With his previous films, Brad Bird has made a series of stories that combine big casts, big messages, and big action. Just look: after starting with The Iron Giant before moving over to Pixar for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Bird made the jump to live-action with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. So what trips him up with Tomorrowland, a film that is as jumbled a mess as those previous films aren’t?
Two words, one name: Damon Lindelof.
Assigning blame to Lindelof, Bird’s cowriter on Tomorrowland, may not be completely fair, but take a look at Lindelof’s works from the last decade: Lost, Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z. The common thread that unites these films is a tendency towards concepts that sounds interesting, but collapse on screen. Somehow, bringing Bird together with Lindelof not only failed to improve upon those projects, but actually makes Tomorrowland worse than those titles.
The problems with the film start as soon as the Disney logo fades. Frank (George Clooney) and Casey (Britt Robertson) are shown talking directly to the camera, with the two interrupting each other about who will tell the story and what will be told. There are also occasional cutaways to a clock counting down. For a film that was sold on the promise of something exciting and new, there’s nothing revelatory about the introduction.
What’s worse: as soon as the film moves beyond the scene, it moves backward, to the New York World’s Fair in 1964. A young Frank enters a homemade jetpack into a (very random) inventions contest, presided over by a man named David Nix (Hugh Laurie). While Nix is dismissive of Frank’s work, a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) slips Frank a token that leads him to a mysterious, shiny city filled with fantastical technology.
The film then jumps forward to the present day, when Casey finds herself in possession of a similar token that takes her into the same world whenever she touches it. Not long after, Athena shows up – still a little girl, with a surprising ability to kick ass. She brings Casey and a now old, bitter Frank together for…well, this is the point where the film becomes a complete mess. The action is amplified, the technology becomes surreal, and big reveals are made. There’s also, most importantly, a moral. Excuse me, a Moral. The Moral is delivered so blatantly, it’s like there’s a verbal underlining to every. Single. Word.
That may all well be fine and good for a film, if there was a story there. That’s the problem: there’s not much a story here.
The plot issues are glaring and frequent. As one (less spoilery) example, it’s never completely clear where the bad guys chasing Frank and Casey are coming from. Athena even intentionally leads the villains to the two at one point with the stated intention that they needed motivation. And yet, Frank and Casey seem to accept it, because it isn’t brought up again. It’s a tendency that the film repeats frequently. Individual scenes can work as set pieces, but when they’re strung together, the glaring issues only become more obvious.
Tomorrowland is also bogged down by the message it attempts to make. In a nutshell, Tomorrowland argues that humanity has come to fear the future, while also embracing that future as inevitable so that there’s no drive to change it. It’s actually not a bad message, but it’s handled poorly by Bird and Lindelof. It’s delivered by the chief villain in a word vomit so strong, it might as well be projectile in nature. Here, there’s a literal machine that shows the end of the world, and the key to changing course seems to be some sort of pure optimism. There’s also no real explanation for the chief villain’s ultimate goal: letting humanity destroy itself. What’s the motivation? What will this accomplish? Apparently, it doesn’t matter, because it just sounded good.
As a release under the Disney banner, it could be argued that Tomorrowland is ultimately designed with children in mind. If that’s the case, it’s still a mess of a film, hampered with a lengthy runtime that’s roughly two-thirds setup (seriously). While it theoretically is refreshing to see a film with a future that’s brighter than what most modern films offer, Tomorrowland ultimately proves too inept to make that future seem even remotely interesting.