Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Brad Bird. Screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird. Story by Damon Lindelof, Brad Bird and Jeff Jensen. Produced by Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, Jeffrey Chernov. Music by Michael Giacchino. Photographed by Claudio Miranda. Edited by Walter Murch & Craig Wood. Production designed by Scott Chambliss. Costumes designed by Jeffrey Kurland. Starring George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key.
Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland is a requiem for our retro-future, a passionate attempt to reconstruct the spirit of golden-age science fiction, and a heavy-handed stab at moralizing. In the 1950s and 60’s, pulp magazines overflowed with spectacular visions, ones that brimmed with gosh-golly optimism. They predicted that by the twenty-first century we’d be commuting to the moon daily, spending our leisure time flying with jetpacks, and living within glistening metropolises. Well, that didn’t happen, naturally, and Tomorrowland offers a reason why, as well as a firm plea for more positive thinking. It believes, and it wants you to. But no amount of believing, unfortunately, can repair Tomorrowland, which asks us to invest all our capital on wonder, then fails to pay up.
After a nattering and jokey prologue, we open on the 1964’s World Fair, where a kid named Frank enters an engineering competition and soon finds himself admitted to a wondrous place known as Tomorrowland, a bustling conclave where builders and dreamers can work, limited by nothing but their imagination. Cut to the down-and-out present, where a young girl named Casey (Britt Robertson) spends her time sabotaging attempts to demolish NASA sites. The world has lost its ability to dream, but Casey hasn’t. One day she’s given a mysterious pin that puts her in temporary touch with Tomorrowland, and she goes on the road to find a way to go there for real. Eventually she encounters an older Frank (bitter George Clooney), and a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who has a big secret. Soon they’re all being chased by a grinning gang of evil androids.
I have protected plot secrets, what little there are of them. What I will say, however, is that the movie never makes clear why much of this is happening. Bird shares screenwriting credit here with Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus), who must truly believe that the longer you delay a reveal, the more weight it will inherently have. Tomorrowland’s first two acts are nothing but teases and portents and goalpost moving, where numerous opportunities to have characters explain to each other what is going on are bafflingly skipped (at one point a robot actually shuts down rather than listen to Casey holler questions at it). This isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker; building anticipation can be fun, especially as Michael Giacchino’s bubbly score soars, and we find things like spaceships under the Eiffel Tower, as if we’re in a nuttier version of a National Treasure movie.
But Tomorrowland’s third act, which is when all the cards should be turned up, is a big mess. Not only will you be mystified at major plot points that go confusingly unexplained, and not only will you be underwhelmed by the ultimate Tomorrowland we arrive at after two hours of drumrolls, but you’ll be surprised at the thematic incoherency. Did a movie about the virtues of unlimited invention really just pull out the “man should not have created this” and “evil robot fight” tropes? After two hours of hearing about how special Casey is, does it really come down to just that she’s very good at being positive? Did a movie about the power of optimism just end with a climax where stuff gets blown up real good? And could villain Hugh Laurie’s sledgehammer-subtle rant about man’s obsession with entertaining apocalypses have come at a worse time? (As far as ambition and achievement go, last weekend’s Mad Max: Fury Road blows Tomorrowland out of the multiplex.)
Bird, following up successes in animation (Incredibles, Iron Giant) and live action (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), tries gamely to make this work. Although it’s based on a Disney theme park attraction, the movie’s ideas are clearly fueling a labor of love. But Bird’s direction of actors is iffy (it doesn’t help that they’re complete ciphers), his comedic touch is leaden, his CGI effects always look cartoonish, and his command of story has sadly forsaken him. Tomorrowland’s ambition feels like an attempt to hybridize the can-do spirit of Walt Disney and the suburban wonder of Steven Spielberg, but those things are harder to copy than it looks. The message is admirable; we need a dash of more hope in our entertainment. And we can start by hoping the next time somebody makes a sincere movie like Tomorrowland, they enlist a story that is more than just an empty bag of tricks.