Tomorrowland is a fun adventure with big ideas and a lot of heart, but somehow winds up lacking in both.
Tomorrowland tells the tale of two insatiably brilliant and curious dreamers, Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), whose destinies become intertwined when young Casey is recruited by a mysterious young girl from Frank’s past, named Athena (Raffey Cassidy).
Casey and Frank are both privy to a secret that few people know: there is a world behind our world, where the best and brightest artists, inventors, engineers and dreamers have created a better society, free of the strife of everyday life on Earth. However, the door to Tomorrowland has long been shut, guarded by Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie), Frank’s old mentor. In Nix’s mind, Tomorrowland is an ark that will preserve the best of us after humanity inevitably collapses on itself – and unless Casey and Frank can find a way to bring the hope of Tomorrowland back to the world, Nix will be proven all too correct.
The latest brainchild of Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Inrcredibles), Tomorrowland tries to do for its titular Disney World attraction what the Pirates of the Caribbean films (at least the first one) did for that Disney attraction. But despite some inspired themes, messages, and some imaginative and fun production design, Bird and screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, Lost) fall short of delivering the sort of fun, Amblin Entertainment-style adventure film they were clearly shooting for.
On a directorial front, Bird once again shows a strong talent for imaginative design and smart sequencing, which results in a number of fun and memorable action/adventure set pieces, as well as some humorous or unique slower beats in between the big moments. The process of adapting the Tomorrowland theme park attraction into the centerpiece of a big adventure film is smartly handled, inviting opportunity for a timely and relevant story that offers real (if not on-the-nose) themes and heart along with the journey.
On a visual level, Bird mostly keeps things tight and relatively grounded and believable when showcasing advanced technology and inventions in our real world setting; however, things get stretched too far into CGI malaise when we are ported over to the fantastical world of Tomorrowland. (Ed. Note: It’s an especially hard thing not to notice so soon after enjoying the impressive practical action in a film like Mad Max: Fury Road.)
The script by Bird and Lindelof (with story contributions by newcomer Jeff Jensen) is a pretty obvious mix of the two men’s styles – styles that seem to clash more than they mesh. It feels like Bird’s thematic sensibilities and emotional insights are the core of the film, while Lindelof’s ability to sell intrigue, mystery and menace is the driving momentum of the narrative. On the other hand, Lindelof’s reputation for not being able to pull things together in the third act is only going to grow with this movie (whether that’s a fair assessment or not). There’s far too much build up to a mystery destination, but very little actual payoff when it comes to actually seeing or experiencing it. Indeed, the greatest failure of the film is that, by the time we finally get there, Tomorrowland ends up being as fake and hollow as the real-life Disney attraction.
The fabled land does stand for a surprisingly rich (some might say preachy) message about the need for optimism and hope in modern times. However, the key to metaphor is, in part, painting clear vision of the object representing the idea, and as an object (or metaphoric prop), Tomorrowland is never quite clear or believable in its design and depiction.
The third act of the film (spent in Tomorrowland) is especially hollow and riddled with logical gaps, which make one wonder if the filmmakers ever had proper sight of where it was they were trying to get to. There are also a few subplots (like the Frank / Athena story ) that are vague in intent, or veer dangerously close to being awkward. After some questionable characterizations in Prometheus, it’ll likely be Lindelof who gets blamed for some of the weaker character arcs (and all things unclear therein) in this film.
As leads, George Clooney and Britt Robertson are good both individually and collectively; although the film seems to think their chemistry is a stronger selling point than it actually is. This is clearly evidenced by the choice to frame the story with an interlude that features Clooney and Robertson bantering about how to tell the story – a somewhat baffling (not to mention ineffective) way to start an adventure tale, introduce main characters, and hook the audience. Once the narrative gets going, the two leads gel somewhat better; Clooney does curmudgeonly father-figure pretty well, and though her character seems pumped fill of Adderall at all times, Robertson manages to soften that overabundance of energy with wide-eyed charm.
Young Raffey Cassidy (young Snow White in SWATH) is actually a breakout hit in the film, playing Athena. The character has a fine line to walk (for several reasons), but Cassidy steers through and maintains proper balance – arguably better than Clooney in some instances, where the older actor’s tone is a hair off for the scene. Meanwhile, Hugh Laurie seems to be resting on his Dr. House laurels a bit, but it’s a fair choice to make, given his character in the film. Nix isn’t all that deep or layered a villain, but Laurie does an admirable job taking the bits and pieces and still delivering an antagonist who manages to have more dimensions and conviction than a stereotypical Disney baddie.
The cast is pretty small beyond that primary circle, with appearances from Keegan Michael-Key (Key & Peele), Kathryn Hahn (Park and Rec), Chris Bauer (True Blood), and Tim McGraw as Casey’s engineer father. Young Pierce Gagnon (Looper) and Thomas Robinson (The Protector) also do well as Casey’s younger brother Nate and a young Frank Walker, respectively.
In the end, Tomorrowland is a fun adventure with big ideas and a lot of heart, but somehow winds up lacking in both. Like the titular city, the film runs short on inspiration before it can realize its full potential, leaving viewers with plenty of message to think about, but very little world to experience it in. As the object of our hope and optimism, Tomorrowland remains something vague and half-imagined – which is either sign of something bright sparking, or a flicking ember trying to stay aflame. All depends on ‘which wolf you choose to feed,’ I guess.
Tomorrowland is now playing in theaters. It is 130 minutes long and is Rated PG for sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language.