There’s a moment in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland when Frank Walker, a permanently irritated ex-scientist played by George Clooney, turns to Casey (Britt Robertson), a young girl who is constantly asking questions to move the film’s plot along, and says, “Do you have to have everything explained? Can’t you just be amazed?” It seems at that moment as if Clooney is actually speaking for Bird and his cohort on this picture, screenwriter Damon Lindelof, telling the audience to chill out, let them dazzle us and not worry too much about what the picture is actually about or what story the filmmakers are trying to tell.
No, we don’t need everything explained, Mr. Walker (and Mr. Bird and Mr. Lindelof), but we do need everything to make sense. Tomorrowland is a mess of a movie, a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas, contrived plot mechanics and a lot of frantic motion that ends up leading nowhere. If Bird and Lindelof’s goal was to make a science fiction movie filled with optimism, instead of the dystopian despair that does permeate a good portion of the genre these days, they failed. Tomorrowland teaches us that the best and brightest among us should be allowed to do essentially whatever they want unchecked, and even then there’s no guarantee that they’ll share with us riff-raff the magnificent fruits of their wondrous labors. That sounds pretty dystopian to me.
Tomorrowland started life a few years ago as an idea cooked up by Lindelof, Bird and former Entertainment Weekly writer Jeff Jensen, and right away they plunged into the typical “mystery box” shenanigans that Lindelof can’t seem to shake off even though his days slaving for J.J. Abrams are behind him. The early hints that the film was somehow linked to the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland, and even to old Walt himself, were misdirection: the only connections in the movie are the title itself and the fact that the title region – which exists in another dimension – looks how the real-life park might look after a trillion-dollar refurbishment. Anyone who sees the film and gets inspired to visit the actual Tomorrowland is headed for Disappointmentland.
The movie is in trouble right from the start as it kicks off with a frame-within-a-frame: the adult Frank and Casey are making some sort of video message in which Casey ultimately convinces Frank to tell how he first came in contact with Tomorrowland. We are then treated to an extended flashback of Frank as a child (Thomas Robinson) as he is led to Tomorrowland by a remarkably self-confident and composed little girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and we get an extended tour of the place through Frank’s eyes as he soars through it in his homemade jetpack. But the sequence feels awkward coming at the beginning of the film and actually takes any surprise out of Casey’s own introduction to the place later on.
Casey becomes the center of the story after Frank’s flashback. An unrepentant optimist, she rejects her teachers’ warnings of global warming, geopolitical strife and increasing totalitarianism and instead spends her time finding ways to delay NASA’s dismantling of the nearby launch base at which her dad (Tim McGraw) used to work (Bird and Lindelof’s use of the end of the space program as a symbol of our loss of hope mirrors the same device used by Christopher Nolan in last year’s Interstellar). So when Casey gets bailed out of jail after her latest escapade and finds a magic pin among her belongings that seemingly transports her mind to this wondrous, futuristic city while keeping her body on Earth, she throws herself headlong into finding out what this place is, who gave her the pin and what it all means.
The trail eventually leads to Athena, and then to Frank, who lives a hermit-like existence now in his heavily fortified house in upstate New York. We learn that Frank was thrown out of Tomorrowland for building something very bad, but Athena convinces him that if they can get back in, Casey has the potential to “fix” things and set the world back to rights. All this, it should be noted, is explained in exposition-heavy, clunky dialogue as Athena and Casey – and eventually Frank – fight off and run from killer robots sent from Tomorrowland to stop them. The whole middle section is basically a road/chase movie, with the protagonists moving frantically and breathlessly from one battle to the next, the relentless pace and murky plot mechanics eventually just become repetitive and dull.
That’s the thing: Tomorrowland is boring. The story never coheres until the rushed and truncated third act, so the first 90 minutes just feels like endless setup. As appealing as all three actors are, none of them are served particularly well by this screenplay or even Bird’s direction. The charismatic Clooney doesn’t do cranky and misanthropic well, while the engaging Robertson is clearly much older than the high school girl Casey is supposed to be. She and Clooney bicker endlessly, or she and Athena yell at each other, until you just wish they would all shut up and leave. Cassidy comes off perhaps the best, but even when Athena’s own secrets are revealed she continues to spout vague hints about what’s happening that border on smug, as if she’s in on the surprise but is not even going to give you a hint of what’s going on.
By the time our trio finally reach Tomorrowland (in a rocket that lifts off from the Eiffel Tower), the story changes into something else entirely. We meet the villain of the piece, Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie, who we glimpsed briefly in Frank’s flashback), before slogging through more exposition about why Frank was kicked out, why Tomorrowland has fallen into disrepair and what exactly Frank’s big bad invention is. But it’s never made clear why Frank invented it in the first place or why he had to go, nor are Nix’s motivations entirely well-defined either. But before we can even start to decipher all this, it’s time for a big effects-driven finale involving more robots (giant ones this time!), an interdimensional portal, and Frank becoming an action hero while the person we thought was driving the story – Casey – doesn’t end up doing much at all except invoke her power to think happy thoughts.
There’s a final, muddled message that suggests things are not going to change much in Tomorrowland, meaning that it may again become a cool place to hang out if you’re one of the chosen ones. It’s too easy to point the finger at Lindelof for the overly convoluted narrative, the heavy exposition and the out-of-the-blue climax, but this is the third film in a row where a disappointing, undercooked screenplay bears his name among the credits. We can’t hold him solely responsible for the disaster that was Star Trek Into Darkness – the infamous Orci/Kurtzman axis of evil were heavily involved as well – and we can’t put him in solitary at writer’s jail for this one either, since Bird co-wrote with him. But that inability to close the deal and end on a satisfying or at least coherent note is a special skill that Lindelof has repeatedly deployed.
On a technical level, the film is mostly extraordinary, even if Tomorrowland’s gleaming, serpentine surfaces lose their luster rather quickly. But Bird – whose resume includes the magnificent The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and his thrilling live-action debut, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — shoots the hell out of several action sequences, most notably one in a memorabilia shop where Casey first encounters those pesky killer robots, aided by legendary editor Walter Murch. Michael Giacchino’s score is quite rousing as well, providing the same kind of soaring inspiration that Bird and Lindelof no doubt wish the movie did.
But all the technical razzle-dazzle in the world can’t hide the fact that Tomorrowland lacks a compelling narrative, truly engaging characters, a clearly defined menace and a theme that says more than “If you’re super-smart and good at science, then we can take you away from the cheap, dumbed-down, depressing world you’re living in with everyone else.” Tomorrowland ends up being far from amazing — perhaps Bird and Lindelof should have asked a few more questions before launching headlong on their shiny rocketship to nowhere.
Tomorrowlandopens in theaters on Friday (May 22).