Josh Reviews Tomorrowland
Brad Bird is one of my favorite directors, and so I was excited by the prospect of a new film with him at the helm. I was also intrigued to see what would result from combining his voice with that of Damon Lindeloff (showrunner of Lost) and Jeff Jensen (a great writer for Entertainment Weekly who shares story credit on the film). Sadly Tomorrowland is a disappointment, a bland all-ages film that has a few fun moments but otherwise fails to leave much of an impact.
In 1964, young Frank Walker brings the jetpack he invented to the World’s Fair. He catches the eye of a young girl named Athena, who helps him find the secret entrance (in Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride, a nice touch) to a fantastic, futuristic world. (The “Tomorrowland” of the title, get it?) Cut to years later, when a teenaged girl named Casey encounters Athena, who mysteriously hasn’t aged a day. Athena gives Casey a Tomorrowland pin which gives her glimpses of the magical Tomorrowland, and then sets Casey on the path to meet Frank, now a middle-aged man (played by George Clooney) who was banished from Tomorrowland years ago.
I don’t automatically assume that a movie based on something from a Disney theme park will be bad (enough people certainly loved the first Pirates of the Caribbean, though I was never a huge fan), though a movie with such a mercenary origin does tend to inspire some doubt. Ultimately one of Tomorrowland’s many weaknesses is that we get to spend so little time exploring the actual Tomorrowland itself.
Brad Bird has always made all-ages films. One of his main skills has been the adult way he has approached those films, refusing to dumb them down for an “all audiences” approach. His films can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, and they have always been chock full of humor and heart, with rich characters and real dramatic stakes. Sadly, Tomorrowland has almost none of those things. Any edge or sense of drama or danger has been sanded off the film. There’s never any sense that the characters are in any real danger. More importantly, there are no real emotional stakes for any of the characters. Casey starts off the movie happy and well-adjusted and ends the film the same way. Athena is, by her very nature, unchanging. And although George Clooney’s Frank is supposed to be a broken man when we first meet him as a grown-up, George Clooney doesn’t give the character any real darkness. He’s gruff but it doesn’t feel like real anger or bitterness, just a charismatic fellow playing at being gruff. George Clooney can be a great actor but I didn’t find him to be at all compelling or interesting here.
As has become a habit in the work of Damon Lindeloff (who co-wrote the film with Mr. Bird), Tomorrowland has a lot of interesting ideas but the narrative is a jumbled mess filled with unanswered questions. One important example: just why exactly did Frank leave Tomorrowland? The film presents two entirely different ideas — that his heart was broken by Athena, and that he invented something bad or dangerous and so was banished — and never definitively establishes the reason. The result is the film wanting to have it both ways, throwing all these “sad” things into Frank’s backstory where a simpler, more direct through-line would have been stronger.
Other questions: Why did the residents of Tomorrowland never share their inventions with the real world? There’s an implication that they discovered the real world was doomed, and so decided not to, but that giving-up mentality doesn’t seem to jive with the optimism of the original vision of the place. Why did that optimistic nature of Tomorrowland vanish? Was it just because one bad dude took over? Or was he allowed to take power AFTER whatever changed Tomorrowland happened? What happened to all of the other people populating Tomorrowland back in the sixties? (When the film finally shows us present-day Tomorrowland in the third act, the place seems almost deserted.) Changing topics, what was up with the robotic couple (Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key)? Here again we get a fun idea (the fight in the nostalgia shop is a hoot) that, when you think about it, doesn’t make much sense. Just why were those robots there in the first place? They were just waiting for decades on the off chance someone decided to sell them a Tomorrowland pin? That seems very weak.
Another example of an interesting idea that falls apart upon a moment’s consideration: that magic Tomorrowland pin. OK, I like the idea that when one moves within Tomorrowland while holding the pin, one is also moving around in the real world. That gives us some laugh moments of Casey bumping into walls (that are present in the real world but that she doesn’t see when experiencing her visions of Tomorrowland) or of her winding up waist-deep in a lake when the time runs out on the pin’s vision. But just think for a moment about how dangerous this actually would be!! What an insane notion! What if Casey had started a little closer to that lake than she did — she might have drowned!! What would stop her or someone else from walking right into traffic while holding the pin??? It’s a pretty absurd idea.
The film builds to a revelation about something in Tomorrowland actually damaging the real world, but what should be a big dramatic moment doesn’t make any sense. Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie) gives a big speech about how the people of Tomorrowland tried to convey to the people of our world that we were on the path to apocalypse, and instead of taking action to change our fate we just ate up these apocalyptic visions with popcorn. But I don’t understand, just how did the Tomorrowland folks try to warn the real world? It was just a subconscious thing that manifested itself in the sci-fi we created? That seems like a pretty obscure, convoluted way of warning us!!! The whole idea doesn’t make much sense in terms of the plot of the movie. It just seems to be a convoluted way of getting to a message about Brad Bird (and Damon Lindeloff & Jeff Jensen)’s dislike of dystopic science-fiction, in favor of the more optimistic 1960’s Worlds’s Fair version. Look, I am all for a movie that sets out to return to a compelling, optimistic sci-fi future. That is what I always loved about Star Trek, and I agree that sort of thing seems all too rare these days. (Even the new Star Trek movies have leaned far too heavily on action and shooting as opposed to any real exploration of humanity.) But my love of optimistic sci-fi doesn’t mean that dystopic sci-fi is inherently bad! Nix’s speech in Tomorrowland misses the point that much dystopic science-fiction is also, at its core, optimistic! Take the recent Fury Road, for example. That’s as dystopic a future world as you’re likely to find in fiction, and yet even there the film tells a story of the triumph of hope and the human spirit. Whereas Tomorrowland, for example, while it has a happy ending, doesn’t wind up being all that optimistic itself, as we learn that the utopian Tomorrowland eventually collapsed into hopelessness and fascism. The movie is all mixed up on this point, and if Brad Bird and his collaborators’ goal was to create a criticism of dystopian sci-fi, then 1) I think that was a silly point to rest a movie on, and 2) they failed to make their point.
There are moments to enjoy in the film. I loved young Frank’s first flight in Tomorrowland. I loved seeing the 1964 World’s Fair brought to life. The attack on Frank’s house is a lot of fun, filled with one crazy idea after another. I loved the glimpses we get of Tomorrowland, and of the 1960’s aesthetic used as a basis for a futuristic city. I was impressed by the great performance given by child-actress Raffey Cassidy, who plays Athena. I loved that the film is pro-NASA, pro-exploration, pro-imagination and pro-optimism.
I just wish the story hung together better. I wish the characters were more interesting. I wish the “special” girl Casey (who is told over and over again in the film that she is special) actually had anything to do with solving the main problems that our heroes must overcome in the third act. (We’re told that Casey inherently understands how things work, so wouldn’t you think that ability would factor into the climax? I certainly did, but nope. She just stands and watches while George Clooney and the little girl Athena save the day.)
Oh well. This isn’t a bad film, but with such talented men and women involved in this film in front of and behind the camera, I expected far better.