I wanted to like Tomorrowland. I really did. It had a lot of things going for it: a dependable director (Brad Bird), a likeable star (George Clooney), and Disney has been pretty solid lately. The sci-fi adventure has its high points, but despite extensive efforts to make us care about the story and characters, I felt nothing. It’s not that I disliked it, I was at least mildly entertained, but for a week now I’ve been wondering what I’m going to write in this review, but nothing positive or negative has revealed itself to be particularly noteworthy.
The main issues come down to an unfocused story. There are two protagonists and the film begins with them literally bickering over how to tell the story. First we get Frank’s (Clooney) backstory: a boy genius who goes to the 1964 World’s Fair with his jetpack invention, where he meets Nix (Hugh Laurie) and Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who are there to judge inventions. Nix dismisses Frank’s invention, but Athena sees something in him, gives Frank a pin and tells him to follow them at a safe distance. This is how Frank is introduced to ‘Tomorrowland’, a world of the future where robots immediately get his jetpack invention in working order just in time for it to save his life several times. Then we jump to present to day and meet Casey (Britt Robertson), protagonist #2, just as inventive as Frank was and even more rebellious. A similar magic Tomorrowland pin finds its way to her, shows her this other world, then stops working… the film is so full of false starts, that it’s very difficult to summarize what it ends up all being about without getting into the last acts. Casey is supposed to be our introduction to this other world (even though Frank technically was, but we left him in 1964), which means she is supposed to get the answers we’re asking ourselves, but that information is delivered slowly, sparsely and vaguely.
As it turns out, Athena who we met at the World Fair, is a robot who recruits the world’s best thinkers to live in this utopia where they can make their wildest ideas come true. But since Tomorrowland has learned about Earth’s inevitable self destruction, they’ve kind of given up on us. For some reason Athena remains a hopeful robot and finds Casey, who is basically the “chosen one” who can fix everything… with Frank’s help, who has been exiled from Tomorrowland so Casey must find him and convince him to help even though she still has no idea what’s going on (and neither do we). *Takes big breath*
See? Kinda convoluted, and that’s me doing my best to just give you the bullet points. Despite all of these ideas getting hurled at you, Bird does squeeze in some good Sci-Fi action in there. At it’s more entertaining moments it felt a lot like watching a Men In Black movie, particularly one fun scene in which a movie nostalgia store filled with Sci-Fi icons of our childhood gets destroyed.
In discussions about the lack of concise plot line, a lot of fingers have been pointed at screenwriter Damon Lindelof, but to me this seems like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Lindelof does have a reputation for over complicating matters (Lost, Prometheus), add to that Bird, a strong writer in his own right, and a big studio trying to make a summer a blockbuster about ideas its founder Walt Disney had in the 60s, and things are going to get a little messy.
For those who don’t know, EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) was Walt Disney’s attempt to start a utopian society. After he died, it eventually just became a theme park. This is where the idea for Tomorrowland comes from, but I don’t think they intended the irony of turning this lofty idea into a mindless ride. The core concept is actually very interesting: in the 60s people had all these high hopes for an enlightened future, and today we seem to be more concerned with just not messing things up too much so we can still have a future. This idea is touched upon but gets buried under a lot of debris and special effects, and in the end we’re denied even getting to spend more than a third of the film in luscious Tomorrowland… which I guess is our punishment for being more practical than romantic.