Director Brad Bird makes another foray into live-action filmmaking with Disney’s Tomorrowland. This time he teams with LOST alum Damon Lindelof, but is Tomorrowland another Brad Bird classic or just a time waster until he finally makes Incredibles 2?
Sadly, the answer is more in line with the latter.
The first problem with Tomorrowland is that it doesn’t seem to know where it wants to start the story, which is played out in an embarrassingly bad opening scene that is supposed to be fun, but feels like it was forcibly tacked on by tone deaf corporate suits. But once the awkward framing scene is out of the way, we meet young Frank (Thomas Robinson), a boy inventor who goes to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York with hopes of winning a fifty dollar prize with his invention—a somewhat working jetpack. The judge of the contest, Nix (Hugh Laurie), is not impressed, but his daughter Athena (Raffey Cassidy) seems quite taken with Frank. She gives him a pin that allows him to travel to another world where the future is bright and anything is possible. Cut to present day and we meet Casey (Britt Robertson), an intelligent young woman with a penchant for getting into trouble. Her father (Tim McGraw) is a NASA engineer who is about to be out of a job, so Casey is putting her smarts to work to try and prolong his career, but that calls for her to sabotage operations at Cape Canaveral. She gets arrested and after making bail, finds a pin similar to the one given to Frank in her possessions. When she touches it, she too is transported to the futuristic world, but for her it is only an illusion. She sets out to discover how she can really go to the future city, with the pin being her only clue. She finds a collectibles store in Texas that has mention of the pin, so she goes there, because why not? She’s only in high school or something. While at the store, the shop owners (Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn) question Casey about where she got her pin and they confirm that the image she saw was real. They constantly ask about where “the girl” is and when they pull out laser weapons Athena arrives on the scene to save her and she hasn’t aged a day. It is revealed that the shop owners are robots, as is Athena, and she wants to take Casey to Tomorrowland, but they have to find someone to take them there. That person is Frank (George Clooney), who has become a bitter man since being exiled from Tomorrowland many years in the past. Other robots hunt our heroes down and the trio eventually gets to Tomorrowland to find it a broken shell of its former self and being run by Governor Nix. The audience learns of a machine called the Monitor that predicts the world (Earth) will end in fifty-odd days, but apparently Casey’s overwhelming optimism can turn things around. Then the film proceeds to tell the audience how terrible they are for letting the Earth fall apart and doing nothing to prevent it. Nix chides us for embracing the apocalypse through our entertainment and ignoring the signs of climate change and such. Yes, the Earth has become a more negative place and climate change needs to be seriously addressed, but the film beats the audience over the head with what should be subtext. It turns out that Nix wants the Earth to die, not so the people of Tomorrowland can rebuild, but because he is the ultimate passive-aggressive parent in the history of film—“You’re not going to eat your dinner? Then, seriously, starve to death.” Will our heroes save the world? Will we ever find out why finding Athena was so important, but then dropped completely? Will Bird and Lindelof reveal why a movie called Tomorrowland spends as little time there as possible?
There are a lot of things to like about Tomorrowland, but unfortunately the script isn’t one. Blame will more than likely fall on Lindelof, who has a reputation online for being at the center of a lot of anticipated films that turned out to be terrible or, at best, divisive, but Bird was a co-writer on this and the director, so blame ultimately has to fall at his feet with this one. It’s a shame too, because from the trailers, this looked like a film that wanted to celebrate the wide-eyed optimism of sci-fi of the past, which it tries to do by bashing the audience over the head with its message of trying to save the world. A noble effort to be sure, but the way that Bird and Lindelof go about it is so ham-fisted, it only causes massive eye-rolling. Also, explicitly insulting your audience is never really the way to garner any love. The visuals are absolutely incredible and the concept of this space age future world feels limitless, but it is grounded by a hack villain who comes across as Ra’s al Ghul, but with no conviction. Nix should have been ready to save the world his own way, but that concept would have been too complicated for this dumbed down script to grasp. In fact, in retrospect, the whole film felt like a children’s version of LOST: a secret place that should be helping the world that only a few people know how to get to and when they do, they fight over it.
In short, Damon Lindelof shouldn’t write children’s material—see what I said about Lindelof getting the blame? I wanted to avoid that, but the parallels to LOST are just too obvious to ignore. Also, in great Lindelof tradition, plot points are brought up, but then ignored, hoping the audience will forget about them. It seemed very important that these robots find Athena, but it’s never explained why. She was a “recruiter” for Tomorrowland, but that’s about it. She tells Frank that they threw her out too, but if that’s the case, why were they looking for her? I guess they didn’t want her to fall into the wrong hands, but she can certainly take care of herself. I thought she was going to end up being the princess of Tomorrowland or something and she was on the run from the corrupt Nix, coming to Frank for help. Oh well. The robots should have been looking for Casey, making the story completely about her, but instead, they split the story—unsuccessfully—between her and Frank. Everything just got jumbled by the end and over-explained, ruining a film that had a lot of potential. I also keep hearing how Tomorrowland is an “original” film. Yes, it is a film that is not based on an existing property—i.e. comic book, novel, etc.—but it is most certainly based on the section of Disneyland called Tomorrowland, much like the Pirates of the Caribbean films. So, can it really be considered totally original?
Despite my gripes with the plot and script, the cast does a great job with what they’re given. I really enjoyed Clooney as the grumpy adult Frank and Britt Robertson also does a really good job as Casey. I could have used more Hugh Laurie being nefarious, but he was good in the parts in which he showed up. I couldn’t really tell if Cassidy was a good child actor or if I was just being blinded by her British accent. She’s cute in parts, but she’s basically playing an adult part in a child’s body, so that’s got to be tough. I also liked Robinson as Young Frank. He was really funny in The Switch and continues his promising young career here. The film is really about the chemistry between Clooney and Robertson and they work well together.
Overall, I’m sad to report that you should probably skip Tomorrowland. I liked several elements of it, but the script’s problems are just too great to ignore. I’m sure I’m biased because I was expecting another fantastic Brad Bird film and got a huge mess, but that’s the way I see it. At least he’s revealed what his next film will be—Incredibles 2.