Refused released an album titled The Shape of Punk to Come. Full of screamed call-to-arms lyrics, it was a brilliant, brink-of-the-millennium manifesto for what tomorrow could look like, imagining not just the strides the punk genre might soon take, but the ones society might be capable of, with a little resolve, a little invention (and OK, fine, yes, a little overthrowing of capitalism, too). It quickly became tinged with tragedy: within a year of its release, punk experienced a major mainstream moment, with frat-party pop mutators of the genre such as Blink-182 taking over MTV. The shape of punk to come, as Refused predicted it, never came to pass, meaning today it exists as a glimpse into what could have been.
If popcorn cinema has an equivalent, it might just be Brad Bird’s hugely underrated Tomorrowland. The DNA it shares isn’t anti-capitalist attitude – this is, after all, a bright, shiny family movie named after a Disneyland theme park area, that from the outside looked like a cynical, post-Pirates of the Caribbean attempt at corporate synergy. Instead, it’s the ill-fated optimism of Bird’s film that evokes the Swedish noisemongers’ magnum opus. The movie was an ode to utopian aspiration: Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof’s screenplay centred around a tech-savvy teenager called Casey (Britt Robertson), who dares to dream of a better future instead of the apocalypse-fetishizing one constantly imagined in the movies and video games around her.
The 1950s aesthetic of the alternative reality Casey discovers in the film – a silvery city called Tomorrowland – is designed to ask audiences: where did the optimistic attitudes of past generations disappear to? And when our pop culture only ever imagines disastrous futures, is that the future we become doomed to inherit? (The first act of the movie is full of TVs broadcasting scenes of destruction, with Casey’s classes in school similarly filled with gloom: “[We are] punching a one-way ticket to dystopia,” one teacher proclaims, before looking lost for words when Casey asks in response: “What are we doing to fix it?”)
The questions Tomorrowland asked, film-goers seemed uninterested in answering. Despite an A-list leading man in George Clooney and a scene in which Katheryn Hahn plays a ray gun-shooting robot (as good as it sounds), the film bombed. Disney lost an eye-watering $150m on Tomorrowland, making it a strange outlier in the otherwise unblemished career of one of American cinema’s most reliable storytellers: Bird’s other films, from 1999’s The Iron Giant to his two Incredibles movies via a foray into the Mission: Impossible cineverse, have all been critical and commercial smashes.
Movie-lovers are still feeling the fallout of the film’s commercial failure: if you’re wondering why Disney’s slate for the last five years has been an uninterrupted stream of Star Wars and Marvel films, it’s because the studio got spooked by the movie’s underperformance, cancelling almost all original projects based on unproven IPs immediately after. But Tomorrowland deserves more than its reputation as the flop that damned Hollywood to a decade of franchise films. The script is Speilbergian in its sense of wonder and its lead characters: Clooney, like Sam Neil’s Alan Grant in Jurassic Park, plays a reluctant father figure whose grouchiness dissolves when he’s forced into an adventure with the upbeat Casey. The film’s set pieces also sparkle: one daring escape from a house being raided by robo-police plays like a futuristic Home Alone, as one by one the aggressors fall into Clooney’s disillusioned inventor’s mind-bending traps. In that sequence, and every other action beat in the film, barely a punch is thrown: true to the theme of the movie, it’s invention that gets our heroes out of tight spots.
Tomorrowland isn’t perfect. The cast’s lack of diversity unfortunately mirrors the way people of colour have been historically shut out of the fields of science and engineering. And Casey’s character has the distractingly on-the-nose surname of Newton: the science-adventure movie equivalent of calling your lead character in a sports movie “Jimmy Scoregoal”. In a time of climate crisis, though, Tomorrowland’s message has only grown more vital. How can we fix the planet if we can’t even imagine what a fixed planet looks like? It’s a sophisticated question for a kids film, but one Bird didn’t shirk from weaving into this overlooked thrill-ride. Pop culture is infinitely better at imagining Armageddon than dreaming up blueprints for a brighter future – a point proven by Tomorrowland’s box office competition on release in summer 2015 (Mad Max: Fury Road and Terminator Genisys).
A better financial return on his film might have meant more original stories, some of which might even have replicated its can-fix attitude towards tomorrow. Instead, Brad Bird was left to reflect on how its failure dictated a different shape of cinema to come, as Disney doubled down on sequels full of Avengers-esque apocalyptic threats. “It was like accidentally giving a weapons cache to Isis,” the director later laughed. Some things aren’t meant to be – and Tomorrowland now seems like a long time ago.
Tomorrowland is available to rent digitally in the US and on Disney+ in the UK