If you didn’t see Tomorrowland over the weekend, congratulations! You avoided yet another shitty film. To people who did see Tomorrowland… the part where George Clooney kindasorta had a quasi-romantic relationship with a pre-pubescent girl. That was weird, right?
Let’s back up.
Major spoilers follow.
A good chunk of the first act of the movie is taken up by a flashback where we see young Frank Walker go to Tomorrowland. He’s led there by Athena, a cute as a bug in a rug girl whom Frank instantly goes hearteyes over. Over the years Frank spends in Tomorrowland (does his family not notice he’s gone, or…?), he and Athena grow closer, though the audience don’t know whether his puppy love is reciprocated.
Fast forward a few decades. Frank, now played by Clooney, has been kicked out of Tomorrowland and is the only person who can help our heroine, Casey, get back in. Athena, we’ve learned, is actually a robot charged with recruiting bright young minds. That put a strain on her relationship with young Frank, because it meant that she wouldn’t be able to develop any real feelings for him.
It also means that, while Frank’s advanced into middle age, Athena is still, for all intents and purposes, a little girl.
Oh. Oh, geez.
Athena escorts Casey to Frank’s house and then leaves, only to return after Casey’s convinced him to help her. (Why did Athena leave and come back? Was she getting her hair done? This movie is dumb.) The reunion is… awkward, in more ways than one.
Needless to say, Brad Bird and co-screenwriter Damon Lindelof weren’t going for the pedo-adjacent angle. Walker explicitly says at one point that he’s bitter towards Athena because, when he was a child, she made him feel a sense of hope that he now believes was false. She represents youthful idealism. He represents adult cynicism. There’s going to be some friction. But when you add the romance angle to their backstory, that friction looks an awful lot like Walker, a middle-aged man, processing unresolved feelings for an ex-sweetheart who jilted him, only the ex-sweetheart is several crucial years younger even than the actresses Clooney is normally paired up with on-screen.
And sure, technically speaking, as a robot, Athena is probably older than Walker. But she’s still played by a child actress (Raffey Cassidy). She still looks like a child. The way it plays on-screen is odd and more than a bit unsettling. Especially the deathbed confession scene where Athena, who’s taken a bullet (well, a laser bullet) meant for Frank, confesses to her teary-eyed sort-of-ex that she did love him, after all.
(The love is cutesy-innocent and in no way presented as being remotely sexual in nature. I want to emphasize that. But it’s still weird. I had to ask the people I saw the movie with if they thought so, too, because hey, maybe I’m just a perv who sees pervy things everywhere. But it wasn’t just me. If I’m a perv, my friends are, too. Which, given it’s New York, isn’t all that unlikely. People who saw the movie, please chime in and say whether this whole thing wigged you out at all.)
Again, none of this creepiness is intentional—it’s just an unfortunate byproduct of sloppy screenwriting, of Lindelof throwing a bunch of shit on the page to see what sticks. At first wondered whether casting an older actor as Frank might have eliminated some of the ooky implications. George Clooney, to your average audience member, is seen as a romantically viable dude. He’s George fucking Clooney. The stereotype of the elderly as crusty old fogeys who only care about crosswords and cans of Ensure is unfair, but in this case I think it would have helped alleviate the “Wait, is Frank holding a torch for this 12-year-old?” element.
Or, even better: Don’t have a romance between Frank and Athena in the first place. Platonic friends of different genders exist! I swear! And not every movie needs to have a romance subplot in the first place. One of the things I like about Tomorowland—which wasn’t very much—is that they didn’t try to force romance on Casey. But Lindelof (fucking Lindelof) still had to get one in there. Writing Athena as the best friend with whom Frank had a falling out could have had just as much emotional resonance as her being the childhood love who got away.
Usually, shoehorning unnecessary romances into movies makes me sigh and roll my eyes a little. Here, it had the unintentional side effect of making George Clooney look like he’s into a little kid. Congratulations, Tomorrowland! Five stars!